SAN JOSE, Calif. – With heavy hearts, the New England Patriots began, in earnest, their preparations for this Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders.
Much of their thoughts, however, were with their quarterback, Matt Cassel, who is dealing with the death of his father, Greg.
"Matt Cassel's father passed away Monday night, so, our thoughts are with him and his family at this time," head coach Bill Belichicktold reporters at the start of his press conference this morning.
Belichick went through a similar ordeal when his father, Steve, died during the 2005 season.
"It's bigger than football," Belichick continued. "I've been through that during the season as well, a personal situation you just have to deal with."
He gave no indication how long Cassel, a California native form the L.A. suburb of Northridge, would be away from the team.
"From a football standpoint, we'll just handle it like we normally do. Right now, we're just taking it day-to-day. He's going to take care of what he has to do."
"It's a part of life," echoed DL Richard Seymour. "It's one thing that'll happen to all of us one day. I don't think you're ever prepared for it. We're supporting him and his family and all that they're going through at this time."
"I thought about it last night, and I texted my wife and talked to her for a little bit," cornerback Ellis Hobbssaid. "In my own family, my father and mother are fortunate to still be alive. Anytime I'm away, especially in college, I felt like I would never see them again. And you really don't know when you're going to see someone again. And then for something to happen so abruptly, it just tells you how life is. You've gotta take one day at a time and really appreciate it."
Like Cassel and Belichick, Seymour has had to deal with the loss of his father.
"For me, it was during the off-season, so, I had some time. For him, it'll be a little bit different. He's a mentally tough guy … during times like this, you realize what's important. It's just a game that we go out and play. But life is way more valuable."
"That's tough … I don't know when you'd ever want to deal with that," said center Dan Koppen. "I talked to him last night. He's doing OK, but … I don't know what you say to a guy in that situation. He's a strong kid. He'll come back."
Exactly when he'll come back is still uncertain. If Cassel does play this weekend, he won't be the first NFL player to do so just days after losing a parent. Jets QB Brett Favredid so a few years ago after his father died, and he ended up playing one of the more memorable games of his career.
"It's definitely a tough situation. Some guys have done it, some haven't," Seymour noted. "It's a personal choice, and whatever he chooses to do, we support him 100-percent. We wish him and his family the best."
Seymour also had a chance to talk to Cassel before he went to join his family.
"Well, I saw him this morning at breakfast, and gave him my best, to him and his wife and his family. We have his back and we're here to support him. I think everyone handles the situation differently. You never can say home much time someone needs, but you give them as much time as they think they need. We're just giving him the time to do everything that he needs to do."
Hobbs felt it was best to give Cassel his space for the time being.
"If something tragic happened to me like that, I'd like to just be alone, by myself. I just kind of treat everyone like that. Everybody comes around eventually, in their own time. And you try not to harp on it. I think the best thing you can do for somebody is try to keep them in the same routine. I don't think anybody wants to get more into death, as far as speaking about it … just kind of let them be there and they'll come out of it soon enough."
O'Connell Under Center
Until Cassel returns, rookie Kevin O'Connellwill be the first-team QB.
"He's got to step up and take the reins for the day," Koppen said. "He's very capable."
"In practice, he definitely has a strong arm – can throw the deep ball, can throw the intermediate routes," Hobbs agreed. "Just like any quarterback we have, they're great in the system. They can put the ball wherever we need it to get to."
The normally reticent running back LaMont Jordantook some time to talk with the media just before practice. Jordan, who had missed numerous practices and games in recent weeks due to a calf injury, saw his first game action in quite a while this past Sunday in Seattle.
"I felt like, before I got hurt, I was starting to come into my own," he told a large gathering of reporters. "Unfortunately, the injury took place."
His return couldn't come at a more opportune time for the Patriots, who are fighting for their playoff lives.
"If you know anything about teams that win in November and December," Jordan observed, "it's those teams that can run the ball. We have three games left and we're in a tight race. We're just going to take it one game at a time."
A former Jet and Raider, Jordan shared his thoughts on facing his second former team this Sunday in Oakland.
"I've said even before I was a Raider that the [Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum] is my favorite place to play because of the atmosphere and the fans."
But those fans, Jordan was reminded, have a reputation of being extremely harsh to opposing teams.
"It's not something I concern myself with," he insisted. "When I went back to New York, I heard a couple of boos and a couple of cheers. I'm sure when I go back to the Coliseum, I'm going to hear a whole lot of boos. But if I hear those boos, that means that, obviously, my teammates and I are doing something right. So, I would rather hear the crowd boo than to hear them cheer."
The Patriots returned to San Jose State University today, their first practice here since their last West Coast trip two months ago. Skies were cloudless and blue, with temperatures in the upper 50s to low 60s. Players dressed in helmet, shells, and sweatpants.
Four players were missing from action, including Cassel, safety James Sanders, and linebackers Tedy Bruschiand Pierre Woods.
On a positive note, however, WR Kelley Washingtonand DL Ty Warrenwere back on the field after missing the past several weeks and games with injuries. NT Vince Wilfork, who hurt his shoulder Sunday against Seattle and never returned to that game, was also back out on the field.
The playing surface at San Jose State was in much better condition this time around, as even one of the Patriots grounds crew noted prior to today's session, perhaps because the Spartan football team hasn't had to use since their season ended a few weeks ago.