Quarterback down doesn’t have to mean season is over
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.
Stepping into the breach: Matt Cassel won’t have to go it alone when he replaces Tom Brady with the powerful New England Patriots.