Saturday, November 15, 2008

Don't be so quick to crown Matt Cassel

One throw, it appears, has turned it all around.

One throw -- the game-tying touchdown toss, a beauty of a spiral to the front corner of the end zone -- appears to have turned Matt Cassel from doom-and-gloom replacement into someone for whom some fans apparently would trade Tom Brady. He'd had decent games before; he led a game-winning drive against the Rams, and that sparked the first round of Matt Cassel-really-might-be-good talk. And after he threw for 400 yards and led a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter against the Jets, some are ready to declare Cassel-over-Brady the second coming of Brady-over-Bledsoe.

But let's not crown the youngster too quickly. Yes, his game-tying touchdown pass to Randy Moss was spectacular. But before that, he routinely missed open receivers with passes either too far behind or too far in front of them, and he overthrew Moss badly on a deep throw down the sideline that could have rendered his final pass moot.

Let's look at some key Matt Cassel throws against the Jets on Thursday night. Many of his throws were for short gains; we'll leave those out unless they were in particularly big spots.

First quarter
* Third-and-1, midfield: With hands in his face and the pocket collapsing around him, Cassel hit Ben Watson over the middle, a ball good enough for Watson to catch even though officials flagged defensive back and old friend Hank Poteat for pass interference. Nice throw.
* First-and-10, midfield: Cassel got drilled after a play-action fake to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and missed Randy Moss badly. Not a nice throw.
* Third-and-8, midfield: With the coverage heaviest on Moss and Wes Welker, Cassel threw a slant to Jabar Gaffney for 16 yards and a first down. Nice throw.

Second quarter (Jets leading, 10-3)
* Second-and-8, midfield: This wasn't a throw, but Cassel deserves credit for stepping up in the pocket nimbly enough that Shaun Ellis and C.J. Mosley collided in the backfield, and he opted to take a hit from Eric Barton rather than slide shy of the first-down marker.
* Second-and-10, red zone: Cassel threw too high for Moss in the end zone. Darrelle Revis was all over Moss, but the pass likely was deemed uncatchable by the officials. Not a nice throw.
* Third-and-10, red zone: Cassel zipped a pass too far in front of Watson, who was running an out-route in the end zone. The Patriots had to kick a field goal. Not a nice throw.

Second quarter (Jets leading, 17-6)
* First-and-15, own end: Cassel threw a hitch to Welker, who turned and took it for 17 yards.
* Third-and-11, midfield: Moss ran a route toward the sideline, and Cassel led him too much. The Patriots had to punt. Not a nice throw.

Second quarter (Jets leading, 24-6)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel hit Watson on a similar out-route -- the Jets might have been playing off the receivers a little bit with a big lead, but Cassel had to hit his receiver, and he did it. Nice throw.
* First-and-10, offensive end: After Sam Aiken took a wide receiver screen for 43 yards, he dropped a pass with which Cassel hit him in the hands. Nothing the quarterback can do about that.

Second quarter (Jets leading, 24-6 -- and 1:44 left in the half)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel hit Jabar Gaffney along the sideline and let him step right of bounds after a gain of 11. Nice throw.
* First-and-10, midfield: Same thing, only for eight yards. Nice throw.
* Second-and-10, offensive end: Cassel hit a sprawling Ben Watson, but the pass only went for nine yards in a big spot, so we can't give him full credit.
* First-and-10, red zone: Cassel's throw for Watson at the goal line was just far enough behind his tight end to give Poteat and Revis a chance to break it up. Not a nice throw.
* Second-and-10, red zone: Kevin Faulk was open, but Cassel's pass toward the sideline was too far behind the halfback for him to reel it in. Not a nice throw.
* Third-and-10, red zone: Gaffney caught a pass in the end zone with Dwight Lowery draped all over him. We'll give it to him. Nice throw.

Third quarter (Jets leading, 24-13)
* Second-and-8, own end: Cassel hit Gaffney along the sideline for 10 yards. Nice throw.
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel hit Welker along the sideline for 13 yards. Nice throw.

Third quarter (Jets leading, 24-13)
* Second-and-10, own end: Cassel went right back to Watson, who fumbled to end the previous drive, for a 14-yard gain. Nice throw.

Third quarter (Jets leading, 24-13)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel throws behind Watson. Not a nice throw.
* Second-and-10, own end: Cassel hit Gaffney along the sideline -- but, again, a yard short of the first-down marker. It's a push.

Third quarter (Jets leading, 24-13)
* Second-and-2, own end: Cassel escaped from pressure and found Welker all by himself for a 29-yard gain that would have gone for even more had Barton not tripped him up. Nice play overall, but also a nice throw.
* Second-and-2, red zone: Cassel waited, waited and waited, looking for Moss, and when his favorite receiver didn't get open, he threw to a wide-open Watson in the back of the end zone. Nice throw.

Fourth quarter (Jets leading, 24-21)
* First-and-10, own end: Randy Moss had some space, and Cassel overthrew him. Not a nice throw.

Fourth quarter (Jets leading, 31-24, with 3:10 left in the game)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel threw behind tight end David Thomas and actually hit Lowery in the hands, a throw that could have put the game away had Lowery held on. Not even close to a nice throw. An ugly throw, in fact.
* Third-and-17, own end: After Cassel took a sack, he missed Watson along the sideline. Not a nice throw.

Fourth quarter (Jets leading, 31-24, with barely a minute to go)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel hits Ben Watson for nine yards. Nice throw.
* Second-and-1, midfield: Cassel finds Watson for 11 yards over the middle. Nice throw.
* Second-and-10, midfield: After a spike, Cassel threw to Welker for 17 yards, again in the middle of the field with the Jets guarding the sidelines. Nice throw.
* Second-and-15, offensive end: Welker again got open in the middle of the field, and Cassel again found him in a big spot -- this time for 14 yards. Nice throw.
* Fourth-and-1, offensive end: The throw of the night. Cassel escaped pressure and threw something of a sidearm pass to a corner of the end zone where only a diving Moss could get it. Touchdown. Tie game. Most importantly, nice throw.

The final verdict: Nice throw, 16. Not a nice throw, 10.
But before the final drive, it was only 11-10, so while Cassel delivered when it mattered most, let's not pretend he's not still a young quarterback with the same inconsistency issues through which he had to work when he first took over for Brady.

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