It doesn’t matter how many Super Bowls Bill Belichick leads the New England Patriots to — the 2008 non-playoff team will forever be his biggest masterpiece.
You can argue all you want and bring up the Lombardi trophies, but I will continue to rebut you with two incredibly potent words: Matt Cassel.
Yes, that Matt Cassel. The one who went 10-5 in 15 starts with the Patriots and 25-39 in 64 games with four other franchises. The one who couldn’t even hold down a job in Buffalo when his primary competition was a signal-caller who had never started a single game in the NFL.
That year, Bernard Pollard rolled into Tom Brady’s knee on opening day, sidelining the future Hall of Famer as he was coming off the league’s first (and only, to this day) undefeated regular season. Cassel had never started a game in his career, having thrown only 39 passes in three previous seasons.
The seemingly-invincible Patriots suddenly had lost their captain. That squad, while equipped with the likes of Randy Moss and Wes Welker, did not have the cogs of today’s juggernaut like Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.
So what did the Patriots do? Without Brady, they won 11 games, including their last four. Belichick, and more specifically offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, squeezed a Pro Bowl-caliber year out of a guy with the skill set of a career clipboard-holder. Cassel threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions, and it seemed like the Patriots had unearthed yet another gem from nowhere.
Rather, they simply proved that their system is unflappable, no matter who is manning the ship. Cassel’s massively-overachieving 2008 campaign helped the Patriots net a second-round draft pick in a trade the following offseason, which they used on safety Patrick Chung.
Cassel had so many limitations, which he proved time and again during ensuing stops in Kansas City, Minnesota, Buffalo, and Dallas. He showed a glimmer of hope in 2010, when he went 10-5, led the Chiefs to a division title and netted a Pro Bowl berth. But he followed that up by going a combined 5-12 over the next two seasons, throwing 16 touchdowns to 21 interceptions. He has been a quintessential journeyman ever since.
People may ask why Cassel was so successful in Foxborough, but isn’t that self-explanatory? The elite-level coaches and strong surrounding talent made a mediocre player into a momentary star. McDaniels encouraged the use of Cassel’s legs, as evidenced by his career-high 270 rushing yards and two TDs.
In the end, that Patriots team fell short of the playoffs, but not for lack of effort, nor for lack of coaching. Cassel did his part with limited abilities, and he owes nearly all of his gratitude to Belichick (and of course McDaniels). The Pats won 11 games in 2008, narrowly missing the postseason; a year later, upon Brady’s return, they went 10-6 but won the AFC East before going one-and-done in the playoffs.
Yes, Moss and Welker were still stars at that point. Ben Watson was a very good tight end. The offensive line was above average, and the defense was good enough even with some of its core players at the end of the line. But with a quarterback who wasn’t even good enough to start in college, that shouldn’t have mattered.
Once again, Bill Belichick proved that he can always do more with less. 2008 will forever be the greatest example of that.