Quar­ter­back down doesn’t have to mean sea­son is over

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY DAN DALY

Be­fore the sweat had even dried on his New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, Bill Belichick was re­mind­ing them Sept. 7 that their Su­per Bowl dreams weren’t dead — de­spite the prob­a­bil­ity (now cer­tainty) that Tom Brady was done for the sea­son. Any coach in Belichick’s po­si­tion would de­liver the same speech, but in his case there was less of a smoke-blow­ing as­pect to it. Af­ter all, he has seen, first hand, an ob­scure backup quar­ter­back lead his team to the ti­tle af­ter the starter went down — not once but twice. Why not Matt Cas­sel, Brady’s un­der­study?

It’s a long shot, sure. But not much more of one than Brady step­ping in for Drew Bled­soe in 2001 and guid­ing the Pats to their first Su­per Bowl cham­pi­onship a year af­ter be­ing the 199th player cho­sen in the draft. (Cas­sel was the 230th in 2005.) And hardly more of one than Jeff Hostetler tak­ing over the Giants’ of­fense in the next-to-last week of 1990 and steer­ing them to the ti­tle af­ter spending nearly six sea­sons as Phil Simms’ caddy.

That’s the thing about th­ese cat­a­strophic in­juries to quar­ter­backs. Some­times they’re not so cat­a­strophic. It is, let’s not for­get, a 53-man game, and a strong run­ning game and dogged de­fense can carry you far — as long as your Ac­ci­den­tal Start­ing QB doesn’t get over­whelmed by his new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Re­mem­ber Mike Kruczek, the D.C.-area kid who went to St. John’s High School and Bos­ton Col­lege, keep­ing the Steel­ers afloat as a rookie in 1976, go­ing 6-0 at a starter in Terry Brad­shaw’s ab­sence? (Maybe not.) Re­mem­ber Mike Liv­ingston, a sec­ond-year nonen­tity, post­ing the same record for the cham­pi­onship-bound Chiefs in 1969 while Len Daw­son re­cov­ered from a par­tially torn ACL? (Yeah, I know, it’s a long time ago.)

How about Earl Mor­rall’s bril­liant bullpen work for the 1968 Colts and per­fect 1972 Dol­phins? How about Jim Plun­kett fill­ing in for bro­ken-legged Dan Pas­torini and help­ing the 1980 Raiders win the Su­per Bowl? Heck, how about the un­der­dog of un­der­dogs, erst­while Aren­a­baller Kurt Warner, bound­ing off the bench in 1999 and cap­tur­ing ev­ery award in sight — not to men­tion a ring?

I won’t even men­tion Erik Kramer (1991 Lions), Vince Fer­rag­amo (1979 Rams) or, heaven for­bid, Tobin Rote (1957 Lions), but they fall into this cat­e­gory, too. That’s 10 backup quar­ter­backs who, when push came to rup­tured Achilles, played won­drously for their teams and ei­ther won ti­tles or kept their clubs strongly in con­tention — a not in­signif­i­cant num­ber. (And I’m sure I’m leav­ing a few out.)

Don Shula, who owes much to Su­per­sub Mor­rall, put it best. “The mark of a good foot­ball team,” he once said, “is what it can do un­der ad­verse con­di­tions — and you can’t get any more ad­verse than hav­ing a quar­ter­back out there ly­ing on the field.”

The 1972 Dol­phins sur­vived the loss of Bob Griese for most of the sea­son not just be­cause Mor­rall was mar­velous but be­cause it was an ex­cep­tional club, one for the ages. It not only was the first in NFL his­tory to win all of its games, it was also the first to have two 1,000-yard rush­ers (Larry Csonka and Mer­cury Mor­ris). Its No-Name De­fense, mean­while, al­lowed the fewest points in the league that year. A jug­ger­naut like that can han­dle “ad­verse con­di­tions,” can take a punch.

The mid-’70s Steel­ers were just as for­mi­da­ble. They, too, had two 1,000yard backs (Franco Har­ris and Rocky Bleier) in ’76, the Sea­son of Kruczek. As for their de­fense, the Steel Cur­tain that year was never stee­l­ier. In the last nine games of the reg­u­lar sea­son, it recorded five shutouts and gave up a grand to­tal of 28 points. Alas, Har­ris and Bleier got hurt in the play­offs, oth­er­wise Mean Joe Green and Co. prob­a­bly would have won five Su­per Bowls in­stead of four.

The rea­son you can’t to­tally close the door on the Pa­tri­ots this sea­son — Brady or no Brady — is that, like the 1972 Dol­phins and the 1976 Steel­ers, they’re one of the best teams of all time. A year ago, they came within 35 sec­onds of trump­ing the Per­fect Dol­phins’ with their own 19-0. And this was af­ter winning three cham­pi­onships in four years ear­lier in the decade.

The Pats have now won 20 straight reg­u­lar-sea­son games, an NFL record. In 2003 and 2004, they won 18 straight reg­u­lar-sea­son games, the sec­ond-long­est streak ever. Many of the faces have changed be­tween then and now, but this is a Se­ri­ous Dy­nasty we’ve got here, folks. And now we’ll find out if they’re re­ally, re­ally, re­ally good, if they can con­tend for the ti­tle without any more con­tri­bu­tions from a guy who threw 50 touch­down passes last year.

New Eng­land doesn’t have two 1,000-yard rush­ers like the 1972 Dol­phins and 1976 Steel­ers. In fact, it didn’t even have one last sea­son. The Pa­tri­ots’ de­fense is among the best in the league — it was fourth in points al­lowed in 2007 — but it’s cer­tainly not as sti­fling as the Steel Cur­tain or the No Names (who yielded 171 points in 14 games in 1972, the equiv­a­lent of 195 over to­day’s 16game sched­ule).

For those rea­sons, it will prob­a­bly be harder for them to cope, mi­nus their quar­ter­back, than it was for the Dol­phins and Steel­ers. But they do have Belichick, a con­sum­mate strate­gist and mas­ter but­ton pusher, and that counts for some­thing.

UNITED PRESS IN­TER­NA­TIONAL

Step­ping into the breach: Matt Cas­sel won’t have to go it alone when he re­places Tom Brady with the pow­er­ful New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots.

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