Cassel continues to dazzle NFL insiders

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

There might still be some Matt Cassel doubters out there.

Among NFL insiders, however, the New England Patriots quarterback is viewed with a high degree of respect. Their admiration of Cassel has only grown with the way he has carried himself the past 10 days.

"If you loved him before, you love him a little more today," ESPN analyst and former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said.

With a heavy heart, Cassel on Sunday threw a career-high four touchdown passes in a 49-26 road victory over the Oakland Raiders. Earlier last week, Cassel's father was found dead. The funeral wasn't held until Tuesday.

"You could see the pain in his eyes," former NFL executive Michael Lombardi said after watching behind-the-scenes NFL Films footage of the Patriots' week. "It's just very, very dramatic."

Sunday might be remembered as the signature performance of Cassel's breakout season.

Cassel briefly left the team and missed an important practice, but -- on the same field Brett Favre famously threw four touchdown passes the day his father died in 2003 -- he was sensational. Cassel would've finished with even more prolific numbers Sunday had the game not been so lopsided.

"To have the wherewithal or ability or gumption or whatever it takes to be able to pull off what he did was indeed special," Reese said. "There's a lot of us in the football world who think we're pretty tough, but when something like that comes along it brings you to your knees. For him to be able to pull it off was a special performance."

The Patriots are in a three-way tie atop the AFC East, but they don't control their own destiny like the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins do. Even so, at 9-5 with two games to play, Cassel has proven he can be more than Tom Brady's proxy.

Cassel will be a free agent after the season. The Patriots could put the franchise tag on him, which means they would retain him for another season but have to pay him an average of the NFL's top five salaries at his position.

If Cassel hits the market, there will be no shortage of suitors. What he did Sunday increased his bargaining power with the Patriots and the many other teams that covet battlers.

"It shows you he handles adversity because that's a situation, whether you're a football player [or] an ordinary American, when you lose a loved one like that, it's so hard," said Lombardi, who writes for the National Football Post. "It's unfortunate.

"He handled it very, very well. Every game regardless of this adversity, he's improved his stock tremendously."

Three months ago, many football experts figured Cassel would fail. When Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury on opening day, Cassel hadn't started a game since high school. Billed as the clipboard holder to the stars, Cassel backed up Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at Southern California.

Cassel has blossomed from virtual novice to certified conductor of the very Patriots offense Brady ran.

"Where they are right now is they are running the same offense they ran in the Super Bowl last year," CBS Sports analyst and former Washington Redskins GM Charley Casserly said. "Overall, you've seen the guy progress throughout the year. You've seen him improve his decision-making, improve on his reads, improve on his accuracy. His running is a real asset for him. So the arrow's pointing up there."

When GMs and personnel directors evaluate his season, they will have much to be impressed with. He had back-to-back 400-yard games. He has rushed for 232 yards.

And, although it was a mournful time, executives will remember his game in Oakland.

"I have no idea how you would quantify that," Reese said, "but if somebody was thinking 'I'm willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a young quarterback,' and negotiations feel like they're getting out of hand, you reflect back on something like this and think 'It's going to be worth it. He's worth the risk.'"