— Six months ago, he barely made the Patriots roster coming out of training camp. Thursday, he was declared the team’s franchise player.
The curious case of quarterback Matt Cassel continues.
It’s been a wild ride from there to here, and the most intriguing part of it is why it happened.
Cassel, who just completed his fourth season at a relatively modest $520,000 salary, would have been a free agent if New England didn't use its franchise tag on him, which will guarantee him a 2009 salary of $14.65 million.
On the open market, the 26-year-old quarterback would have commanded a deal comparable to the ones given to a top-five quarterback coming out of college — something in the range of five years and $50 million with $25 million guaranteed.
It’s an amazing turn of events for Cassel, who struggled so mightily in training camp that New England contacted and planned to work out unemployed quarterbacks Tim Rattay and Chris Simms during the first week of the season. But once Tom Brady went down with a blown left knee, the team was Cassel’s, for better or worse.
And it was for the better.
Cassel led the Pats to an 11-win season, throwing for almost 3,400 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Because of that, the Patriots didn't want to part with Cassel too quickly.
There are two reasons the Pats wanted to control Cassel’s future at such a steep price.
First, he serves as insurance for Brady, who continues to rehab from a torn ACL and MCL and an infection that halted the early part of his rehab.
Second, if the team is convinced Brady will be full-go in September of 2009, Cassel becomes trade bait.
Cassel was declared a “non-exclusive” franchise player, which means other teams can negotiate with him, but they’ll have to compensate the Patriots with two first-round picks. Cassel, who backed up a pair of Heisman Trophy winners at USC and before this season hadn’t started a game since high school, was a seventh-round pick by New England in 2005. That’s a significant appreciation on the initial investment.
Or, more likely, a team can work out a trade with New England and sign him to a long-term deal.
That’s what happened last season with current Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. The Kansas City Chiefs made Allen their franchise player, but Minnesota sent the Chiefs draft picks (a first and two thirds, plus an exchange of sixth rounders) and then signed him to a six-year, $72.36 million deal with $15.5 million guaranteed.
New England faced a conundrum. Did they feel confident enough that Brady’s knee, which developed a since-cleared infection soon after surgery and may never be as strong as it was before, was sturdy enough to let Cassel go? At this point, no.
Did they think that Cassel’s stock will never be higher than it is right now, which could result in a draft pick bounty? That can still happen.
At worst, they'll try to get Cassel to negotiate a short-term deal to keep him around in 2009 at a reduced rate since carrying him at $14.65 million and Brady at his 2009 salary of $14.6 million would eat up 23 percent of the team’s $123 million cap space.
“If I’m the New England Patriots, with the expectations for success they have, it’s something you have to think long and hard about,” former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist says. “They might think, ‘Yeah, Tom looks good coming back and he’s throwing the ball well,’ but look around and see how long it takes quarterbacks to get back where they need to be. Could they not spend their money anywhere else to ensure success with Matt on their roster? Is there a corner, wide receiver, defensive end or a combination of those that would ensure they will be in the thick of (the race) if Brady can’t go and Cassel’s not there? It’s a cost-opportunity question.”
Determining the opportunity — what New England can get in a trade — is another fluid issue.
“The quarterback position has so many dynamics,” Sundquist said. “You take a major risk because of the overall investment involved. What’s your cast surrounding him? How much are you putting toward him? You’re talking about a guy who had a fantastic year and emerged as a legit NFL quarterback, but you have to be wary.
“This is a tribute to New England, the culture of success and winning they have,” Sundquist pointed out. “If there was any place a young quarterback could emerge, develop and succeed, it would be New England. How much of Matt’s success was the system, the people and the process that propped him up to ensure success, and how much was it his natural ability that allowed him to blossom in 2008? That’s what GMs from other teams have to weigh.”
Cassel has said he understands that, if Brady’s ready, he returns to No. 2. “The Patriots have been Tom’s team. He’s built that franchise up with his own two hands. He’s the guy, and he was the MVP the year before. I realize that. He’s been such a mentor for me that I would say, ‘No, there is no quarterback competition.’”
Asked at the Super Bowl about the franchise tag, he said, “The franchise tag is the franchise tag.”
And it wasn’t adopted as part of the 1993 collective bargaining agreement for teams to control backup players, says Richard Berthelsen, interim executive director of the NFL Player’s Association.
“The original intent of it was for a team to be able to keep most its important player,” Berthelsen said. “John Elway was the original guy (it was implemented for). Over the years it’s been used as much trying to get a bargain on a player. The original intent was for the marquee player on a team.”
Does the NFLPA have an issue with New England using the tag on a player who might spend 2009 holding a clipboard?
“The franchise rules are what they are,” Berthelsen said. “The team has to have a good faith intent of employing him and, at this point, they would.”
It’s a fascinatingly complex issue that, in the end, can benefit all sides. Cassel’s going to get paid plenty if he stays or goes. New England either has a terrific backup to step in if Brady has setbacks or gets pick-rich with a deal. And if a deal is done, some team in need of a capable quarterback gets that need satisfied. So it could be a win-win-win which, like the situation itself, doesn’t happen too often.