THE MAN most responsible for Matt Cassel's being a New England Patriot watched the quarterback's first NFL start from the Club Tavern in Middleton, Wis., on Sunday. The man stood out among the crowd of 200, but not because of his former football player's build. Drinking the locally brewed wheat beer as he watched the Jets-Patriots game, Matt Russell stood out because he was the only one rooting against Brett Favre.
Russell, 35, didn't tell anyone why he whooped it up anytime Cassel completed a pass. But he felt proud, and with good reason. As the West Coast scout for the Patriots in 2004, Russell brought Cassel's name to the attention of team vice president Scott Pioli, then urged Pioli and coach Bill Belichick to take Cassel in the '05 draft—despite Cassel's never having started a game in five seasons at USC.
The Patriots almost certainly wouldn't have chosen Cassel in the seventh round if not for Russell's input. And after Cassel beat Favre and the Jets on Sunday, the QB acknowledged Russell's role in his long trip to NFL starter. "Matt believed in me," Cassel said. "To have someone in the NFL, really the only person in the NFL, who said, 'We need to get this guy,' that gave me my first sense of confidence, that maybe I could actually do this."
Scouts in any sport rarely get the credit they deserve. The ones who are good enough—and lucky enough—someday get a shot as general managers. But the vast majority are constantly on the road in the fall, spending weeks in hotels and days in film rooms on campuses across the country. They're trying to find a Matt Cassel, the guy everyone else missed.
One reasons the Pats are as good as they are in assembling personnel is that they require their scouts to look over every senior at the schools they visit—even those not getting significant playing time—to ensure they haven't missed a player lost in the wash at a powerful program such as Southern Cal. Cassel, a high school star from Chatsworth, Calif., enrolled at USC in 2000 and became Carson Palmer's backup. When Palmer left after the '02 season, Cassel and Matt Leinart competed for the job, and Leinart won. According to then USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, "It was a knock-down, drag-out fight, and Matt [Cassel] thought he wasn't getting a fair shake."
Cassel spent his last two years at USC backing up Leinart, playing a little tight end and running downfield on special teams. On Russell's early-season trip to see the Trojans in 2004, a coach told him to watch Cassel throw at practice. Russell liked his arm and alerted Pioli to keep an eye on him when the VP made his own trip to campus later that fall. When Pioli went to see for himself, he was impressed that Cassel played hard even in a midweek special teams practice. Perhaps, Pioli thought, Cassel would be a low-budget, jack-of-all-trades free agent.
At USC's Pro Day the following spring, scouts gathered to observe the annual bumper crop of seniors. After the workouts a few scouts started to leave. "I had my bag over my shoulder, ready to walk out," said Russell. But a USC staffer hustled over to the scouts and asked if they'd stay a few minutes longer to watch the backup QB throw. Some left, but representatives from about 20 teams stayed. And Cassel threw so well that Russell e-mailed Pioli and Belichick that "Cassel had a damn good workout" and that the secret might be out on him. Russell was right. The Titans and the Bengals wanted Cassel as a free agent too.
"My point to Scott and Bill was, if we didn't draft him, we'd probably get outbid [in postdraft free agency]," said Russell, now a national scout for the Eagles. "As a scout with New England, you're lucky because Scott and Bill listen to you."
Leading up to the 2005 draft, the Patriots were typically closemouthed about their interest in Cassel. Tennessee, as it turned out, badly wanted Cassel, and Chow, the Titans' new offensive coordinator at the time, said he was stunned when he saw New England take him with the 230th pick. "It's funny," said Russell. "The Pats get knocked for being so secretive. But being quiet really paid off. No one knew we'd draft him."
On Sunday, after Cassel had finished his steady, unspectacular performance (16 of 23, 165 yards, no turnovers or touchdowns) in a 19--10 New England victory, Russell stepped outside the raucous bar and considered what he'd just seen.
"I went crazy in there when he won it," said Russell, a fourth-round pick out of Colorado in 1997 who played one NFL season at linebacker for the Lions. "He distributed the ball well, looked confident, operated within the game plan. It's like the stars aligned. Right place, right time, right system, right coach. The damn kid just won against Brett Favre."
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Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (CASSEL)
EFFICIENCY UNIT Cassel threw no interceptions in wins over the Chiefs and the Jets.