Matt Cassel took the snap from center, rolled out, and fired a bullet right on the money to one of his receivers 15 yards down the field for a completion. After the play, Cassel raised his arms in the air and yelled out, "Woo!" The play didn't take place in the Super Bowl or even a regular season game for that matter. It happened during practice. Cassel can't help showing excitement and emotion, even during mini-camp. That's just the kind of player he is.
Perhaps it's because Cassel hasn't started a game since high school and backing up an iron man like Tom Brady, he knows it's unlikely that he'll see much playing time in the near future. Or maybe it's because no one expected Cassel to make it this far, after being stuck behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC. Whatever the reason, while some players dread practicing in the heat during the dog days of summer, Cassel embraces it.
"It's fun. If you can't have fun at what you do then you shouldn't be doing it," Cassel said. "I love going out just playing football. That's what I do and that's the passion I have for the game. Going out to practice is fun for me. I really enjoy it. If you're not having fun when you're out there, then I think it just adds to the pressure."
While the young quarterback feels at home around his teammates, there's still concerns about whether or not the career caddy can lead the Patriots offense should something happen to Brady. Entering his third season, Cassel has a good understanding of New England's offense. However, playing so little over the last six years still makes Cassel an unknown commodity in the NFL.
"It's my third year in the system, so obviously I've made strides since I first got here," he said. "I feel very comfortable where I'm at right now but there's still a lot of room for improvement. We've gone back and watched film and I've talked to my coaches. Right now we're just trying to tighten up the screws and improve my game so I can take it to the next level."
After backing up two Heisman Trophy winners and a Super Bowl MVP, Cassel is eager to show what he can do himself. He'll be an unrestricted free agent after the 2008 season. When that time comes, Cassel will have a big decision to make. Stay in New England and backup a future Hall of Famer, or sign elsewhere and battle for a starting job.
"I can't worry about that stuff. Unfortunately up to this point, I haven't got my chance," Cassel said. "I've played sparingly but when I've had the opportunity I think I did pretty well. The minute you start stressing out and worrying about that, it's going to take away from what you're trying to accomplish. Eventually, it's just going to happen. I think if I keep putting myself in the right position and keep learning from the guys I've played with that when my opportunity does come, I'll be ready to go."
Cassel says a majority of his preparation is mental. Because he's not going to start and has no idea if and when his number will be called in any particular game, he has to be ready to go at a moment's notice, regardless of the situation.
"You have to be alert and ready to go all the time," he said. "You're never advised that you're going in next. It just happens. During mini-camp, I get to throw to all the receivers every day. But when you get into the season, my reps start to go down a little bit because the coaches need to get the starters ready to go. That's the struggle and the tough part about being the No. 2 quarterback. You go in week after week getting mentally prepared to start, you just don't get the reps."
At some point, Cassel will likely get his shot to lead an NFL offense, whether it's with the Patriots or another team. Until then, he'll continue to bide his time and work on his favorite pre-game ritual. Before every game, Cassel stands at distances ranging between 10 and 40 yards away from the goal post, attempting to hit the crossbar with a football. Every time Cassel connects with his target, the excitable young quarterback raises his arms in triumph and runs around like he just won the Super Bowl.
He's having fun enjoying the moment. That's just Matt Cassel.