Two months ago Patriots fans were calling for the team to bench Matt Cassel and give rookie Kevin O'Connell a shot at quarterback, in the wake of what appeared to be the season-ending Tom Brady injury.
Today, Patriots fans might be wondering if the future of the team is better placed in the hands of Cassel than Brady.
Cassel is fresh of another stellar performance Sunday: he passed for 415 yards, becoming the first Patriots quarterback to top 400 yards in consecutive games (Brady reached that mark just once, period). Cassell also threw for three TDs for the second consecutive game, and ran for another, while leading a suddenly unstoppable Patriots offense to a key 48-28 divisional win in Miami, New England's traditional house of horrors.
But with that said, we are slaves to the harsh, inalterable reality of raw numbers and draw the iciest, most emotionless conclusions from those numbers.
And the conclusion we draw today is that the Patriots front office is now weighing their options at quarterback, and that one of those options is trading away the future Hall of Famer Brady in 2009.
Look, we're not saying that the Patriots will trade Brady, or even that they should trade Brady. (Please read that sentence again before sending the angry emails.)
What we are saying is that if the organization is as detail-oriented as everyone believes it is, than they're at least weighing the pros and cons. In fact, they should be weighing the pros and cons in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL (Not For Long league).
We all know the cons to trading Brady: he's one of the best QBs ever
, and "best ever" doesn't just show up at your doorstep each year, and he's proven himself time and again with clutch performances on the biggest stages and in the most pressure-packed situations. Cassel, meanwhile, is still an unproven youngster, untested in the December and January football where Brady built his legacy and won his three rings. In fact, Cassel still has plenty of opportunity to fall flat on his face and prove to be just another of those flash-in-the-plan players who sparkle so briefly in the NFL and then just fade away.
But there are some pros to trading Brady on the other side of the ledger:
Cassel is younger
Brady is not a kid anymore. He turns 32 in August, which means – by any reasonable measure – he's on the back nine of his pro football career. Best-case scenario, he has six or seven years left. Most likely scenario, he has three or four year left.
Cassel will be 27 when the 2009 season gets underway – still shy of the traditional sweet spot of NFL quarterbacks (late 20s, early 30s) when they have both the mental and physical skills to play at a premium level. Plus, given the lack of punishment his body has taken because he's played so sparingly since high school, Cassel could easily play another 10 years.
Brady is damaged goods
Cassel has barely been hit since he was an 18-year-old in high school.
Brady was sacked 203 times in seven seasons in the brutal NFL (regular season only), while probably suffering at least as many big hits on plays when he actually got the ball off.
Plus, last time we saw Brady, he was being carried off the field with a catastrophic knee injury that since has grown infected and undergone numerous surgeries. We simply don't know if he'll be the same Hall of Famer when he returns to the field next season.
Don't expect anybody to discuss this publicly, but people within the organization MUST be wondering if the same Brady will return in 2009. In fact, they have an obligation to wonder if the same player will return in 2009.
Cassel makes less money
Cassel is still playing off his rookie contract, which ends this season. And no matter who he plays for next year, it's doubtful he'd demand the type of money that Brady does.
Legitimate salary data is often hard to come by, because so much of it is reported in dribs and drabs released to certain media outlets, while contracts are ponderous and complex and often renegotiated to lower salary-cap impact. But according to some reports, Brady's cap number for 2009 could be north of $14 million.
Plus, Brady's contract is up in 2010, so the Patriots will have to renegotiate with him soon, anyway. They can almost certainly lock up Cassel for less money now than Brady will demand from his next deal in little more than year from now.
Brady can draw big value in a trade
Cassel is a free agent and won't fetch anything in the trade market. Brady is easily worth two No. 1 picks, if not more. Of course, the problem here is that the Patriots would paint themselves in a corner by signing or franchising Cassel and having both quarterbacks on the payroll. They'd have little bargaining power in this situation (think the Packers back in August). But if they play their cards right, they could certainly find a way to secure incredible trade value for Brady.
Cassel has played extraordinarily well
Cassel has looked very, very impressive over the past two weeks. He's been incredibly accurate, his decision-making has improved dramatically, his sacks an INTs are way down, and he's brought amazing production to the position.
Cassel has passed for at least 400 yards in each of his past two games – becoming, just the fifth quarterback in modern history to pull off that feat (of course, the last guy to do it was Billy Volek with the Titans in 2004, and look where it got him).
He's also passed for six TDs in those two games, while rushing for one Sunday against Miami. Cassel and Randy Moss, meanwhile, suddenly look as deadly as Culpepper to Moss or Brady to Moss.
Moss caught three TDs against the Dolphins – his first game with more than 2 TD receptions in more than a year (four against Buffalo on Nov. 18, 2007).
The Patriots offense is rolling
New England's offense suddenly looks a lot like the one that scored a record 589 points (36.8 PPG) in 2007.
They've scored 79 points in the last two weeks – their greatest output in a two-week stretch in exactly one year (the Patriots scored 56 and 31 in wins over the Bills and Eagles on Nov. 18 and Nov. 25 last year). In other words, New England went the final eight games of 2007 with Brady (including playoffs) and first nine games of 2008 without scoring as many points in consecutive weeks as they have here in two weeks against the Jets and Dolphins.
The Patriots have also topped the 500-yard mark in consecutive games for the first time in franchise history (a total of 1,041 yards in two games) and all the offensive trends are on the upswing. If the Patriots make any noise in the playoffs, it will be because of their offense.
With all that said, the Brady trade won't happen. The Patriots will be forced for a variety of reasons to unload Cassel and keep their HOF quarterback. And that's not exactly a bad problem to have.
But unloading Cassel is not the open-and-shut case it was a few weeks ago. As you've just seen, there are a number of pros to keeping him. And you can be certain the Patriots are weighing all the options – even the unconventional and unpopular options.