Thursday September 11th, 2008

We've heard lots already about the remarkable similarities between the situation that fate has thrust Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel into this season and the one that launched Tom Brady on his way to a Hall of Fame career back in September 2001. But what tends to get overlooked in those will-lightning-strike-twice comparisons is a rather sizable advantage belonging to Cassel that Brady did not enjoy: He has Tom Brady to lean on and learn from.

How much could that potentially be worth in Cassel's trial by fire baptism into the ranks of NFL starting quarterbacks? League sources I talked to this week say plenty.

"(Brady) is still critical to the success of the Patriots season in one respect,'' said a league source with insight into New England's closely-guarded organization. "He could actually be the best coach Matt Cassel could have in regards to preparing for an opponent every week. He'll be a huge help to Cassel, in a number of ways. He's still going to help his team win this year. He'll do whatever he has to do to help his team win.''

One league source likened Brady's role regarding Cassel this season to the scenario of a veteran pilot being incapacitated in the cockpit, but still available to sit right beside his inexperienced co-pilot, talking him through the process of flying and landing the plane. Playing quarterback in the NFL isn't as mechanical as learning the right buttons to push and the right gauges to watch, and Cassel won't have Brady at his side on the field when the action is at its most intense and his decisions must come fast and furious.

But the pilot-quarterback analogy does hold up to a degree during the week, when a quarterback's preparation lays so much of the foundation for his performance on game day. Who better to tutor Cassel on the intricacies of playing the position in New England's multi-faceted offense than Brady, whose mastery of his job earned him the NFL's MVP award last season and led to a record-shattering showing at quarterback?

No one should jump to the conclusion that Brady will be a constant presence at Patriots practices or even games this year, a de facto quarterback coach looming just over Cassel's shoulder, ready to jump in and offer advice at all times. The six to nine months of vigorous rehabilitation that Brady's left knee will require after he undergoes surgery to repair his torn anterior cruciate ligament in about a month or so will be a full-time job, requiring him to put in eight or nine hours a day of mostly solitary work.

And no matter if you're Tom Brady or not, the unspoken truth in every NFL locker room is that players who have been lost for the season with injuries become nearly invisible. They're part of the team, but not remotely in the same sense they were pre-injury. The train always keeps moving in the NFL, and whoever gets left behind gets forgotten about to a large degree. After all the out-pouring of sympathy for Brady dies down and the shock of his absence fades, that dynamic will render even No. 12 a role that will leave him somewhat off to the side, with far less relevance than he's accustomed to.

That said, you can expect Brady to routinely be available to Cassel, either face to face or otherwise, a league source predicted. And he'll have more than a vested interest in seeing Cassel succeed as his replacement. Already this week, Brady has been out to the team's Gillette Stadium complex both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, making sure his teammates -- and Cassel in particular -- know he will be both visible and accessible. One source said Brady has already spent time in the team's weight room this week, doing upper body workouts while his knee injury quiets down sufficiently enough to allow for surgery next month.

"The biggest thing Brady can do for Cassel is to help him with maintaining the emotional equilibrium you need to play quarterback in this league,'' one NFL source said. "Nobody does that better than Brady, and he can help Cassel deal with the enormity of the job, and coping with the whole situation he has been thrust into.

"The great thing is that Brady really wants his team to win without him. He's not insecure about his place, and I'm not sure that was the case with Drew Bledsoe when Tom replaced him (in 2001). Bledsoe wasn't playing well at that time, so maybe he needed to be (insecure).''

As for the question of whether Brady believes Cassel will succeed, sources I talked to say he has confidence in his understudy's talent and potential, but like everyone else, realizes Cassel's inexperience factor is the great unknown in this equation.

If there's a consensus among the league sources I queried about the likelihood of Cassel's success, the following points came to light:

• Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will spend as many extra hours as necessary getting Cassel ready from week to week. Cassel's downfall will not be a lack of preparation.

• Belichick will be masterful in managing games and crafting a game plan around Cassel, minimizing his inexperience as much as possible. He'll shorten games when necessary, using the Patriots' improved depth at running back -- Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan -- to carry the offensive load. The Patriots won't ask Cassel to win games as much as they'll ask him not to make stupid mistakes and lose them.

• Cassel will benefit from taking over a much more evolved offense compared to the one Brady inherited from Bledsoe in Week 3 of 2001. He also has had much more time to study and learn New England's offense compared to Brady's first starting experience. This is Cassel's fourth season with the Patriots after being drafted in 2005's seventh round. Brady was only in his second year in New England's system when his starting opportunity arrived.

• Cassel is taking over the reins of the most prolific offense in NFL history, and he's doing it in a season in which the Patriots have the league's easiest schedule on paper. New England plays some really poor teams this year, facing the 49ers, Rams, Raiders, as well as two games against a Dolphins team that while improved, still has some work to do coming off that dreadful 1-15 finish of last year.

The feeling is it's not too much to expect of him to do reasonably well, say in the range of 18-20 touchdown passes, with a passer rating in the mid-80s. Nothing Brady-esque. Just a solid, respectable season. If he can't manage that, and struggles mightily, failing to get the talented Patriots to 10 wins or so, it probably means he's not a very good quarterback. It also will mean New England's season was indeed doomed the second Brady went down in Week 1.

Beginning Sunday afternoon in the Meadowlands against the Jets, we get to start finding out if the Patriots are in for another dream scenario at quarterback, or their worst nightmare come true. For New England, it's time to finally learn if there's Life After Brady.

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