Matt Cassel Q&A: Stories from Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford's former backup

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Detroit Lions quarterbacks Matthew Stafford (9) and Matt Cassel (8) walk to the field for pregame of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rey Del Rio)
Detroit Lions quarterbacks Matthew Stafford (9) and Matt Cassel (8) walk to the field in 2018. (Rey Del Rio / Associated Press)

Former USC quarterback Matt Cassel played 14 seasons in the NFL, including four with the New England Patriots as Tom Brady’s backup and one with the Detroit Lions as Matthew Stafford’s backup. With Stafford and the Rams playing Brady and the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium, Times reporter Gary Klein spoke with Cassel — now an analyst for NBC Sports Boston — about the star quarterbacks.

This interview was edited for length and clarity:

You played with Brady at the start of your career in 2005-08 and with Stafford late in your career in 2018. How are Brady and Stafford alike?

There are so many similarities in their approach, their high football IQ, their processing — and they’re both great leaders. They’re meticulous in how they go about their preparation. I was with Brady and I saw all the film that he’d watch and the questions and all that. When I was in Detroit I had not been around Stafford as much. But Stafford’s got, like, one of those photographic memories where he can watch film and he could just recite, ‘Hey, go to play 21 right there. I want to look at the defense that I watched last night.’ And I’m like, play 21? How the hell do you remember play 21 in this game?” Brady is very similar in terms of his memory. He can remember plays from years ago. ‘I remember when they did this.’ Both of them have seen so much football, and that’s the wealth of knowledge that comes with starting and playing early in your career. They have recollection of games, plays and also individuals on the opposite side of the ball. They know exactly who they’re going up against. They can tell you their numbers, everything about them. They can see a player one time and be able to compartmentalize that, put in in their brain so the next time they go up against that same opponent, they know the strengths, weaknesses or are familiar with how to attack a particular player. They have an incredible ability to watch film, understand it, digest and apply it. Not only that but the ability to process a defense, to go in and see something one time and make a quick change or adapt to what they’re doing. They also stay on the field. I mean both of these guys are two of the toughest guys I’ve ever been around at the position.

What are the differences?

Stafford definitely has a leg up in terms of his mobility, being able to get himself out of trouble inside the pocket and make plays outside the pocket. Tom at this point in his career, he never was actually one of those guys that was gonna really use his legs to get himself out of trouble, but Stafford has. He’s pretty dynamic in that sense that he can do it not just with his arm and his mind, but he can do it with his legs as well.

How about their arm talent? How does that compare?

Tom can make all the throws. He’s got great arm talent. But Stafford. There’s a lot of guys that can throw the ball, but Stafford’s as good as I’ve ever seen. He’s got to be in the top 1, 2, 3 in the league in that he can put the ball anywhere he wants to at any time and it's effortless. He works at it. They both work at it, but it’s just he’s a natural thrower. At practice I was always like, ‘I’ve got to go throw next to this guy?’ I mean every time it came out of his hand it was a beautiful spiral. His mechanics are crisp. It’s clean and he’s just one of the most gifted passers, like just natural throwers of the football, that I’ve ever been around.

Two quarterbacks in warmup prepare to throw.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) and backup Matt Cassel (16) warm up in 2007. (Kathy Willens / Associated Press)

Any ‘I can’t believe he just did that’ moments that stand out for you with both of them?

In my third year we were playing the Jets and Tom sees two safeties in the middle of the field in deep coverage. Any common quarterback, right, is sitting there thinking, ‘I’m probably going to go off it and go to my best read.’ But Tom trusts Randy Moss and his speed and he launches the ball 65 yards and hits him in perfect stride and he walks in for a touchdown. I’m like, ‘Wow.’ Later in the season we’re playing the Giants in the last game of the year to complete a perfect regular season. We talked about how the Giants liked to play a certain situation and it comes up in the game. Brady uses his eyes to manipulate a corner and stutters his feet ever so slightly and hits Randy in stride. It was an incredible moment that sealed the deal. Watching his attention to detail, it was exactly what we talked about how we wanted to execute it in the film room — and then to go apply it and watch it, it was a thing of perfection. Just one of those ‘Aha!’ moments of how the quarterback position was supposed to be played, when you not only apply it to the physical talent but the mental aspect as well. That’s a part of the game that sometimes people don’t always recognize. With Stafford there were so many plays. Kenny Golladay would be running down the field and [Stafford] gets flushed out to his left. He does an incredible job of keeping his eyes down the field, not panic but then launch a ball going to his left, off his back foot, 65 to 70 yards and hits Kenny Golladay for a touchdown pass. I’m just sitting there going ‘Wow.’ He would make so many plays just like that.

Brady and Stafford both present poised, professional fronts when they are in front of reporters and the public. What about their sense of humor? Are they jokesters? Pranksters?

Well, Brady took the wheels off my car one time. It started with, he was always pissed off because he’d sit by the door and I’d swing the door open with my food and he’s like, ‘Dude, you’re going to knock me out.’ I’m like, ‘C’mon guy, I’m not going to knock you out and give you a concussion in the quarterback room.’ But then he put his foot up against the door and I spilled all my food. I’m like, ‘All right, I’m going to get you back.’ So I poured one of those old school Gatorade shakes into his Air Force Ones and put some Atomic Balm in his underwear — and on my way out he saw that and he comes out and throws this whole huge shake while I’m fully dressed. And the next day he says, I don’t know why, he says, ‘Call me Captain Longshanks or you’re going to regret it.’ I was like, ‘No way bro, I’m not calling you Captain Longshanks.’ Long story short, I came in from practice and I’ve got three wheels in front of my locker and he hid the other one somewhere around the facility. So the next three days I had to get rides to the facility. With Stafford we didn’t really have those practical jokes because I was old enough at that point and we had enough respect for each other, he wasn’t going to completely ruin me and I wasn’t going to try and ruin him.

How have Brady and Stafford fit into their offenses?

Last offseason was unique, I’m sure, for every quarterback in the league with no true offseason, particularly if you’re going to a new team like Tom. You could see early on they hadn’t hit their stride yet. They were learning about each other, learning about their play-caller Byron Leftwich and how they wanted to call the game. You could see them grow. This team’s got an incredible amount of confidence in Brady. They trust in him and his opinion and what they want to have called in a particular situation, and you can see that manifest itself here early in the season. Stafford comes into the Sean McVay offense. All of us as quarterbacks watch Sean McVay’s offense and are like, ‘Gosh, that would be a fun offense to play in.’ It’s so dynamic. They give you not only completion plays but also the change of tempo and then you’ve got Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and all the horses they have on that side. They’ve already developed great rapport. There will be learning curves along the way, but I think Matt Stafford is going to excel and have an incredible season.

OK, who do you pick in this game?

Until you knock off the Super Bowl defending champions, I still have to go with Tampa Bay. ... It’s no slight against Stafford. I could easily pick Stafford and be fine with that. But I’m going to take Tampa Bay till they lose.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.