There has been a lot of speculation about whether Matt Cassel can be solid staring quarterback in the NFL for a team other than the Patriots. Some think he can, but others think he will be the next Scott Mitchell, who had an excellent season replacing Dan Marino after he tore his Achilles tendon, but then was a complete flop in Detroit.
There are several reasons why I think Matt Cassel will be a solid starting quarterback in the NFL.
The clearest indication that Matt Cassel has a lot of potential as a starter is the way he improved over the course of last season. In a lot of ways he was a real mess at the beginning of the season. He had what I call the “Rob Johnson” disease. He held the ball too long instead of throwing it away or making a quick decision on a throw. As a result he took big hits, took too many sacks, turned the ball over, or lost yards. Only bad things happen when a quarterback holds the ball too long. He also tended to run the ball too soon instead of waiting for a play to develop. And while he was accurate on longer throws, he was terrible with his accuracy in the red zone.
Thankfully, for Patriots fans, he drastically improved over the course of the season. If you look at the first six games of the regular season, Matt Cassel was not a disaster at quarterback, but had he not improved from his aforementioned proclivities the New England Patriots would not have had an 11-5 record. Cassel had maybe his worst outing of the season in a blowout loss to the San Diego Chargers in Week 6, where he exhibited every single one of his bad habits.
After the San Diego game Cassel improved rapidly. His decision making was quicker and he was getting rid of the ball faster. He wasn’t taking as many sacks. He threw the ball away when he should have and he ran the ball when he should have. His accuracy was also more consistent, although at times he continued to struggle in the red zone, although even here he improved.
Since Matt Cassel had never started a game since high school it is not very surprising he struggled with regular season game speed and decision making at the start of the season. Any quarterback that showed the kind of poise and improvement over the course of the season that Matt Cassel did can be a top notch starter in the league.
Matt Cassel also showed a lot of leadership. He stayed positive and poised despite replacing Tom Brady, who many consider to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Just imagine the kind pressure and microscope Cassel was under. And he handled it very, very well. He also handled the criticism heaped on him during the early parts of the season for his mistakes. He didn’t get down on himself and just continued to improve.
Cassel also played well under big game pressure. Two of New England’s biggest losses, to the Colts and Jets, were not at all Cassel’s fault. In the second Jets game that the Patriots lost in overtime, Cassel had a brilliant second half but his teammates fumbled the ball away and dropped easy passes for first downs, preventing New England from winning the game outright in regulation. But for a coin flip going the Jets way in overtime, Matt Cassel, with is over 400 yards passing, may have brought the Patriots back from a 24-13 halftime deficit. Cassel also played an excellent game against the Oakland Raiders after losing his father. And while admittedly with a rather weak schedule, the Patriots closed out the season with four straight wins.
Finally, the coaches showed a lot of confidence in Matt Cassel. By the second half of the season the playbook had clearly opened up for Cassel, showing the coaches’ confidence that he could get the job done in the passing game.
And there is no way the Patriots give Matt Cassel the franchise tag if they don’t think he will be a good starting quarterback in the league. They will undoubtedly trade Cassel, but if they thought they could not get a good deal for him at his over 14 million dollar salary, they would have simply let him become a free agent. And that speaks volumes for a team that is known for its adept handling of talent. And if reports of Brady’s recovery are not true, there is no way they tie up that kind of salary cap space for a quarterback they don’t believe can get them to the Super Bowl.
Now it certainly is possible that Matt Cassel goes to another team and flops. It is really difficult at the quarterback position to know how a player might fare under another system, with new coaches and teammates. But I don’t believe that will happen. While he might not end up being elite like a Manning or Brady, he definitely, right now, is one of the better quarterbacks in the league and could make a big difference for a playoff caliber team in need of a good quarterback like the Minnesota Vikings, or a bad team trying to rebuild like a San Francisco 49’ers or Kansas City Chiefs.