By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — These are strange, strange days in the world of football in New England. For the first time since “Legally Blonde” and “Summer Catch” opened in theaters and “Drops Of Jupiter” and “Lady Marmalade” topped the music charts, the Patriots are opening training camp with the knowledge that their Week 1 starter will not be Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.
Given the consistency that has been part of the franchise for a decade-and-a-half, fans and media alike don’t have much to go on when it comes to trying to forecast how the team will perform in Brady’s four-game absence. To be a bit more precise, they have but one situation to look at in order to try to draw a comparison.
And comparison, thy name is Matthew Brennan Cassel.
For the past seven-and-a-half years, the performance of Matt Cassel in the 2008 football season has been used to make a number of varying points. The biggest, perhaps, has been that Tom Brady is nothing but a system quarterback and that any Tom, Dick or Harry could waltz in and thrive under Bill Belichick and this Patriots team.
That point is the dumbest. But that’s not why were here.
We’re here to really take a closer look at what Cassel and the Patriots did in 2008, and see if we can really compare that to the 2016 Patriots with James “Prince Aladdin” Garoppolo under center.
At first blush, it makes sense. Again, there are so few comparable situations. Plus, Cassel and Garoppolo entered their starting jobs with similar levels of experience. Cassel had an extra NFL year under his belt but still had thrown just 39 passes in the NFL. Garoppolo, to this point, has thrown 31.
(As an aside, Tom Brady managing to throw all but eight of the Patriots’ 586 passes in 2007, despite the team winning nine games by more than 20 points and two games by more than 45 points remains the most delightfully hilarious tidbit in recent sports history.)
While Garoppolo had much more playing experience in college, it was for the FCS Eastern Illinois Panthers and came against schools like Austin Peay and Southeast Missouri State. Cassel was at least high on the depth chart on arguably the best team in the country from 2002-04.
Basically, not much was known about either quarterback in terms of being an NFL starter before they got their big break. And so, it leads to the theory.
The theory goes that when Brady’s knee was wrecked in the first quarter of Week 1 of the ’08 season, the fact that Cassel was able to lead the Patriots to an 11-5 record proves that the team can be just fine without Brady.
Let’s nip that one right in the bud. Let’s take that bud, and let’s go right ahead, and let’s just nip it.
What often gets overlooked in this statement is that the Patriots went 16-0 the previous season. Sixteen-and-zero. For the mathematicians out there, that’s a five-win drop from one season to the next. If a team went from 12-4 one season to 7-9 the next, not many people would be saying the team did just fine in year two. And if a 10-6 team dropped to 5-11, the coach probably ends up getting fired. Yet because 11 is still a pretty solid number in a vacuum, the theory continues to be floated.
In fact, a writer for the Houston Texans’ website just yesterday wrote this: “We can’t forget that Matt Cassel led the Patriots to an 11-5 record.”
The Huffington Post, on Tuesday: “Matt Cassel came in and helped the team go 11-5.”
The New York Post, on Wednesday: “Brady missed nearly the entire season with ligament tears in his knee, but the Patriots still went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback.”
And that’s just the past three days. This idea that the Patriots didn’t lose a ton when Brady went out for a year has persisted for years. And it’s nuts.
The Patriots went from setting records on offense in ’07 to finishing eighth in scoring in ’08. The defense dropped from fourth in points allowed in ’07 to eighth the following year, in large part due to a 5 percent drop in the offense’s third-down conversions.
But most significantly of all, instead of beating literally everybody on their schedule, the Patriots lost every game that mattered without Brady. Their 11 wins came against teams with a combined record of 71-105. Just three had winning records and just two were playoff teams, and one of those playoff teams (Miami) also beat the Patriots in Foxboro. Their five losses, meanwhile, came against teams with a combined record of 52-28. Four of them were playoff teams. And it was that inability to beat playoff teams that kept the Patriots out of the postseason.
The 11 wins look nice. An 11-5 record is nice if you’re the Buffalo Bills. But an 11-5 season and no playoff berth for a team coming off a 16-0 campaign and a Super Bowl appearance represented a massive, massive drop-off.
Now, as far as what that has to do with the 2016 season, the point is to say this: It doesn’t. How could it? Brady, Stephen Gostkowski and Matthew Slater are the only Patriots left from that ’08 team. Garoppolo was a junior in high school in 2008. Now, Garoppolo won’t be tasked with starting 16 games. Brady will be playing the bulk of the season. The situations really aren’t comparable at all.
But, over the next month, when anyone tries to accurately predict how the Patriots will do in Brady’s absence, and you hear that person say, “Well, you know, they went 11-5 with Matt Cassel,” you now know that can simply say this: No. Just … no.
We’ve nipped that one.
Right in the bud.