Thursday, December 18, 2008
Cassel always planned to play after father's death
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Matt Cassel never thought of missing the Patriots' game six days after his father's death. He was determined to play as well as he could.
That would have been Greg Cassel's wish.
At the end of last Sunday's decisive win in Oakland, Matt Cassel walks off tightly holding a game ball. He said he kept it "for myself and for my family."
"I was just going to go out there and play my best," New England's quarterback said Thursday, two days after his 57-year-old father's funeral in California. "I knew that's what my father would have wanted -- for me to go out and play.
"It was great to get a victory. And if we didn't get a victory, I still was out there giving 110 percent, and that's all I can do," Cassel said.
The Patriots did get a victory, a resounding one. They routed the Oakland Raiders 49-26 Sunday behind a career-high four touchdown passes by Cassel, who had taken time off from practice last week to be with his family.
He returned from Tuesday's funeral and was back at practice Wednesday for Sunday's game against Arizona, a contest crucial to New England's chances of making the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
Those chances seemed slim when Tom Brady sustained a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the first game and the untested Cassel replaced last season's NFL MVP. But Cassel has improved steadily after not starting a game in seven seasons in college and the pros.
Speaking with his usual composure at his weekly Thursday meeting with the media, Cassel seemed focused on one thing: beating the Cardinals and not worrying about teams that are competing with the Patriots (9-5) for a playoff berth.
"I know the only thing that we can control is if we win," he said. "If we don't win, then all the other scenarios don't matter. We've got to take care of business on our end and then if things fall into place then they do."
That's happened for Cassel on the field.
Unexpectedly thrust into action, he's developed into the sixth-rated quarterback in the AFC, a solid leader with a strong, accurate arm and running skills.
"In the beginning when you first become a starter, it's pretty stressful, especially in the situation that I came in under," Cassel said. "Then, as we move forward, you start to get a little bit more control. You start to get comfortable in your position and you start to enjoy the game again and have fun playing it."
The day before his father died in the Los Angeles area, Cassel led the Patriots to the go-ahead touchdown with 2:44 left in their 24-21 win at Seattle.
The team stayed on the West Coast, practicing at San Jose State for the next game. He flew south to be with his family and was back at practice the Thursday before the game at Oakland.
"I always felt like I was going to play," Cassel said. "I took some time away last week and then came back and was able to get enough preparation in to go out there and play. I think that's what my father would have wanted."
He completed 18 of 30 passes for 218 yards and just one interception to go with the four touchdowns, another impressive performance in a season filled with them.
It was comforting to spend the week with his teammates.
"It was a good distraction," Cassel said. "Being around my teammates and having this secondary support factor with a family away from home definitely helped."
Since high school, he's learned to be patient, spending four years at Southern California behind Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart and three years with the Patriots behind Brady. Once Cassel became a starter, he got better at attacking defenses as he learned more each week.
One of the most important lessons: hang around positive people.
"I've overcome a lot of adversity and I think it's [taught me] to keep pushing forward, and keep moving on, and don't listen to people who are negative and work against you," Cassel said. "Just continue to surround yourself with people that are positive and can help you and things will turn around for you."
At the end of last Sunday's decisive win, he cradled the ball in the crook of his left arm, held against his body.
"I did keep it for myself," Cassel said, "and for my family."