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What the Brady-less 2008 Season Taught Us About Bill Belichick

Despite the sudden loss of perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time in the first quarter of Week 1, the Patriots still won 11 games. How’d Belichick do it? Matt Cassel and Rodney Harrison explain.

Matt Cassell talking to Bill Belichick in 2008 AP Images/Ringer illustration

In football years, one decade might as well be a century. Ten years ago, the wildcat ripped the league in half, Aaron Rodgers made his first start for the Packers, Brett Favre played 16 games for the Jets, the Patriots missed the playoffs, and most shocking of all, Jeff Fisher coached a team that won—you’re really not gonna believe this—13 whole games. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, then you don’t know where you’re going. So, to better understand what’s ahead in 2018, we’re spending this week looking back on what happened 10 years before. Welcome to 2008 Week!

There was a play called “Randy” in the New England Patriots playbook in the late 2000s. It was exactly like it sounds: Randy Moss runs a post, gets open, and destroys some poor defensive back. A 26-year-old Matt Cassel first ran “Randy” against the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008—in the first quarter of a Week 1 matchup that marked his first meaningful game action in years.

“I was thrown into the fire,” Cassel told me. “I didn’t know what to expect, first quarter of the first game of the season and I’m playing.”

He was playing because Tom Brady, fresh off one of the greatest passing seasons in the history of the sport, went down with a knee injury earlier in the quarter after a hit from Bernard Pollard.

“Before the second series, the doctor walks by and says, ‘It doesn’t look good. I think it’s going to be your team for the year,’” Cassel said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Uh, could you wait until after the game to tell me this?’”

Shortly after Cassel was forced into action, the Patriots called “Randy” from their own 1-yard line. “It was supposed to be the short post, but he saw the guy jump inside, so he just threw his hand up and you had to hit him down the sideline. It was beautiful,” Cassel said. “The next thing you know, I’m hitting him in the back of the end zone for a tremendous catch. It was one of those things where it was absolutely a confidence booster.”

It was the moment Cassel knew everything was going to be fine.

This was the first big play in one of the most impressive seasons in Bill Belichick’s long coaching tenure, even though it doubled as the only season in the past 15 years that didn’t end in an AFC East crown or a playoff spot. It was also one of only three seasons over that same stretch in which the Patriots won fewer than 12 games. Yet New England spent nearly the entire season without Brady, probably the greatest quarterback of all time, and still posted a double-digit win count.

Belichick being forced into a situation where he has to tinker is one of the most compelling things in football. Effortless dominance is boring; playing Troy Brown at cornerback or rotating members of the offensive line in and out like a hoops team is fun. But none of that matches having to replace Brady for nearly a full season.

It has been 10 years since this 2008 season, and now that we’ve seen Brady’s dominance continue in the following seasons, that year serves as a guidebook for what Belichick can do in the worst-case scenario: one without Brady. The season was a testament to the Patriots’ system, to roster depth, to not panicking, and to having Randy Moss on your team.

“It was one of his better coaching jobs,” said star safety Rodney Harrison, now an analyst at NBC Sports. “It was a coaching opportunity, and he saw it as that.”

Brady’s claim to “the greatest quarterback of all time” title has plenty of evidence behind it: He has won five Super Bowls and was the MVP of four of them. He has won three league MVPs and has been a Pro Bowl selection 13 times. Now a member of the Lions, Cassel said, “The pressure that came along with trying to replace a guy like Tom—it was an amazing season to accomplish what we did.”

Harrison said that nothing can prepare you to lose your starting quarterback—and that goes double for Brady: “You’re seeing a pillar of health and strength and you see him go down and say, ‘Wow, did that happen?’”

When Harrison thinks of that season, he remembers something that would be soothing only to a former Patriot. “What was comforting was Bill’s monotone voice. It was still there during this,” Harrison said. “The entire world was panicking. We were stunned. There are a lot of emotions in football, but he was always the same.” Belichick, Harrison said, addressed the Brady injury only once. “He told us the media would try to divide us and hit the panic button but that we won’t panic. He was not like, ‘Oh my god, the world is ending.’”

The sense of calmness defined the season. This was the year that “Do Your Job,” the unofficial franchise motto, was put to the test. Harrison said that previous injuries had prepared the team for this: Belichick was insistent that everything must stay the same afterward, and the loss of the best quarterback in football would be no exception.

For Cassel, just playing in the NFL seemed like a long shot—let alone capably replacing one of the best QBs to ever do it. Cassel did not start a game at quarterback from November 1999 until September 2008. At USC, he backed up Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. At one point, the team tried to convert him to tight end.

“Coach Belichick was incredible that entire year,” Cassel said. “When coach found out Tom was hurt, he just casually goes, ‘OK, Cassel, you’re in the game,’ and that was it.” Cassel said he’d been on teams in the past where a starter goes down and coaches start talking about the issue or worrying too much. “There was nothing like that here. It was ‘OK, we’re closing ranks, we’re moving forward,’ and that was his mentality the entire time I was there. He was a great supporter, and I got confidence because of it.”

Even without Brady, the Patriots were still upset they didn’t win the division, kept out by the Wildcat Dolphins, led by Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. When I asked Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson, who was a Patriots executive at the time, what he remembered about that season, the answer was that they didn’t make the playoffs. “That sucked,” he said. He echoed the thought that Belichick did an incredible job of keeping the team on course without its best player.

Cassel said that one of the best moments of the season was after the Jets win in Week 2. Moss approached him and said, “Hey, Cass, you got this.”

Moss finished that season with his second straight 1,000-yard campaign. Cassel said it’s impossible to overstate the wide receiver’s impact. In October, Cassel threw a then-career-high 32 times in a win against San Francisco. On one play, Moss was ready to run a post route, but the 49ers brought a corner blitz. Normally, Cassel would find the hot route, but instead, he said, “I just drifted from it and threw it up. And Randy just clear as day sky-rockets up there and went and got it. Randy Moss is one of the most special individuals I have ever been around. He made my job so much easier. He made so many catches that year.”

Moss helped plenty. So did Belichick. And so did Cassel.

“You have to remember,” Harrison said, “this is a guy who never started in college. Bill sees stuff in people that no one sees and even things that people don’t see in themselves.” The Patriots drafted Cassel in the seventh round in 2005 after a strong pro day. He had athletic tools but had not started at quarterback since high school; his lone start at USC was at H-back.

In Week 1 against the Chiefs, Cassel never saw Brady get hit. He was following the ball in the air after it was thrown and heard the stadium fall silent as Brady went down. He had no idea what to expect when he jogged onto the field—something he said feels like it happened yesterday. Cassel knew it was serious because he’d seen Brady play hurt so often that there was no way he would come out of the game for something that wasn’t drastic.

Cassel remembered the next week wistfully. It was his first start in nine years—under ludicrous pressure. “There’s already a lot of noise outside the building and it’s against Brett Favre, at the Meadowlands.” New England employed a ball-control offense. Cassel had 165 passing yards, and, for the second straight week, the team rushed for 100 yards. The Patriots won 19-10 and improved to 2-0. The season would not be a repeat of 2007’s best offense of all time, but it wouldn’t be a disaster either. “Brett Favre runs over and says, ‘Congratulations, I’m really proud of you.’ I’ll never forget that,” Cassel said.

The most impressive thing about the season was the offense Belichick surrounded Cassel with: Cassel said it was modified only slightly, to add bootlegs and movements in the pocket to the same routes and concepts the team would’ve run with Brady. Cassel’s ability—and what Belichick trusted him to do—grew as the season went along. He never threw more than 38 times from weeks 1 through 9. In the four games from November 13 until December 7, Cassel did that every time. He didn’t throw for more than 200 yards for the first three weeks of the season, then surpassed 400 in back-to-back weeks in November. Cassel ended the year with nearly 3,700 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.

“When you have a young guy that hasn’t played a lot of ball, you have to build that confidence,” Cassel said. “But they understood I had been in the system for three years, that I could handle it, and the more they understood I could handle it, the more it became our own offense and it exploded the way it did.”

The most important part in growing Cassel’s confidence, Harrison said, was Belichick letting “Matt be Matt. He wasn’t pretending he was anybody else.” That meant taking advantage of Cassel’s athleticism in some spots, like those bootlegs.

“We were running our offense; it didn’t change much from what Tom did,” Cassel said. For Cassel, that season launched a career that now contains 81 starts and continues in Detroit. Notably, he outlasted Leinart by at least five seasons, and Palmer retired after last year. Brady, on the other hand, just turned 41, is the reigning MVP, and has been to back-to-back Super Bowls.

Late in the 2008 season, there were moments when Belichick let the team go no-huddle and open up the game. This was no different from the year before, even with a different quarterback. In November, the Patriots were down 31-24 against the Jets. “We were throwing it all over the place,” Cassel said. There was one second left on the clock. “Randy posted up Ty Law at the goal line. I saw him put his big paw up and hit him,” Cassel remembered, smiling. The Jets won the game in overtime, but Cassel called the contest a “building block” for him. The Patriots did not make the playoffs, and, in the context of their current historic run, 11 wins is a disappointment. But Belichick tinkered, game-planned, and came up with a football miracle: a good team without Brady. Cassel did his job.