Standing Pat: Will New England's Quarterback Roster Gamble Pay Off?

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Standing Pat: Will New England's Quarterback Roster Gamble Pay Off?
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots are no strangers to quarterback controversies.

They had to weather one in 2001 when Drew Bledsoe returned from the chest injury that had sidelined him; in his absence, a young second-year quarterback named Tom Brady started winning games. Head coach Bill Belichick, of course, chose Brady, and the rest is history.

They faced another one—at least in the minds of fans—in 2006, when the Patriots had one backup for Brady: Matt Cassel. He was a second-year quarterback who had never started a game since high school, and he was Brady's only backup.

That controversy, of course, erupted in full force in the fall of 2008 when Brady was lost for the season in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Despite many calls in the media to bring in a veteran to take the reins, Belichick stuck by his backup quarterback.

Cassel more than repaid Belichick's faith; while Cassel may never have Brady's skill as a passer, by season's end the Patriots were responding to Cassel as field general just as they did with Brady.

After Brady's injury, the Patriots finished the season with three quarterbacks: Matt Cassel, Kevin O'Connell, and Matt Gutierrez.

Cassel, of course, was traded to Kansas City in the offseason. Gutierrez was waived in the 2009 preseason when the Patriots signed Andrew Walter, who had been released by Oakland.

At that point, though, things got interesting.

The Patriots cut O'Connell in a surprising move, just a week before the season started. Then the Pats cut Walter, who didn't even get a chance to play in the last preseason game.

Thus, the Patriots started the 2009 season with just two quarterbacks on the roster: Brady, a former Michigan Wolverine, and undrafted rookie free agent Brian Hoyer (pictured above), a former Michigan State Spartan.

(The Patriots also signed another quarterback, Isaiah Stanback, to the practice squad, but the Dallas Cowboys spent much of the last two seasons trying to convert him into a wide receiver. Similarly, the Patriots have a quarterback, Julian Edelman, that they drafted this year; now they're trying to convert him to a wide receiver in the Wes Welker mold. Neither, however, would be what fans would consider a "veteran" quarterback.)

Bill Belichick, for whatever reason, has decided that, at least in the short term, it makes sense for him to carry just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. This decision carries three main risks.

First, the NFL incentivizes carrying a third quarterback. A team carrying two QBs on their 45-man roster can dress a third quarterback who can enter the game if the first two QBs get hurt, or at any point in the fourth quarter.

By eschewing a third quarterback, the Patriots lose this advantage, and must deactivate eight players, instead of seven.

Second, should the Patriots be planning to sign a veteran quarterback, they run the risk of Brady getting injured first. If (God forbid, Patriots fans must be thinking) that should happen, then they would lose much of the leverage they might currently have, either in terms of what it would cost them to trade for a backup, or how much they might have to pay a street free agent, such as an AJ Feeley or a Jeff Garcia.

Rumors on cutdown day had the Patriots trading for Feeley, but that did not materialize, perhaps for the same reason that the Patriots might have decided to wait to sign a third quarterback: Veterans who are on the roster for games in Week 1 have their salaries fully guaranteed, while those signed after the first game do not. (For this reason, it's possible the Patriots might re-sign Walter, if Walter is willing to return.)

Third, the Patriots expect to make a run in the playoffs every year. If they do as well as they hope, they will fall under the Final Eight Plan, which, as I've written about before, will restrict their ability to sign free agents. So, if they don't sign one this season, it may be difficult for them to sign one next year.

All in all, it's difficult to gauge what the Patriots are planning. Clearly, either Hoyer must be further along in his development than even Brady and Cassel were as rookies, or Belichick is willing to roll the dice that Brady won't get injured in the next few weeks. Although it is reminiscent of the situation in 2006, at least Cassel had the benefit of a full year in the Patriots system, rather than a single offseason.

In Hoyer's defense, he had much more time as a starter in college than Cassel did.

What do you think about the Patriots' gamble? Will it last beyond Week 1? If not, who do you think the Patriots will bring in?

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