One thing that seems to have gone unmentioned amidst all the patting on the back for the Patriots for keeping both Matt Cassel and Tom Brady on their roster is the distinct possibility that after one of the best single season performances by a quarterback in recent memory, the career of Matt Cassel could be buried alive next year. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that you shouldn’t lose your job to an injury (karma STILL hasn’t stopped destroying the Bills for going Any Given Sunday on JP Losman), but it seems equally wrong that we’re about to take a stat sheet that includes an almost 2 to 1 TD to interception ratio, the 10th best QB rating in the league (and that includes Matt Schaub and Jeff Garcia ahead of him, both of whom threw over 100 fewer passes), and the 10th most TDs thrown this season, and we’re about to let it fade into obscurity. Up to this point, nobody appears to be approaching the Patriots to talk about a trade, and the Patriots seem keen on keeping their newfound talent on the bench as a backup plan to their golden boy. For anyone who’s team is struggling through the wasteland of having no clear options at quarterback, that should be infuriating (as a Jets fan, I’m at the front of this line); for anyone who’s a fan of dynamic offensive football, that should just be sad.
Yet all we hear about is one of two things. First, that this is a brilliant move by the Patriots. This is certainly the case, although it’s worth pointing out that this sort of absorption of the individual into the team is indicative of what has always made this team our favorite villain (which every story needs). The second, however, is more troubling. Somehow, with the franchise tag and it’s over 14 million-dollar deal established, all the talk has been about how Cassel’s performance has earned him this contract. I bristle at this talk, mostly because the idea that the arrival of a future star merits nothing more than a contract to sit and do nothing flies in the face of the view of football as a story built on stories. In short, Cassel didn’t just earn his new contract; he earned the right to craft his own place within the story of next season, and seasons to come.
This is what bothers me so much about the Patriots holding onto him to keep him on the bench. Here we have a player who has proven his ability to lead in a league where leaders under center are in high demand and as short supply as ever (this has been the case for a while; just look at the Matt Schaub deal from a few years back). Yet instead of watching him rise to take his place shaping the identity of one of the many lost offenses in the league, his incredible talent is being forced back underneath the blanket of already established stars. Where are the columns calling for any of the struggling teams in the league to offer the Pats anything they want for the chance to get a young quarterback with the talent to run a pass first, 11 win offense that was near unstoppable toward the end of the year? It’s as though we’re all uncomfortable with the idea of a seventh round backup breaking out of obscurity and seizing the kind of adulation reserved for draft picks whose stories are groomed for heralding (note that this is the EXACT reason why I have such tension with the Pats: They play the game better than anyone, and yet they feel the need to destroy identities in order to do so).
Obviously, it’s hard to feel sad for someone who is set to make over $14 million in one year. Still, I guess what I feel most sad for is the fact that if this lasts for a year, and the Patriots are able to keep everyone from getting Cassel, isn’t there a chance that we’ll forget all about him? That this will turn into some sort of sweet story (Jeff Garcia filling in for McNabb) instead of a star arriving, finally being given the opportunity to shape the story of the league (Kurt Warner on the Cards this season). Those stories need beginnings, and those beginnings aren’t always easy to come by. Letting one slip away just seems like something we’ll regret.