He looked like he'd done this plenty of times before.
As Matt Casselapproached his locker inside Gillette Stadium Thursday, he had to navigate through a sea of reporters and photographers. Normally, the media camps out a spot or two down as they await Cassel's neighbors, Tom Brady and *Randy Moss.
"Is that my locker," Cassel jokingly asked," or are you all here for Moss?"
Cassel then handled the next 15 minutes of questions like a seasoned professional.
When he takes the field against the New York Jets this Sunday, Cassel will get his first start in a football game since high school. But he insists he's not caught up in the hype surrounding his highly scrutinized NFL debut as a starter, which happens to be against a future Hall-of-Famer in Jets quarterback Brett Favre.
"Once you get to the field, it's business as usual," he proclaimed. "It's more the outside distractions, if you let them become distractions, they will become distractions. For me, it's just go and play ball and … realize it's a game, and it's a fun game, and just go out there and enjoy it."
How does he plan to keep the outside forces from becoming a distraction?
"Not watch a lot of TV and not read the papers," he replied. "Just study the game plan and focus on football."
Cassel has had plenty of time to study during his career in New England. That, say his teammates, works to his advantage.
"Cassel's definitely a great quarterback," said running back Laurence Maroney. "He knows the offense, he's been here four years. He doesn't have the starts, but he knows our philosophy, knows our playbook. That's what's important."
Cassel cool demeanor is also a plus, they say.
"He's as relaxed as he can possibly be right now," running back Sammy Morrisnoted, "but at the same time, he's excited … there's no panic in him."
"Cassel's a funny guy, man," Maroney continued. "He's always playing [around], you know. But you need that type of guy [in the huddle]. He's always relaxed and wants to have fun and do his thing. In the huddle, Cassel's definitely a great guy. He's fun, energetic."
And confident, too, it appears. Cassel had been sharply criticized by media and fans alike during the pre-season, but his argument is, he still won his job.
"If the coaching staff didn't believe I could run the offense, I wouldn't be here right now," Cassel observed. "There's something to be said about that.
"It's exciting. We're definitely not going down to the Jets just to play well, we're going down there to win."
Brady's name came up in conversation, of course, and Cassel admitted that he'd talked to his friend and teammate since the injury. Brady, he said, gave him some words of encouragement.
"Just go out there, execute, and have fun, and win and do the things you need to do.
"We'd all love Tom to be here," Cassel continued, "but the fact is he's not. We have to move on as team. We can't look back, hope and wish and do those things that a lot of other people are doing. We have to move on and get ready for this week."
As the Q&A session drew to a close, a reporter asked Cassel if any public speaking classes at his alma mater, the University of Southern California, prepared him for this media onslaught.
"Not at all," Cassel conceded. "I am not going to lie. I am getting kind of hot. Maybe we need to get a fan in here next week or something."
If Cassel keeps winning games, the fans will come.
Maroney feeling fresh
As they did at the start of last season, the Patriots have a healthy tandem of Maroney and Morris splitting carries this year as well. Add to the mix newcomer LaMont Jordan and veterans Heath Evans and Kevin Faulk, and Maroney says his legs have never felt more fresh.
"Oh, man … it's great, especially now that we have Kevin [Faulk] back. We've got me, Kevin, Heath, LaMont, Sammy. It's definitely going to be a nice rotation."
Morris and Maroney each had 10 carries a week ago, with the former out-gaining the latter by just two yards, 53 to 51.
"I thought Sammy and I played pretty well [against Kansas City]. Especially for the first game," Maroney added. "We just kept working hard and continue to work hard and hopefully we can keep the running game alive."
Thursday practice notes
Wide receivers Randy Moss and Jabar Gaffney, both of whom missed a portion of Wednesday's practice, were back on the field at the start of Thursday's session. Missing from action again were wideout Sam Aikenand tight end **Benjamin Watson. *