Alex Speier and Christopher Price throw down to determine whether the Patriots should trade or keep newly franchised quarterback Matt Cassel in 2009.
Greetings, Chris — and welcome to the Great Debate. Today's subject: what to do with Matt Cassel.
Cassel, of course, was surprisingly spectacular this season. After replacing Tom Brady in the middle of the first quarter in the first week of the season, the man who hadn't started a game since high school logged 3,693 passing yards with 21 touchdowns (against 11 picks) and an 89.4 passer rating. He improved as the season went on, and by the end of the year, was playing at an All-Pro level (and not in the ridiculous, sympathy-vote-driven Brett Favre sort of way). Under his guidance, the Patriots--despite well-documented defensive shortcomings--went 11-5.
As we know, the Patriots dropped a franchise tag on Cassel yesterday, entitling the quarterback to a one-year, $14.65 million guaranteed salary for next season (presuming that he does not sign a long-term deal). Now, the question remains whether the Pats should keep him in New England, or send him and his new alpha-dog income to another club. Let's get going.
ALEX SPEIER'S OPENING ARGUMENT TO KEEP CASSEL IN NEW ENGLAND
The Patriots have already taken the obvious first step. As has been noted ad nauseum (and if you think the nauseum has been bad thus far, just wait until this situation becomes the second coming of the Jason Varitek saga about a month from now), New England would be crazy not to franchise a man who went from butt-of-joke backup status to one of the top starters in the NFL in a matter of months.
But it's not enough that the Pats franchised Cassel. Despite the chance to net some draft picks for the quarterback, the Patriots must also retain him for the 2009 season.
It’s well and good that Brady’s throwing guru thinks that No. 12 is going to return from being fanned by palm fronds and eating grapes on the beach (random aside: in Thailand, I once encountered a monkey on the beach that had been rendered incredibly obese by the excessive consumption of fruit offered by tourists) to follow a Peyton Manning-style trajectory. If that happens, and Brady resumes MVP form by the end of the 2009 season, the Pats would be ecstatic and Cassel would prove little more than a pricy luxury item.
But realistically, amidst the medical leaks that we get about the QB’s recovery (and one has to think that it’s going at least passably well at this juncture if he’s vacationing in Mexico — although it is worth noting that his left leg, in the now-infamous paparazzi photo, looks like it was stolen from an Olsen twin), none of us—and I include the Patriots in that designation—can pretend to know what Brady can and will do next season.
In some respects, there is reason for optimism. Brady is consumed by the desire to be great, and so we must anticipate that he will do everything in his power to recover in a way that permits him to do so.
But it remains to be seen how long it will take his leg to be able to endure the pressures of games. And virtually every account we’ve heard suggests that the weakness in his ligaments during his recovery makes his knee a potential time bomb. It took more than seven years of Brady’s greatness for a Bernard Pollard hit to knock him off the field. But now, especially next year, he could be vulnerable to a repeat of that history.
That being the case, the Pats need to have a man in camp capable of a seamless stewardship of the offense. It took Cassel three years AND about a half season before he became a “hellified” master of the Patriots offense. If Brady goes down again, the Pats can’t afford to find out how long — or even if — it would take Kevin O’Connell to do the same. In a year when the health of The Franchise is uncertain, the Pats don’t need a backup quarterback: they need a second-stringer who is capable of being among the league’s best. They need to franchise and keep Cassel for 2009.
For me, it’s a no-brainer: if Brady goes down, the Patriots can’t reach the playoffs without Cassel. That contingency is one that the team cannot ignore for next year. And if you disagree, I'll have to slap you with a franchise tag upside the head.
CHRIS PRICE'S OPENING ARGUMENT TO TRADE CASSEL
Alex, I’m excited to be a part of The Great Debate. I know you have a history here — hey, the Harvard debate team is nothing to sneeze at. But I should let you know I was the captain of the Northeastern debate team. Well, it wasn’t really a team … more like a loose collection of guys who would sit around in a bar. And we didn’t really debate. Instead, it was more like incoherent yelling at each other, mostly about who would win if Batman fought Superman.
Now that Cassel has been tagged, the Patriots would be wise to start making calls around the league to see about swapping the 26-year-old quarterback for a pick or three. Sure, the sign-and-trade act with a franchise player technically violates the letter of the law, but if Roger Goodell doesn’t mind, why should we? It remains the best course of action.
You keep Cassel here, the entire team-building approach the Patriots have worked so hard to create goes out the window. You just can't afford to spend that much money on one position, even at quarterback.
Look, I acknowledge the fact that if Brady’s knee isn’t ready to go, this whole argument carries less weight than one of the Olsen twins after a three-day fast. (Man, we’ve got an Olsen fixation here, huh?) But in Cassel, you have a precious commodity in your back pocket, and in this market, it’s a commodity that will never be as valuable as it is right now.
Quarterbacks who lead a team to 11 wins don’t just grow on trees, especially in a year where the rest of the free agent quarterbacks available include Kurt Warner and (blecch) Chris Simms. (The group of college quarterbacks available in this year's draft is also weaker than usual.) Minnesota, San Francisco and Carolina, all teams that need help at quarterback more than Kate Moss needs a cheeseburger, would fall all over themselves at the chance to overpay for Cassel.
You could easily get a team to overpay — draft picks, players, the key to the stadium. A first and a third from Carolina for the chance to push Jake Delhomme overboard? Not a ridiculous proposal. (Ask Mike Lombardi, a guy who has forgotten more about football that I’ll ever know.) Strike while the iron is hot — that window won’t be open forever.
You are also dealing with a quarterback in Cassel that is sick of sitting. I’m not saying that Cassel is going to poison the locker room if he ends up back here as a quarterback next season, but he’s sat for eight years.
A fine attempt at this thing, no doubt. You make some almost-compelling points. But y’know, you’re a rookie at this format, and can’t be expected to carry your side to victory — just as a greenhorn like Kevin O’Connell couldn’t be expected to step up and win out of the gate if he were under center on Sundays next season.
Let’s dismiss immediately the notion that Cassel would become a locker-room problem if he were to stick around after being franchised. The guy has said repeatedly this offseason that it’s Brady’s team if No. 12 returns healthy, so no worries on that front — especially since Cassel can cry himself a river into the piles of Benjamins that are suddenly his for the keeping.
The Pats under Belichick have done a hellified (can’t stop using that word — thanks, Randy!) job of stifling locker-room dissent, and the guy who looked like he just won the lottery when he got a job as an NFL starter isn’t about to mess that up. And besides, the last time the Pats enjoyed a genuine quarterback controversy, I think we can agree that it ended with pretty impressive results.
I understand the notion that it would be tough for the Pats to tie so much money into one position, but thanks to the Enron-style accounting involved in NFL cap numbers, that particular problem should be easy enough to avoid. The Pats could and indeed should start trying to restructure contracts this offseason — Brady, Seymour, Wilfork, Mankins, etc. — to lock down core players for the long haul and to liberate cap room for whatever signings they want.
If the Colts don’t run into cap problems, then the Pats should be just fine, Cassel or no. Besides, what’s to prevent the Pats from signing Cassel to a long-term deal that is more cap-friendly than the franchise figure with the understanding that, if Brady returns and is healthy, Cassel will be dealt following the season?
You suggest that Cassel’s value is at an all-time high. To that, I say: rubbish. Adam Schefter went so far as to say that a guy like Derek Anderson, a guy with a whopping 66.5 passer rating and who missed the end of the year with an injured knee, would fetch more on the trade market than Cassel.
A few implications there: 1) A poor performance and inactivity—even if the byproduct of INJURY—doesn’t crush a QB’s value, even one like Anderson who likes to spend his free time throwing to guys in opponents’ jerseys; 2) Cassel, now that he is franchised and can command quite a hearty sum, doesn’t have the trade value that you outline in your argument. A team might part with some picks to acquire him, but it seems unlikely that it will be the glory-haul that you identify.
Cassel’s value would be unlikely to go down with a year off. There is, however, a scenario in which it goes even higher: if he is forced to return to the field in 2009 because of Brady’s physical limitations. In that scenario, not only would he have even more value on the trade market following the 2009 season, but he would also have immense value to the Pats as an All-Pro-caliber failsafe option for the coming campaign.
Unless you find me a credible doctor—and, no, Dr. Nick of Simpsons fame (likely based on Dr. George Nichopoulos, who was believed to have given Elvis enough barbiturates to send a horse into a coma) does not count—who can say with certainty that Brady will be good to go in 2009, you’re standing on a leg more fragile than that of the silly lamp in A Christmas Story.
As you said, QBs who can get you 11 wins don’t grow on trees. The Pats better make damn sure that the have one whose name is NOT Tom Brady.
Oh, one more thing: Superman would crush Batman. Duh.
PRICE FIRES BACK
Alex, you come from the world of baseball, a place suited to guys like Daddy Warbucks or Arthur Fortune. Got a problem? Throw cash at it! Need more pitching? More cash! Money, money, money! Woo hoo!
In football, there's a more sobering reality. You've actually got to think your way through a problem and weigh the financial risk versus the ultimate reward. It's like the difference between playing Monopoly and living real life.
Look, everyone would love to have both Brady and Cassel here. Wonderful. Swell. It would certainly make for some great storylines for those of us who cover the team: "Step right up and see the $14 million backup!" But this debate boils down to money. (That mean green, as the O'Jays might call it. Almighty dollar.)
With the current salary cap structure, you can't sink $29 million into two guys. It doesn't matter who they are--you just can't. Back in the day, the 49ers could afford Steve Young as a backup quarterback. Not any more. Having a backup that makes $14.65 million isn't a luxury you can afford to have. It's like ordering one of those Bowflex machines. Sounds great in theory, but when the bill comes due a month later and you're using it to hang dirty laundry, you're left scratching your head wondering, "What was I thinking?"
And you are putting a lot of faith in the Patriots' ability to re-negotiate deals with the handful of Pro Bowlers (or borderline Pro Bowlers) who are going to come due in the next couple of seasons. The New England front office has shown an ability to shuffle cash here and there, but there are limits. Nick Caserio and Floyd Reese aren't miracle workers. They are dealing with a very specific salary structure.
On the Patriots — like most NFL teams — you have guys who fall into one of three categories: guys on their first deal who are hungry for that big one payday (Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork), stars who have hit on that one big payday (Brady, Randy Moss, Richard Seymour) and guys who are on the last deal before they call it a career (Tedy Bruschi). Cassel isn't gonna cause trouble, but you run the risk of screwing up the salary structure by dropping a $14.65 million backup into the mix. It ruins everything they've worked to build since 2000.
You mention the Colts as a team that hasn't had salary cap issues. The reason Indianapolis doesn't run into problems is because they paid Peyton $11.5 million last year (that, of course, doesn't take into account his endorsement deals, which total roughly $88 skadillion) and then paid backup Jim Sorgi $1.635 million. Pittsburgh backup Byron Leftwich made $645,000 this past season. David Carr backed up Eli Manning this year, and he made $1.5 million.
These are rational salary structures. If Brady gets hurt again, well, that's part of life in the NFL. You play the hand you've been dealt. But that doesn't mean you have to overpay just because you think your quarterback might get hurt.
One other Super Friends question I always had: Did Aquaman really need to be a Super Friend? How much water-based crime was there on that show? Couldn't they have just made do without him — or was he just someone's cousin they let tag along?
SPEIER'S CLOSING ARGUMENT
Funny that you should mention Aquaman, because like him, your arguments will sleep with the fishes. (Also worth mentioning: Hawkman was lamer than even Aquaman; I’m still galled that the show decided to attempt its promotion of diversity by incorporating a bunch of offensive stereotype characters (“Black Vulcan” and “El Dorado,” anyone?); and the Patriots DID promote Caserio due to his Criss Angel-like prowess when it comes to salary cap money laundering. Mindfreak!)
This thing comes down to a couple key questions:
1. Can the Pats win without Brady and without Cassel taking snaps?
2. Can the Pats win with Brady and with Cassel taking lots of their money?
For the first question, I don’t think you’ve even tried to pretend that there’s a solid alternative to those two fellas. The Pats are more than one year away from having a defense that can win in the absence of an elite offense, and New England won’t have an elite offense if Brady goes down and Cassel is in Carolina or Kansas City or wherever else he might end up.
As for the second, more complicated question: I agree that the Pats would have a tough go of it if they had both Brady at his current cap number and Cassel at his franchise cap number and all of the rest of the team at their current numbers. But in dismissing my Colts argument (for shame!), you oversimplify — Indy has always had a ton of skill players (think commercial-shooting Peyton + Lamborghini-buying Edgerrin + (allegedly) gun-wielding Harrison) with huge cap numbers, yet managed to squeeze below the limit. Because the Patriots' running backs are paid with ham sandwiches and the change found under my couch cushions, the team have some flexibility that the Colts haven't enjoyed.
Moreover, the team is undoubtedly motivated to start renegotiating with some of its key, cap-heavy contributors, and even a deal or two would lead to significant relief. While I agree that the team is unlikely to restructure ALL of the guys with long-term deals, do you doubt that they’ll get at least a couple of guys done to add more cap room? And don’t you think that the decisive move to franchise Cassel in the first 12 seconds that they could do so — along with issuing a press release that had Belichick saying that the Pats “look forward to working again with Matt in 2009” — suggests that they’ve figured out how to reconcile the numbers of the two guys with the 2009 club?
Answers: yes and yes. The Pats are a creative lot. I don’t doubt that they can bring the two quarterbacking fellows back with restructured contracts that would count for $20-25 million against the cap. The team can afford that supersweet Bowflex, whether it collects dust in the corner or gets ample usage. If they don't need it anymore, they'll be able to sell it for a perfectly hearty sum next offseason.
Bottom line: Brady’s a big ole question mark in 2009, and Cassel represents an answer to his uncertainty. You ask how can the Pats afford to keep both of them... My fellow Americans, I ask: how can they afford not to? U-S-A! U-S-A!
As Bradford is fond of saying, “Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Consider yourself Speier-ed.
PRICE CLOSES IT OUT
For what it's worth, if we're talking about superheroes — obscure and otherwise — it doesn't get any better than this.
Bill Belichick's said the Patriots “look forward to working again with Matt in 2009” in the same manner I tell other people I “look forward to finding gold in my basement.” What was he going to say? “We welcome Matt back to Foxborough with open arms. But if he thinks he's getting $14.65 million from us, well, he's got another thing coming. Enjoy the Pro Bowl, everyone!”
Your argument is based on the idea that a sizable portion of the roster — including Cassel — is going to agree to have their deals re-done. I don't see that happening. I'm not saying we're going to see a cadre full of holdouts. I just think that it's going to be impossible to make it work.
(It's not so much the players, but the agents. The Patriots are going to be dealing with guys like Drew Rosenhaus. You baseball guys talk all the time about how scary Scott Boras is: have you ever seen or talked with Rosenhaus? He's pure evil. The man has a Superman logo in the middle of his agency symbol. He makes Boras look like a Girl Scout.)
My prediction — because I know you're asking for it — is that if they do end up keeping Cassel on this roster at $14.65 million (or at a re-negotiated rate), there will be at least one big name player who refuses to get his deal re-done and walks away. (Seymour? Wilfork?)
I don't think it would be a wise move to add a backup quarterback at the expense of another player. I understand the need for Brady insurance. I'm just not sure it has to be that expensive.
This was fun. I feel like Frank the Tank in "Old School" going up against James Carville.
"That's the way you do it! That's the way you debate!"