Last Thursday night against the Jets, Matt Cassel permanently distanced himself from his previous identity as the quarterback holding back the Patriots' offense from its greatness of a year ago.
Although Cassel will never be Tom Brady, nor can he help the woeful coverage exhibited by the Patriots' secondary, Cassel's work both in the air and on the ground resulted in what our statistics report to be the best game of any quarterback so far in the 2008 season.
Cassel recorded a total of 244 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) in the 34-31 overtime loss to the Jets, surpassing the 222 DYAR earned by Drew Brees in the Saints' narrow loss to Denver in Week 3. It seems counterintuitive to think that the two best games of the year were played by quarterbacks in losing efforts, but it's more of a fluke than anything else. In the other five games this year in which a quarterback has thrown for more than 200 DYAR, his team is 5-0. Both Cassel and Brees had incredible games and led an offense that produced more than 30 points. Unfortunately, they were both let down by their defenses -- and, in Cassel's case, a coin flip.
There are several changes that show the maturation of Cassel as an NFL starting quarterback, but one that stands out is his improved pocket presence. Over the past three games, Cassel has been sacked only four times in 121 dropbacks (3.3 percent). In his first seven games, he had 227 dropbacks with 28 sacks (12.3 percent). Cassel's newfound comfort in the pocket is logical and reasonable. With the best players at his level attempting to sack him in a meaningful regular season encounter for the first time since high school, it's no surprise Cassel had a lengthy adjustment period. Some credit also must be given to returning right guard Stephen Neal, who has helped shore up the line since returning from the physically unable to perform list.
One of the ways Cassel has begun to avoid sacks is by eluding rushers and getting into the open field, something he did very successfully against the Jets. He picked up 22 DYAR on the ground by successfully running for four first downs, including a fourth-and-1 sneak that kept a second-quarter drive alive. He also ran for 9 yards on first down, and had another long run called back because of a questionable holding call.
Cassel was successful on the ground, but he had little support. He gained 62 yards on eight carries -- the rest of the Patriots' backs gained only 63 yards on 17 attempts. Cassel was essentially a one-man show, and although he didn't have the home run throw that marked the Brady-led attack from a year ago, Cassel succeeded through excellent work underneath and the depth of his efforts.
Although Cassel was only 3-for-8 on third down, it had a lot to do with the spot the Patriots' running game was putting him in, as five of the eight third downs came with 10 yards to go or more. He converted on the fourth-and-1 that tied the game at the end of the regulation, however, and had a significant impact on first down, when he had 12 passes of 8 yards or more, putting the Patriots in very manageable situations. All in all, he picked up successful amounts of yardage (45 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third or fourth down) in 32 of his 57 dropbacks (56 percent) on Thursday. The average NFL quarterback is successful on only 45 percent of his dropbacks.
That the Patriots lost a thrilling game may temper some of the enthusiasm about Cassel's day, but when it comes to Cassel's performance, he could not have done much more to push the Patriots toward a win. Playing anywhere near that level on a consistent basis will ensure the Patriots have a quarterback who can lead them as far as their defense can take them -- and give them an interesting decision to make when Cassel becomes a free agent this offseason.
Here are the rest of the best and worst players of Week 11, according to the Football Outsiders DYAR statistics.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.