Pats' Cassel shuns label of 'Next Brady'

Posted: Sunday, May 01, 2005

FOXBORO, Mass. — Matt Cassel already has enough in common with Tom Brady to draw comparisons to the two-time Super Bowl MVP.

A Californian who grew up admiring Joe Montana, a late-round draft pick by the Patriots, a quarterback who had to fight for playing time in college, Cassel's background is remarkably similar to the man he calls ''Mr. Brady.'' Now all the seventh-rounder from Southern Cal needs to complete the story is to win the starting job in New England — and a few NFL titles.

''It's hard to say I'll be the next this or the next that. Tom Brady is a unique situation,'' Cassel said at his temporary metal cubby in the middle of the Patriots' locker room after reporting for his first professional minicamp.

''He's become one of the best players in the game. Nobody else in the NFL has been able to accomplish what he's accomplished, whether they're a first-, third- or seventh-round pick. For me to say that I would emulate anything he's done is a little bit of wishful thinking.''

Brady didn't start until his fourth year at Michigan, and even then he had to fight off challenges from highly touted freshman Drew Henson. Still, the Patriots made the San Mateo, Calif., native the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft and kept him around to back up Drew Bledsoe, who was the top overall pick in '93.

But at least Brady was a starter in college. Cassel threw just 33 passes at Southern Cal while backing up a pair of Heisman Trophy winners, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.

''That is a tough spot to be in,'' said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who made Cassel the 230th overall pick in this year's draft. ''He was in a very competitive situation and they ended up going with the other guy (Leinart). He might have been the quarterback there if somebody had been hurt. They might have won the national championship with him, who knows?''

A game-tape junkie, Belichick said there wasn't too much to be learned from watching Cassel's college experience, coming as it did at the end of USC blowouts. But it helps that Cassel played for former New England coach Pete Carroll in a pro-style system.

That made it worth risking a late-round pick.

Just like with Brady.

''Look, we are talking about a guy in the seventh round. This isn't John Elway here,'' Belichick said. ''We are talking about a guy who played behind two of the best players in college football in a good program. The team won a national championship two years in a row.

''We know why he was where he was. He was in a good program. He played in a good system with a good coordinator, a good head coach and a team that hasn't lost in a couple of years. They are pretty good. We'll see how it goes. He is a seventh-round pick.''

Cassel has also been drafted by the Oakland Athletics as a pitcher whose fastball reaches 90 mph. But he said he never considered giving up football or transferring, because he knew he would be the starter at USC if Leinart struggled.

''I was always just one play away,'' he said. ''It worked out, for me to be here.''

Cassel has already gotten some advice. Carroll was the Patriots coach before Belichick and had ''nothing but good things to say'' about New England; Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest is a USC alum who was on Cassel's flight.

His advice, according to Cassel: ''Stay humble and get out there and compete.''

Belichick got a first look at Cassel and the Patriots' other draft picks this weekend in a three-day minicamp that was shaken up on Friday when they signed Doug Flutie. The former Patriot — a star at Boston College and the CFL — gives New England five QBs in camp.

How does Cassel feel about the possibility of backing up another Heisman winner?

''It will be another guy who I can latch onto, and he'll be a mentor and I can learn a lot,'' Cassel said Saturday, noting that he was 2 years-old when Flutie threw his desperation pass to beat Miami in 1984. ''It's just going to be a great opportunity from a learning standpoint. Hopefully I can soak up as much as I can.''

Flutie, a native of Natick, Mass., said he knew that backing up Brady might not give him much playing time. But he thinks he might be able to contribute ''in the classroom'' — teaching the other quarterbacks.

''That's definitely part of it,'' Belichick said.

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