Cassel has eye on backup opening


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Matt Cassel backed up two Heisman Trophy winners in college only to find another standing in his way in the pros.

At Southern California, he watched and learned from quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart while throwing just 33 passes in four seasons. As a rookie with the New England Patriots last season, he watched and learned from Doug Flutie.

With Flutie’s retirement Monday 22 years after winning the Heisman, Cassel moves up to the No. 2 spot behind Tom Brady, at least for now. Coach Bill Belichick hasn’t said whether he’ll bring in a veteran quarterback or told Cassel what to expect.

“I’m not going to say that I’ve started a bunch of games and I’ve proven myself because that’s definitely not the case,” Cassel said. “All I can say is that, if ever given an opportunity, I have prepared myself enough to be competitive and go out and win ball games.”

The Patriots have two new quarterbacks who are longshots to make the team, rookie free agent Corey Bramlet from Wyoming and Todd Mortensen of San Diego State, who wasn’t drafted last year. Since becoming coach in 2000, Belichick always has had an experienced quarterback as a backup.

Veteran free agents Jay Fiedler, Kerry Collins and Jeff Blake all are available but, fortunately for Cassel, Vinny Testaverde (Heisman winner 86) retired after last season.

“If they bring in Vince Young (Heisman runnerup 05) I think I’m in trouble,” Cassel said. “It’s ironic, obviously, because I go from one place to another and I run into Heisman Trophy winners all over the place.”

The Patriots drafted Cassel in the seventh round of the 2005 draft despite his lack of playing time in college. But he’s 6-feet-4 with a strong arm and was the USC upperclassman with the highest grade point average in 2003, which helps him absorb the many demands put on Belichick’s quarterbacks to run the offense.

“He can grasp it all,” Flutie said. “He can do the things that Tom does or he will be able to, mentally.”

Cassel played in just two games as a rookie, completing 13 of 24 passes for 183 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. But with a season in the Patriots system, he can devote more time to working on specific weaknesses rather than absorbing the complex offense.

“You see these (rookies) come in and they’re in their locker and their heads are down,” said Cassel, who turns 24 Wednesday, “and you just go, “God, I remember those days’ because you come in and it’s so overwhelming … especially, within our system, it puts a lot of burden on the quarterback.”

Cassel handled that well in his only extended action at the position last season.

In the final regular-season game, with the Patriots assured of a playoff berth, he came in for Brady and completed 11 of 20 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-26 loss to Miami.

“That is just so crucial for me in my development to say, “look, I can get into the game. I can compete. I can do it at a high level,’ ” Cassel said. “Confidence-wise, it definitely helps.”

Flutie has seen enough to know that Cassel is very qualified to succeed as the replacement for a Heisman winner.

“I think you saw just about everything you needed to see in that last game,” Flutie said. “I would feel very confident if he ended up being No. 2 this year and having to step in.”

Belichick said late last month that performance against Miami showed how much Cassel improved from the start of training camp. He continues to get better, Belichick said, but whether he keeps doing that “remains to be seen.”

So Cassel keeps working hard in the Patriots’ offseason program to make sure he’s ready if Brady gets hurt.

“You grow and mature a lot in the system from one year to the next,” Cassel said.

“I’m not saying that there’s not a tremendous amount to still learn and to improve upon, but you just feel a lot more comfortable.”

AP-ES-05-16-06 1709EDT