To say Cassel was impressive this season would be an understatement. As I've mentioned here before, as Patriots fans, we had no right to expect or take for granted what our "high school quarterback" contributed to the team this year, especially given the continued injuries that constantly reshuffled the personnel around him. He showed incredible maturity and leadership in addition to improving pass accuracy, and any team would surely be happy to have him.
This leads to the dilemma now facing the Patriots. Cassel will undoubtedly command a princely contract from someone in the NFL. If the Patriots hope to keep their proven backup at the ready while Tom Brady makes his return next year, their only choice will be to franchise Cassel, to prevent other teams from being able to make him offers.
Pushing this talk of franchising Cassel are reports published about two weeks ago alleging that Tom Brady is behind in his recovery from knee surgery. Even if he's not behind, he obviously will face obstacles to coming back, and there's a chance the Patriots could need to call on Cassel at least earlier in the season.
But the team as well as sources close to Brady have refuted that report about the timing of Brady's recovery. And is it really worth franchising Cassel--meaning his salary would have to be the average for his position in the league (currently a cool $14 million), as an insurance policy?
To me, for the team to do that would amount to a virtual confirmation that Brady is actually behind in his recovery, which would contradict their current statement. If we find the team more credible than anonymously-sourced reports, and Brady is on track with his recovery, I believe keeping Cassel in limbo for a year, signed to a gloriously rich contract to sit on the bench, would not materially help the team.
What it comes down to, hokey as it may sound, is having faith in the 2007 MVP and the best quarterback in the league, one with a history of overcoming odds, doubts and naysayers. His is not an unprecedented injury, and knee surgery with infection is something a comparable QB, Peyton Manning, was able to recuperate from relatively quickly this year. Since his injury occurred so early in the season, Brady will have had a long time to come back--it will be at least 10 months between the time his injury occurred and when he's expected to report for training camp next summer, and a full year by the time the 2009 season starts. Are we really saying that Brady, famed for his work ethic, won't be able to perform better than Matt Cassel by then?
It would also only fuel a ridiculous quarterback controversy that began as soon as Cassel started to develop a feel for the field and perform well this season. By the end of the year, there were short-memoried callers to talk radio in the Boston area actually suggesting we get rid of Brady altogether and just keep Cassel as the starter.
Look. Cassel has peformed beyond all expectations--but as a substitute. He would make a decent, solid NFL starting quarterback. But he is not an NFL MVP. He is not a three-time Super Bowl winner. He is not, aside from one injury, the record holder in the league for consecutive starts.
Brady is tough, determined, hardworking, resilient, and possessed of a mind that's more valuable than all the 100% healthy knees on the team put together. More importantly, this is his team, and this is absolutely his job to lose. Franchising Cassel would just cast unnecessary doubt about Brady's ability to return, something I would hate to see happen.
Another, I suppose, faith-based reason I'm opposed to franchising Cassel: if this year was, as speculated, a moratorium on Belichick's coaching abilities, he passed with flying colors. It amazes me that after a backup so inexperienced as a starter performed so well within the offensive scheme, that scheme itself wasn't given more credit. Is it possible that Cassel is not a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck, but the beneficiary of his coaching staff's abilities? Is it so impossible to believe, after what we've seen during the Belichick era, that another Cassel could be created if necessary, for far less than $14 million?
Finally, a more concrete reason not to take out the pricey insurance policy: this team has far more problems than a potentially disappointing return for its star quarterback--other positions, particularly on defense, for which a perennial Pro Bowler is not already slated to step in next year. (And which the coaching staff also managed to bring to an 11-5 record this year using a combination of intelligence, bailing wire, chewing gum and twine.)
After all, football, more than any other sport, is a team game. Should the Patriots--who have never shown this tendency before--really break the bank for a potentially unnecessary sense of security at one position?
But what do I know. The scuttlebutt currently is that the Pats are likely to do this anyway...so stay tuned tomorrow for Jamie's "Yes" counterpoint to the question of franchising Cassel.