IRVING, Texas – For an 11-year veteran quarterback such as Matt Cassel, a couple more weeks in a new system apparently can make a big difference.
Back in the starting lineup for an injured Tony Romo for the second time this season, Cassel believes his comfort level is "night and day" compared to his first four starts in Weeks 7-10.
When he arrived via trade in September, Cassel had five weeks to sit back and learn before being promoted to fill-in starter. But he never got to watch Romo run the offense up close, because Romo was already sidelined with his first collarbone injury.
Romo returned for two starts over the Thanksgiving stretch before fracturing his left collarbone again. Cassel said he benefited from studying how Romo handled everything, even the minor details, from play to play.
"The little nuances to it or the cadences, the simple things that he does at the line of scrimmage, some of the protections that he was able to get to – it was great for me to see that and see that in person," Cassel said. "Because when you're watching it on film, you're just watching a cut-up reel or something like that. You don't completely understand it. But when you're out there on a day-to-day and watching practice and seeing it in a game, it was very helpful for me."
Will the extra prep add up to a win Monday night at Washington?
The Cowboys (3-8) lost in all of Cassel's first four starts, part of a seven-game losing streak without Romo from mid-September through mid-November.
Cassel's performance wasn't the only factor in that 0-4 stretch; the Cowboys lost all four by a combined 18 points. He completed 74 of 119 passes (62.2 percent) with four touchdowns and five interceptions, including three in his first appearance – a 27-20 loss to the Giants.
"In the first game it was obviously the turnovers," he said. "In the second game against Seattle, we played them how we wanted to play. We just weren't able to finish in the critical situations that came up. In Tampa Bay, you lose in a tight one. I felt more and more comfortable and got better each week I was out there. Hopefully this time around I'm much better."
With the game out of hand in the final quarter on Thanksgiving after Romo exited due to injury, Cassel completed 13 of 19 passes (68.4 percent) for 93 yards and a late touchdown in the Cowboys' 33-14 loss to Carolina. Head coach Jason Garrett thought Cassel looked more comfortable.[embeddedad0]
"He's an experienced guy, been around a lot of offenses, he's played a lot of football," Garrett said, "but understanding how we do it and understanding the guys he's playing with his critical. I think we've seen him grow and develop in so many areas over the course of the four games that he played.
"He got better and better because he was more experienced in this environment. But then when you get a chance to step back, watch somebody else, I think if you approach it the right way that can be really productive. There's a reason he has played in this league for as long as he has. I think he maximizes his opportunities to get better and so I think he benefited from that."
Protecting the football Monday will be critical against a Redskins defense that has averaged two takeaways in its last eight games.
"I think that they're a big, physical group," Cassel said. "I think they've played better each and every week."
That's the same goal Cassel has for himself.