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Pats, Cassel prepare for the big game

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 29, 2008 12:21 PM

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The key question is whether Tom Brady’s knee and Matt Cassel’s future are impossibly intertwined, or whether someone out there merely wants us to believe so. The former would simplify things for everyone this offseason. The latter would make things infinitely more complicated.

Remember, in this increasingly complex age of professional sports, few things are ever easy.

And so the Patriots are bystanders as the NFL playoffs are set to begin, but do not be deceived. Over the next several weeks, there will be games played in Foxborough. Cassel could be headed for free agency soon unless the Patriots saddle him with the oxymoronic (or is it just moronic?) tag of franchise player, a label that would greatly increase Cassel’s short-term value while stripping him of his freedom of choice.

Here in New England, where we see all things through the eyes of the Patriots and their fans, the decision is simple: Franchise him. Trade him and get something in return. Do not let him walk away for nothing.

But what are Cassel’s rights and wants in this?

And why should they mean less?

Professional sports are a fascinating study in humanity because, as Jerry Seinfeld told us, it really is all about the laundry. At the end of the day, nobody here really cares about Brady, Cassel or Bill Belichick as much as we do about the men who are wearing the New England uniforms and colors at a particular moment. That’s our team out there. The difficulty comes from the fact that players, coaches and executives are human beings with mortal flaws, which is to say that they react emotionally and make decisions based on selfish wants and needs.

With regard to the Patriots and Cassel, things could get messy this offseason. The Patriots would be better served by getting something in return for Cassel (which means franchising him) and Cassel would be better served on the open market (where he can peddle his own services), paths that seem nothing if not divergent. What Cassel wants and what the Patriots want appear to be two very different things, and the sides could very well end up playing chicken with the future of the man who effectively saved the 2008 New England football season.

Already, the posturing seems to have started. Yesterday, amid the succession of events that landed the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs, respected NBCsports.com writer Tom Curran reported that Brady continues to experience knee problems that may threaten his 2009 campaign. The story was refuted by both The Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who similarly cited unnamed sources. In the end, all of this leads back to the situation involving the Patriots and Cassel, suggesting that the Patriots are holding the franchise tag over Cassel’s head in order to leverage him for a resolution that would serve everyone.

Or would it?

For starters, know this: If the Patriots franchise Cassel, he effectively would be tendered a 2009 contract at the average salary of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in football. (While that precise number will not be known until some time in February, one football agent recently estimated that the number will be $13 million-$14 million.) The Patriots must have that salary cap space available before implementing the franchise tag, and that space must exist so long as Cassel remained under their control. Additionally, any team then electing to sign Cassel would be required to forfeit two first-round draft picks, effectively destroying Cassel's options on the open market.

If and when the Patriots can then work out a trade for Cassel, the quarterback’s new team can negotiate a new contract -- at a more reasonable annual salary with more guaranteed, long-term money for the quarterback -- and compensate the Patriots with a draft choice (or choices). Cassel then comes off the Patriots’ books and New England has the ability to use the money elsewhere -- like, say, on defense -- having sacrificed only short-term cap flexibility in the process.

Here’s the problem: Cassel could blow the whole thing up by signing the franchise tender immediately upon receipt, locking him in for 2009 at the $13 million-$14 million. If that were to happen, any team trading for the quarterback then would be sacrificing young talent for a relatively inexperienced quarterback on a one-year, $13 million-$14 million deal. That would be the equivalent of, say, the Red Sox trading a young Justin Masterson and Lars Anderson for Matt Holliday while leaving Holliday with the option to depart via free agency after year, which of course seems like an awful lot to pay for a rental.

If you are Cassel, that leads to an obvious question. Why should you sacrifice the ability to peddle your own services when you could make as much as $14 million next year for doing next to nothing? With all the holes the Patriots have on defense, do they really want to pay a backup quarterback $14 million? Can any team reasonably afford to? The bottom line is that the Patriots need Cassel’s cooperation to franchise him and make a deal - unless, of course, they want to do something so bold as to trade Brady - and doing so would strip Cassel of his ability to play one team off another. The real benefactors in that scenario would be the Patriots, who could get a handsome package for a player they simply might have lost to free agency.

Over the years, remember, the Patriots have prided themselves on making difficult decisions based on the fact that business is business. It is a major reason they annually contend for championships. The issue now is that the Patriots need the help of the player and/or his agent to help them execute their latest master plan, and it’s hard to believe that anyone would work with the Pats purely out of the goodness of their hearts. The pendulum swings both ways, so to speak, and one could hardly blame agent David Dunn (who represents Cassel and represented Drew Bledsoe, among others) if he opted to play hardball with the Pats.

After all, if the Patriots use the franchise tag on Cassell, it would, in many ways, go against everything they have preached organizationally. Beyond serving as a leveraging tactic, franchising the player could prove to be downright foolish business. If Cassel accepted and was willing to stay on the roster for a year before trying his hand at free agency following the 2009 campaign -- admittedly, Cassel probably does not want this, but it is his trump card -- the Pats could end up committing between $25 million-$30 million on two quarterbacks, one of whom would be relegated to the sidelines.

The only way that makes any sense is if Brady is in truly dire straits, if his knee problem is so worrisome that the Pats believe he would not be able to play next year at all.

So what happens now? Excellent question. If they have not already, the Patriots undoubtedly will touch base with Dunn about Cassel’s prospects. The posturing will only intensify. The Pats will threaten to use the franchise tag and Cassel will threaten to sign the tender in what will be the ultimate game of poker. The worst-case scenario for both is that Brady is healthy and that Cassel ends up spending next season on the New England sideline.

But then, under those circumstances, the player would be cashing the organization’s checks for somewhere in the range of $14 million.

If you’re Matt Cassel, is that really such a bad option?

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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