Cassel finally gets his shot

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Without a Super Bowl ring, a supermodel girlfriend or Hall-of-Fame credentials, Matt Cassel is being asked to fill in for Tom Brady, a man who has all of that and more. Yet no matter how Cassel fares as the replacement for the New England Patriots' two-time Super Bowl MVP, he already has exhibited a memory as astounding as his story.

Cassel recalled details from his last regular-season start, which came against the Dolphins. Not the Miami Dolphins, mind you, but the mighty Dolphins of Palisades Charter High School.

Now 26 and in the fourth year of his NFL career, Cassel was a senior at Chatsworth High School in southern California when he took his last snap as a starting quarterback. That was Nov. 24, 1999.

"We lost to Pali,'' he told reporters earlier this week, "but it was in the third round of the playoffs and it was a lot of fun.''

Almost nine years later – a stretch that includes five years at the University of Southern California, where he was a backup for Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart – Cassel is preparing for a start that promises to be quite different. He's in for Brady, the NFL's poster boy who suffered a season-ending left knee injury last week.

Granted, that high-powered "Pali" offense was too much for Chatsworth High in a 49-42 loss. But this Sunday, Cassel will be going head-to-head with someone even more feared than David Koral, the Dolphins gunslinger who in 1999 led California high school quarterbacks in passing.

Brett Favre, another future Hall of Famer, will be leading the Jets on Sunday when they play host to the Patriots. When Cassel made his last start, Favre was in his eighth year with the Packers and on his way to setting a league record for consecutive starts (now at 254).

Last week, Cassel made just his 15th NFL appearance. He helped lead New England to a 17-10 victory over the Chiefs in Foxboro, Mass., where they know their QB's name is pronounced "Castle.'' When he ventures to the Meadowlands on Sunday, he might hear his name attached to verbal indignities from Jets fans.

"I can only imagine what it's going to be like leading up to the game,'' said Ken O'Brien, the former Jets quarterback who recruited Cassel to USC in 1999. "But he'll find a way to laugh it out. That's his thing. He just has fun.''

Before predicting how Cassel will perform in his first NFL start, it might help to watch video of his performance on another stage, one used for a karaoke charity event. Yes, that's Cassel holding the microphone and crooning "I Want It That Way,'' the 1998 hit from The Backstreet Boys.

Tell me why
Ain't nothin' but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain't nothin' but a mistake
Tell me why
I never wanna hear you say
I want it that way

During that charity event sponsored by a fellow Patriots player, Cassel sang those lyrics with passion, if not panache.

"That's him in a nutshell,'' said Matt's younger brother, Justin. "He likes to go out and have a good time. Could laugh at himself. Could do it up.''

Good thing for the Patriots he'll be slinging, not singing. But can he shake off the rust to run the offense of the team many expected would return to the Super Bowl almost nine years after his last regular-season start?

"Did I think it would take as long as it did? No,'' he told reporters Thursday. "At the same time, I went and had a great education at USC. I had a great experience there. I came here and I have learned behind the best the last four years. All in all, it is not that bad.''

Not bad at all. But at times there were no satisfying answers for a kid who seemed destined to entertain.

BRADY VS. CASSEL

Matt Cassel abhors comparisons between himself and Tom Brady. Oh well!

Love Life
Brady dates Gisele Bundchen, a leggy Brazilian who has modeled Victoria's Secret lingerie. Cassel is married to Lauren Killian, a leggy Californian who played volleyball for USC.

Jewelry
Brady has three Super Bowl championship rings. Cassel has two college national championship rings and the wedding ring.

Income
Brady is in the fourth year of a six-year, $60 million contract. Cassel is in the last year of a four-year, $1.4 million contract.

Experience
Brady has spent eight full seasons in the NFL and played in 113 regular season games. Cassel has spent three full seasons in the NFL and appeared in 15 contests.


Stats
Brady has completed 63.0 percent of his passes (2,301 of 3,653) for 26,446 yards and 197 touchdowns with 86 interceptions. Cassel has completed 61.4 percent of his passes (35 of 57) for 405 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.

Conclusion
While some men might kill to be Brady, others might maim to be Cassel, the benchwarmer about to take center stage.

– Josh Peter

His mother, Barbara, is an accomplished set designer for movies and television; his father, Greg, once wrote screenplays; and Matt is the middle son of three rambunctious boys who each became professional athletes. His older brother, Jack, is a pitcher for the Houston Astros; his younger brother, Justin, is a top pitching prospect in the Chicago White Sox organization; and early on, Matt showed more promise than either of them on the baseball field.

In 1994, he played in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. He was the starting first baseman and ringleader of the cutups on "The Earthquake Kids,'' so nicknamed because the 12-year-olds were from Northridge, Calif., rocked by an earthquake months before the boys staged their improbable run that ended with a 4-3 loss to Venezuela.

Pillow fights. Pranks. Horseplay. When mischief continued to break out in Williamsport, the team's assistant coach, George Saul, ordered Cassel out of the barracks occupied by the players and into an adjoining room for the coaches.

"He was a character,'' Saul said.

And a tough guy.

"If he wasn't playing quarterback, he would be an outside linebacker,'' said Bill Coan, then the varsity football coach at Chatsworth High. "He also wanted to be the long snapper. He also wanted to be on the PAT block team. He just wanted to be on the field.''

After his junior year at Chatsworth, he earned a spot at the Elite 11 quarterback camp reserved for the country's top high-schoolers. He signed a scholarship with USC, sat out the 2000 season as a redshirt and suddenly the head coach who recruited him was gone.

USC fired Paul Hackett and hired Pete Carroll, fired as head coach of the Patriots after the 1999 season. On the surface, it still looked good for Cassel.

Carroll hired Norm Chow, a highly-regarded offensive coordinator, who said the first players he met were USC's incumbent starting quarterback, Carson Palmer, and Cassel.

"With the understanding that when Carson left, Matt would take over,'' said Chow, now at UCLA.

That's not how it worked out.

Months after Carroll arrived, USC signed another highly-regarded quarterback, Matt Leinart. When Palmer won the Heisman Trophy in 2002 and left for the NFL, Cassel and Leinart competed for the starting job. Before the spring game in 2003, USC coaches decided to name a starter.

"It was dead even at the time,'' Carroll said earlier this week.

Yet Leinart got the job, and he never let it go. Meanwhile, the coaches urged the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Cassel to play tight end.

"There were many knockdown, drag-out meetings,'' Chow said.

Reluctantly, Cassel left the quarterbacks and joined the tight ends midway through the 2003 season. He stayed there for the final six games and played sparingly. Brennan Carroll, then a graduate assistant on his father's staff and a tight end coach, recalled the experiment this week and contemplated where Cassel would be today if he'd stuck it out as a tight end.

"Selling cars in Orange County or something like that,'' he said.

Instead he sold Carroll on a far-fetched plan.

Leinart won the Heisman Trophy in 2004 and then did something more astonishing: He decided to return for his senior year, assuring Cassel of backup status. Yet clinging to the hope of making it to the NFL even though he couldn't make it onto the field as a quarterback at USC, he talked Carroll into letting him return to quarterback.

He finished his career having completed 20 of 33 passes for 192 yards with no touchdowns and one interception, his most memorable play coming on special teams. With a shot at the national title hanging in the balance, he recovered an on-side kick against UCLA that preserved a victory and the Trojans' spot in the national championship game.

"We about carried him off the field,'' Carroll said.

Photo
Photo

Cassel throwing during a game at USC was a rare occasion.

(Getty Images/Stephen Dunn)

That following March, Cassel about levitated off USC's practice field. It was pro day, and NFL scouts gathered at USC to watch the Trojans' prospects go through drills. Cassel finally had his chance.

Toward the end of the session, he took the field and fired one pass after another as receivers ran routes.

"And he lit it up,'' Carroll said. "He hit everything. It was a phenomenal workout. And as soon it was over it was everybody, just all the guys, all the scouts came, 'Oh, we need a name, rank serial number and phone numbers and all.' It was really a big moment."

By then, Chow had taken a job as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator and he knew what the scouts had seen – that Cassel was the victim of circumstance, a talented quarterback squeezed between two Heisman Trophy winners.

"I had already arranged with him when I was back in Tennessee that he was going to sign a free-agent contract with the Titans,'' Chow said. "I remember sitting there on draft day and somebody said, 'Hey, the Patriots got your guy.' And I couldn't believe that.''

Even now, it's almost too much to believe. That the Patriots, looking for a solid backup should anything happen to Brady, selected Cassel in the seventh round of the 2005 draft. That over the next three years he steadily developed and climbed up the depth chart. But when a foot injury kept Brady on the bench during the preseason, Cassel went from overlooked to overanalyzed when the offense languished and head coach Bill Belichick dismissed concerns.

Then this past Sunday, less than eight minutes into the Patriots season opener, down went Brady. Suddenly the quarterback who had not started a regular-season game since high school was the Patriots' No. 1. He performed steadily against the Chiefs, completing 13 of 18 passes for 152 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.

When Cassel got back to the locker room and checked his phone, it was flooded with congratulatory text messages.

"I definitely became a lot more popular after Sunday's game,'' he said.

His approval ratings could drop depending on his performance Sunday, but Carroll expressed confidence.

"You can't dampen his spirit,'' Carroll said. "Matt is so optimistic and so positive, and he's a stud in regards of perseverance. I mean, he's the epitome of it.

"Look what he's done."

Of course NFL fans will keep looking and largely dismiss what the karaoke kid with strong resolve but a thin resume has done. Question is, now what will he do?

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