Keeping Order in the Cassel: Putting the Pats Quarterback in Perspective

Keith TestaCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2009

 Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl.

Consider that the subject line of a memo to all those in New England who have fallen head over heels for Matt Cassel, who just finished perhaps the most memorable football season ever to end short of the playoffs.

Brett Favre had barely put the finishing touches on his ninth final season, simultaneously sinking the Patriots remaining playoff hopes, when all major local Boston media outlets began pondering the same question: What to do with Matt?

The Patriots have since answered the question—at least in part. The Pats franchised Cassel this week, locking him into a contract that will be the average of the top five salaries among quarterbacks in the league, unless he’s either traded or negotiates a new deal with New England.

There are, of course, those who believe the Pats should keep him under the one-year franchise tender. It’s those misguided few to whom I address the aforementioned memo.

Fear over whether or not Tom Brady will be ready for next season is largely responsible for the birth of that thought process. But if they were to keep Cassel at his franchised salary—probably in the neighborhood of $14 million—along with Brady, the Patriots would have nearly $30 million locked up in the quarterback position while still boasting a secondary so leaky even a truckload of ShamWows wouldn’t make a difference.

Such sound investing has most recently led to begging for a government bailout.

And here’s the thing—as we often do in New England, we’ve put Cassel on a pedestal about 100 feet higher than necessary.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a fan of Matt Cassel. He’s a likeable guy, and he emerged this year as a viable NFL staring quarterback. His numbers were borderline shocking for a dude who hadn’t taken a live snap since high school.

But his numbers were at least as much a function of the offense he was in as his own ability. Think about it—Cassel’s greatest visible weakness was timing on the long ball, a flaw that cost he and Randy Moss at least a handful of touchdowns. Instead he made his hay the easy way—dump-offs to Wes Welker, dump-offs to Kevin Faulk, the occasional 15-yarder to Moss and the rare long ball to Jabar Gaffney when defenses forgot he existed.

His numbers were impressive – most notably when he wound up with back-to-back 400-yard games, a feat nobody else can claim in the history of the franchise—but he wasn’t called upon to “make” a lot of plays with his arm.

Which raises the question of the Patriots schedule. How many games did the Patriots win because of Cassel that they otherwise would have lost? I count zero.

Cassel beat the Chiefs, 49ers, Rams, Broncos and Bills, dropping the latter a second time as part of an underwhelming four-game finish: Seattle, Oakland, a fading Arizona team and a Buffalo group without anything to play for—not exactly a Murderer’s Row.

Meanwhile the Pats lost a key game to the Dolphins, heartbreakers against the Jets and Indy and got hammered by the Steelers. None of those losses were the sole responsibility of Cassell. But neither did he make the difference that led to a victory.

The point is simple: Matt Cassel accomplished a hell of a lot, but he really didn’t accomplish anything that another NFL-caliber quarterback couldn't have. Bill Belichick has built the ultimate offensive system—in the truest sense of the word—with personnel that makes everyone involved better. The Pats can just as easily find a placeholder until Brady gets healthy, and can do it for much less than $14 million.

Perhaps that will allow them to patch some of the Warren Sapp-sized holes in the weakened secondary.

I think Cassell has a bright future in the league. But I also think he’ll wind up on a terrible team next season, and he’ll lead them to something in the neighborhood of a 5-11 record.

Like I said, Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl. He rode a dominant Ravens defense and a reliable running game and guided Baltimore to the ultimate title in football. Honestly, I can see Matt Cassel doing the same in New England.

The problem is, I can see about 10 other guys doing the same thing.