Quarterbacks are always a lightning rod. They get too much blame and too much credit. Win at the position and you're great. Lose and you are, well, a loser.
That's a roller coaster that New England's inexperienced backup-turned-starter Matt Cassel is riding these days since taking over for Tom Brady in the season opener. When the team has lost, even though Cassel wasn't the biggest problem in blowout defeats to the Dolphins and Chargers, fans and media alike grabbed the pitchforks and went after the fill-in quarterback.
But a closer look at how Cassel has performed in his seven games, including his first six starts since high school, shows the developing passer has been doing just that -- developing.
Cassel owns a 4-2 record as a starter heading into Sunday night's meeting with the Colts in Indianapolis. He's led the Patriots to a 5-2 record overall and a share of the division lead with the Bills in the AFC East. He's earned one AFC Offensive Player of the Week Award, is completing nearly 66 percent of his throws, has more touchdowns than interceptions and a decent if not spectacular 84.6 passer rating.
His biggest downfall so far, and an area of his game that's brought the most criticism, is his tendency to tuck the ball too early and take too many sacks when his initial reads break down. But even that area -- one that's seen Cassel sacked more times in seven games (28) than Brady was all of last season (21) -- seems to be improving. Even though he was still sacked three times in Sunday's comeback win over the Rams in Foxborough, Cassel got better protection and looked more comfortable going through his reads and making decisions.
"They did a great job," Cassel said of his offensive line. "I had great protection all day. I was able to step up, go through my reads -- go through one, two, even get to three at times. ... That was huge for our passing game."
Such subtle changes are helping Cassel make significant improvements in his play under center and start to quiet his critics. Of course, the guy whose opinion matters most has been behind his quarterback all along. Although even Patriots coach Bill Belichick has seen key improvements from his now-starting quarterback.
"I think that's fair to say," Belichick said when queried about Cassel showing improved pocket awareness. "Matt's progressing in all areas. His decision-making, his reading of coverages, his pocket presence ... going to secondary receivers, reminding guys offensively about their splits or their depths, things like that. Just the overall operation of the offense is better than it was two months ago."
"He played really well (Sunday)," wide receiver Wes Welker said, quickly accepting some of the blame for Cassel's incompletions and interceptions, including one on which Welker fell down.
"He made all the right reads and was seeing the defense really well. I think there were some plays that we need to be better on that he was good on and we weren't. And we need to put those things together. But he definitely did a great job out there."
"He's getting better week-to-week," left tackle Matt Light said. "That's one of the things we've talked about, and I think he's handled the whole situation really well."
While it's nice to hear such compliments from teammates, maybe the most positive review of Cassel's improved play came from one of the guys who was trying to stop him Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
"He is poised and does a great job of running that offense," Rams cornerback Ron Bartell said. "He has got a great ability to escape and was able to get away from our rush a couple of times. He does a good job of not putting them in bad situations. We got a couple of picks on him, but I think they were just great plays by our defense. He does a good job of controlling the offense, and I think they can win with him."
That's exactly what the Patriots have done more often than not through Cassel's early days as the team's starting quarterback. He's not the only reason for the wins, just as he wasn't the only reason for its losses. But he's doing more than his part for a New England team that's once again in the postseason hunt in the AFC. Just where you'd expect them to be at this point, even if the quarterback getting the job done isn't a future Hall of Famer.
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