You’d think that after all the success he’s had in the last 15 years, fans in New England would be more quick to admit a mistake when the city pans a roster decision but The Hooded One turns out to be right. The city might be a little more honest after Super Bowl 49, the 4th title that we all needed, but the years of 2001-2014 are full of instances in which Belichick was right but fans still don’t give him proper credit.
Earlier tonight, I was watching the Monday Night Football game in which 33 year old, washed up Matt Cassel engineered a final drive to further throw the NFC East into clusterfuckery. I remembered exactly what Belichick’s development and handle of Matt Cassel did for the Patriots, and I think few other fans do.
The Pats drafted Matt Cassel in the 7th round of the 2005 draft on the heels of winning 3 out of 4 Super Bowls. Belichick decided to cut Rohan Davey instead of Cassel in final cuts that year, and Pats fans didn’t really care about Cassel up to this point. He was still behind Doug Flutie on the depth chart for that year, and the Pats would have a chance to develop the young guy for at least a full year before he was backup. After all, if he was the full time backup QB behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC, then he was pretty skilled at being a backup, so maybe the Pats were grooming a full time backup for Brady?
Matt Cassel didn’t do anything through 2007, his 3rd year, and Matt Gutierrez played far better than Cassel in a game against the Dolphins in which both played extensively because 2007 Tom Brady roasted the Dolphins from the start and created a ton of garbage time. Heading into 2008 and the final year of Cassel’s rookie deal, the Pats drafted Kevin O’Connell in the 3rd round, who was clearly a project, but one that came with high hopes. He was set to be the 3rd starter throughout 2008 and then the backup thereafter, so Belichick chose to keep Cassel as the backup for the final year of his contract to see if he had anything.
Very few people will remember this now, and the few who do likely won’t stand up and admit it, but that move was criticized about as heavily as you could possibly criticize a transaction involving a 1 year backup QB spot when you’re franchise QB was 30 years old and had never missed a game since taking over the job. “They chose the wrong Matt!” was the “clever” narrative for a few days after the final preseason game. Cassel hadn’t started a game since high school, and he hadn’t shown much in his few reps in the NFL, so what could he possibly do?
You know what happened in 2008. Bernard “P.O.S.” Pollard took out Brady’s leg on a play that would earn him a 473 game suspension today, and Cassel stepped in and went 11-5. The 2008 Patriots and especially Cassel weren’t as good as you might think, because they played the horrible tandem of the AFC West and NFC West that season, which is why everybody in the AFC East had such an inflated record that the Pats were left out of the playoffs with the same record that got them to the 2001 Super Bowl.
It’s clear that Bill Belichick made the right call by drafting Cassel, developing him, and then sticking with him over Matt Gutierrez, and, like I said before, those who were wrong about the move should have been more quick to admit their mistake. Specifically, it’s important to measure the exact value that Belichick earns with each of his curious moves that turn out to be correct.
With Matt Cassel, it’s pretty easy to track the value that he brought the Patriots. The 2008 season didn’t provide much other than a moderately fun and interesting slate of 16 games to watch, but he brought the team a sizable return thereafter. The Patriots made the common sense move to franchise Cassel, trade him away to a team that needed a QB, and stick with the MVP of the NFL from a season prior. (With the hindsight we have now, if anyone thought that replacing Brady with Cassel was the right move at the time, they should be exiled from Massachusetts like Ben Affleck’s character at the end of The Town.) The Pats traded Cassel and Mike Vrabel, whom the Pats would have either cut or used sparingly in 2009, for the 34th pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
That pick became Patrick Chung. Chung started off well in 2009 and early in the 2010 season, but failed to keep improving his game after that. Through the end of his rookie deal in 2012, nobody would have said that the pick was a bust, but it wasn’t what you’d hope for with a draft pick just outside of the 1st round, either. In 2013, Chung signed with the Eagles and again had a forgettable season. Then in 2014, Belichick surprised everyone again by re-signing Chung, and Chung surprised everyone even more by being considerably better than he was in his first stint in New England. The day before the Divisional Game vs. Baltimore, Belichick re-signed Chung to a 3 year extension, and an in-season is a ringing endorsement from Bill Belichick if there ever was one.
Let’s be real, when judging a trade, release, or signing in hindsight, the moves always become far more worthwhile if they lead to a championship. Same reason that I might actually consider the Tyler Seguin trade a good one if the Bruins had won the Cup in 2014, which they likely would have if they weren’t so snakebitten against Montreal. Patrick Chung’s presence on the roster contributed to the Pats’ 4th ring that we all wanted and needed so badly, definitively improving the way we look at Chung.
And that’s the quantifiable value that Belichick brought to the Pats in this incident. When judging whether or not a coach was right with his decision, it helps to have a tangible measurement of what the move brought, and here we can say that Belichick got Patrick Chung out of his handling of Matt Cassel from draft day through the trade in early 2009. The Pats’ secondary in 2014 was instrumental in their SB49 win, demonstrating Chung’s importance. The next time you see Matt Cassel throwing up a line of 11-24, 127 yards, 0 TD and 2 INT in a horrible NFC east game, remember that Bill Belichick used that guy and got a useful piece on a Super Bowl winning team. He turned a 7th round pick in 2005 into a starter on a champion almost a decade later, providing a tangible example of the value that Bill Belichick brings to the Patriots when he’s right and everyone else is wrong.