When news that the New England Patriots dealt quarterback Matt Cassell and linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs originally broke, I remember reading the scrolling ticker at the bottom of my television screen and anxiously waiting to find out who or what the Pats got in return.
And I had the same initial reaction I think most of New England had.
It’s easy to look at the trade and say the Pats got fleeced. A second-round pick for a savvy defensive leader and a young, talented quarterback appears to be a heist the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Lakers swiped Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies for a pair of basketball socks and a subway token. But, as with most of the moves the Patriots make, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
And it might be the first domino in a sequence that leads to another Lombardi trophy.
Studied in a vacuum, the trade looks lopsided. There's no doubt about that. But the Patriots don't operate that way. To them, this is the first step in the offseason process. To better evaluate the worth the Patriots received in return, you'll have to ask again this summer. It's way too early to tell, and trust me: They have a plan.
In building the most recent dynasty in the NFL, Bill Belichick and his disciples have created something of a Patriot Way. You can love it or hate it, but you can't deny that it's produced an awful lot of diamond-encrusted rings.
So the Patriots don't look at this trade as a stand-alone venture. They look at the fact that $17 million just came off their cap at the beginning of the free agency period, and that they now have four picks in the first 60 slots at next month's NFL draft. Through those glasses, the return on the swap could be rather significant.
Think about it this way—Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick. Cassel was a seventh-rounder. Tedy Bruschi was a third-rounder, Kevin Faulk a mid-second rounder. It's not impossible, perhaps not unlikely, that the Pats pluck four guys in the draft who could make an immediate impact next season.
Or they could package the picks to move up. Or they could trade a few picks for some proven commodities. Remember, two years ago the Pats swapped a fourth-round pick - and only a fourth-round pick—to pick up a wide receiver on draft day.
You may have heard of him. His name is Randy Moss.
As for the rumors about a top-10 pick becoming available for Cassel, most stories say the offer arrived late. And, honestly, I don't think the Patriots are interested in paying top-10 money when they can add four different guys for about the same cost.
And then there's the not-so-small matter of the $17 million that just became available. Perhaps they make a run at Julius Peppers. Maybe they try to sign Jason Taylor. Or any of a handful of other big-time free agents (Ray Lewis, anyone?)
Or maybe they keep adding character guys and critical, smaller pieces like tight end Chris Baker and running back Fred Taylor, two less-than-sexy moves that could prove memorable by the end of next season (if they lead to less of Laurence Maroney and Ben Watson, count me in).
Either way, expect the Patriots to be players throughout the free agency period. And don't be surprised if they have another key piece or two added to the mix by the time all is said and done. Belichick has proven incredibly adept at finding scrap heap guys and turning them into major contributors on championship teams.
Which leads us to the other side of the coin, the one nobody at ESPN or FoxSports or anywhere else has taken the time to analyze. Just how much did the Patriots give up, really?
Matt Cassel has been labeled a "proven quarterback" by everyone panning this deal. And while I consider him talented, and think he has a bright future, what exactly has he proven? That he can run an offense with two of the top receivers in the AFC, an offense that relies on simple, short passes and yards after the catch?
Perhaps. But I'll make this prediction right now: His stats will be mediocre at best guiding a broken Chiefs ship this season in Kansas City, and could be downright ugly. I think he's in for some serious headaches. He may be a solid NFL quarterback for a long time, but I don't think that long time starts this year.
As for Vrabel, he's one of those classic scrap heap guys, dumped by the Steelers before turning into a leader on the Patriot defense. But how much does Vrabel really have left in the tank? Is he still worth more than $3 million against the cap?
The Pats don't seem to think so. And they have something of a proven track record in these scenarios. Remember, Belichick shocked New England when he released Lawyer Milloy, only to add Rodney Harrison and pick up another Super Bowl title that season.
Ty Law was let go, and he's done nothing of any significance in any other uniform. Willie McGinest went to Cleveland—have you heard from him lately? The Pats seem to have a strong ability to determine when a player is on the down side, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, and they cut ties before it's too late.
Vrabel may well have a strong season in Kansas City, but trust me—someone at least as good will end up in his spot in New England this season. Maybe Pierre Woods emerges as a handful of other homegrown talents have before him. Or maybe they simply find a veteran to step in. But the cupboard will be anything but bare.
That's how the Patriots work. One man in, one man out. They take the emotion out of football decisions and survive by evaluating things solely on how they affect the team as a whole. And I doubt they'd drop Vrabel without a Plan B in mind. Either way, with a healthy Tom Brady under center, the Patriots are only a few pieces away from becoming a Super Bowl favorite again.
But given the overreactive nature of sports fans and the 24-7 news machine, the national response to the Cassel trade was reasonable, and somewhat expected. It's easy to jump to conclusions and say the Patriots blew it. Matt Cassel is the flavor of the month, and everyone seems ready to fit him for a bust in Canton.
But let's wait a few months and re-evaluate. If the Patriots end up with a key free agent or two and a handful of talented young draft picks, people might be forced to change their tune.
For the moment, a second-round pick for a rising star quarterback and a locker room leader may seem like a robbery. But keep an eye on that second round pick next February.
He may be hoisting some hardware.