Matt Cassel: Ready to Lead?

With the Patriots coming off of a 30-10 drubbing at the hands of the San Diego Chargers, it’s easy to put the blame on the Patriot newest to the spotlight, quarterback Matt Cassel. Cassel has been inconsistent thus far in the season; he threw for a career-high 259 yards in a win over San Francisco, but he followed up that performance with zero passing touchdowns in the San Diego game. ?Cassel’s inexperience is part of the reason why the Patriots are struggling right now, but there are other, far more pressing issues to deal with than Cassel. ?While Cassel has looked shaky so far, fans have to remember who he is being compared to. Tom Brady is arguably the best quarterback ever to pick up a football, and he’s coming off the best season ever for a quarterback. He threw 50 (50!) touchdown passes in 2007, setting a new single-season record. ?When Cassel, a player who until 2008 hadn’t started a game since high school, stepped in for Brady, it’s only natural that there would be a bit of a letdown. Cassel just doesn’t have the game experience yet; remember, the Patriots have only played five games this year. While he certainly doesn’t have the tools Brady does, NFL analysts have said that right now Cassel is better than several quarterbacks starting for other teams. ?Cassel will become a proficient quarterback with more experience, and that’s all he needs to be. The Patriots are playing in the relatively weak AFC East division, and if Cassel continues to improve they’ll still have a chance to win the division.?However, the serious issue facing New England is their defense, or lack thereof. With the linebacker corps aging (Tedy Bruschi is 35 and Mike Vrabel 33), the Patriots need fresh talent to make plays. 22-year-old Jerod Mayo has shown promising ability, but he will need to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player as the season progresses if the Patriots want to shut down opposing offenses. ?The other problem for the defense is the secondary. The Chargers torched the Patriots with deep passes throughout the game; quarterback Phillip Rivers threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. Cornerbacks Deltha O’Neal, Ellis Hobbs and James Sanders haven’t been able to shut down elite receivers, and it has cost the Patriots dearly, as quarterbacks like Rivers have shown off their cannon arms to gain spectacular yardage against New England. ?While safety Rodney Harrison is still delivering crushing blows, he’s 35 years old, and fans have to wonder how much longer his body can hold up. The Patriots’ defensive linemen, Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, and Vince Wilfork, have just one sack between them at this point in the season. They need to put more pressure on quarterbacks so that they can’t unleash deep passes every other play.?Another possibility for the Patriots is a trade for a big-name cornerback to help their secondary. If the Patriots can ratchet up its defense and Matt Cassel continues to improve, I still think the Patriots can find a way into the 2008 playoffs.??