“It was that memory of, ‘Man, this kid’s now got to go in and play,’ ” Cassel said.
Fifteen years ago, Cassel was that kid. Measured by the duration of his season and the deflation of the moment, Rodgers’s torn Achilles’ tendon may have no equal in NFL history. The closest approximation came in 2008, when Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard lurched into Tom Brady’s left knee less than eight minutes into the first quarter of the New England Patriots’ season opener and shredded Brady’s ACL. On the sideline, Coach Bill Belichick told Cassel, New England’s 26-year-old backup quarterback, to get his helmet.
There are differences between how Wilson replaced Rodgers and how Cassel replaced Brady. Rodgers was making his debut after his arrival had delivered hope to a beleaguered fan base; Brady was out to redeem a Super Bowl loss. Wilson was a No. 2 pick who had begun the previous season as the Jets’ starter before failing out of the job; Cassel was a seventh-round flier who hadn’t even started in college and had appeared only in mop-up duty during three NFL seasons.
But nobody has a better understanding of Wilson’s task — and how he can succeed — than Cassel. Nobody else has been in the unenviable, unforeseen position of replacing a Hall of Fame quarterback before the boom of the season’s opening kickoff had stopped echoing.
The Patriots went 11-5 in 2008, although they missed the playoffs on the wrong end of a tiebreaker. Cassel emerged as a starting quarterback who commanded a substantial free agent contract. If the Jets need hope Wilson can salvage their season and if Wilson needs hope he can resuscitate his career, they can start by studying Cassel in 2008.
“In the blink of an eye,” Cassel said, “you become the focus of everybody.”
When Brady got hurt, Cassel was watching the end of the play, focused on who would recover Randy Moss’s fumble. He heard the crowd hush. He looked back and saw Brady lying on the ground. Cassel had never been around a tougher football player than Brady. It felt surreal to him when trainers carried Brady to the sideline, then into the Patriots’ locker room.
“The next thing I knew, as only Belichick can do, he didn’t make the moment too big,” Cassel said. “He said: ‘Cassel, get your helmet. Start warming up.’ ”
Cassel’s head spun as he tossed passes on the sideline. It started spinning faster after an interaction he now laughs at.
“I’ll never forgot our doctor coming up and saying: ‘Yeah, I think it’s an ACL. I think he’s done for the year,’ ” Cassel said. “I was like, ‘Why would you say that right now?’ ”
While the Chiefs’ offense drove, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sat Cassel down and talked through plays. “I don’t know if I heard anything Josh McDaniels said,” Cassel said. “I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.”
As McDaniels barked out the plan, Cassel saw the Patriots down a punt at their own 2-yard line. He hopped up and ran toward his own end zone. The Gillette Stadium crowd gave him a standing ovation.
The Patriots ran the ball twice, and then Cassel stood in the huddle and called a play he can cite to this day: Zero Flood Fib Jab 126 Z Pop X Prick.
Moss was the Z receiver, and Pop meant he would run a short post across the middle of the field. But Moss read that cornerback Patrick Surtain had cheated inside against him, so he freelanced. When Cassel turned around after a play-action fake, he saw Moss streaking down the sideline on a go route behind Surtain, his hand in the air calling for the ball.
Cassel launched a pass that Moss turned into a 51-yard gain. Cassel finished the drive with a touchdown pass to Moss — “an ugly ball, but of course Randy goes up and makes a play for me,” Cassel said. The Patriots, like the Jets on Monday night, went on to win a low-scoring game after losing their future Hall of Fame quarterback.
“That moment was the moment,” Cassel said. “It gives not just you confidence, but the team confidence to say, ‘Hey, we can still go out there and perform,’ even though in the back of everybody’s mind, they’re probably still thinking about Brady.”
While the timing of Rodgers’s injury could not have been worse for the Jets, it could be an advantage for Wilson based on Cassel’s experience. During the season, backup quarterbacks play sparingly during practices. But Cassel felt sharp when he took over because he had just received abundant practice reps during the offseason and summer.
“If it happened Week 7 or 8, the backup quarterback a lot of time is sitting there, you’re getting more mental reps than physical,” Cassel said. “But [Wilson is] fresh off physical reps from camp and preseason.”
Cassel also believes Rodgers’s influence will have a positive impact on Wilson. Replacing Brady was made easier by having studied and learned from him behind the scenes. Cassel knew which questions to ask in meetings and how certain plays should be run from merely being around Brady.
“There’s something refreshing when you get to go through an offseason with a guy like Aaron Rodgers and sit in meetings with him and learn the intricate details of how he prepares,” he said. “There’s so much growth for a young player when you can see somebody else do it.”
A turning point for Cassel came during a week of practice after a loss. Local media had started floating possible trades and signings for quarterbacks who could replace Cassel. He was sitting in the team cafeteria when Belichick approached him. “Hey, Matt, you’re doing a great job,” Cassel recalled Belichick telling him. “Don’t worry about everybody else and what they’re saying. You’re our guy.”
“That gave me the assurance that he wasn’t going to have a quick trigger,” Cassel said. “He was going to allow me to get some games under my belt. There was a reason I was there, and he trusted that I was the guy for that season.”
The Jets made clear they will turn their loaded roster and Super Bowl aspirations over to Wilson, even as they scour for a veteran backup addition. Wilson already has a 10-point comeback victory under his belt, which Cassel thinks could be pivotal.
“There’s something to be said about building your confidence,” Cassel said. “When you don’t go out and play to the best of your abilities as a quarterback, it can be lonely at times. But for him and this team right now, they’ve got to build on this momentum they have. We weren’t as offense-oriented as we were defense-oriented early on in those games. As my confidence grew, everybody’s confidence grew.”
These Jets and those Patriots share similarities in roster construction. The Patriots had brought back the majority of a team that went 16-0 and could lean on a veteran defense. The Jets are younger, but their defense will allow Wilson to play conservatively. Moss provided Cassel a freakishly talented wide receiver. As his stunning touchdown catch showed Monday night, Garrett Wilson could be that player for Wilson.
Under Cassel, the Patriots won again in Week 2, then suffered a blowout loss to the Miami Dolphins. Slowly, Cassel gained comfort. In midseason, he passed for 400 yards in consecutive weeks. His father, Greg, died suddenly two days after the Patriots’ comeback win in Seattle. The next week, Cassel threw four touchdown passes as the Patriots beat the Raiders.
The season changed Cassel’s life. The Patriots used their franchise tag on him, then traded him to the Chiefs, who signed him to a six-year, $63 million contract. He became the Chiefs’ starting quarterback for four years and stayed in the NFL as a backup until 2018. He made more than $60 million after the 2008 season and before his career ended.
“It really set up my career,” Cassel said.
Cassel is 41 now, settled into his post-playing life. He coached his son’s flag football practice Wednesday night, and Thursday morning he boarded a flight to West Lafayette, Ind., to broadcast the Purdue-Syracuse game for NBC. He will never forget the year he replaced a legend.
“I made so many great memories from that year,” Cassel said. “There were so many different elements of that year for me: the ups and downs early in the season, getting on a roll and starting to dominate a few games. The team and the guys and relationships and how they had my back throughout, I don’t think I could have done it on my own. That’s what great teams do if you’ve got great people and great leaders and people that care about you. I’m forever grateful to have the opportunity. It’s all about seizing that opportunity.”