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It might be time to question their policy on insurance

By Mike Reiss
September 9, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - In the weeks following Super Bowl XLII, when the Patriots shifted from on-field play to the team-building phase of the NFL calendar, they faced an important question.

What to do at backup quarterback?

As owner Robert Kraft said back in April, it's a matter of insurance. Any good business should have it.

In the end, the Patriots ended up going with the upstart insurance option instead of the more established policy. Whether or not that was the right decision, the Patriots are about to find out, because for the first time since Tom Brady became the team's full-time starter in 2001, the team is calling on his backup to step into the pressure-cooker.

Enter Matt Cassel, who has zero career NFL starts but is hoping to ride the momentum of his relatively strong three quarters against the Chiefs Sunday. The other option, rookie Kevin O'Connell, is a highly touted third-round draft choice who was presumably brought in as a possible No. 2 in 2009, not this year.

But those plans, like Brady's left knee, have taken a hard hit.

So, now, the question is being asked: Should the Patriots have better insured themselves?

Some might say it's classic "Monday morning quarterback ing," and perhaps there is some truth to that. After all, how many were calling for the Patriots to add a veteran quarterback back in late February when free agency began?

Yet still, it seems fair to say that what the Patriots currently face is a test of their personnel evaluation at the game's most important position.

They could have added a veteran presence in free agency, as there were plenty of options from which to choose: Todd Collins (Redskins), Cleo Lemon (Jaguars), Trent Green (Rams), Gus Frerotte (Vikings), David Carr (Giants), and Byron Leftwich (Steelers), among others.

But instead they invested in Cassel, essentially banking that, if called upon, he could do the job over a player who had held the job - for better or worse - with another club.

It seemed to help that he'd spent the past three seasons with the club.

"We have a lot of confidence in Matt; he's grown up through the system," coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. "He has expanded his knowledge of the offense as the offense has expanded through the years. He ran it a lot in preseason this year, in training camp and some of the time that Tom missed.

"I think that he is capable of handling himself in a lot of different situations because he has been through them. It is not just chalk talk but it's actually going out there and doing it on the field and doing it in practice situations. I think he showed that [Sunday] - that he could go out there, manage the game, and manage the team."

Given yesterday's news that Brady is out for the rest of the season, including playoffs, the Patriots - barring a personnel addition - need Cassel to manage more than just one game. They need him over the remaining 15 games, plus, they surely hope, playoffs.

Would they have been better off with a veteran? When answering that question, financial ramifications also must be considered.

The market was set in February when the Redskins rewarded Walpole's Collins with a three-year, $9 million contract that included a $3 million signing bonus and an additional $1 million in bonuses/guarantees.

The 36-year-old Collins had led the Redskins to the playoffs in place of injured starter Jason Campbell last season, going 4-1 down the stretch. The team so valued him as an insurance policy that first-year coach Jim Zorn personally flew to Massachusetts to make a face-to-face sales pitch.

That deal triggered others, such as the one for the 38-year-old Green in St. Louis. After being knocked out of action with a concussion the year before with the Dolphins - and with many teams shying away because of the medical risks - Green still landed a three-year, $8.9 million deal.

Even the 29-year-old Lemon, another Dolphin who was deemed expendable by the team's new regime, was handed a surprising three-year, $8.1 million contract with Jacksonville.

Presumably, the Patriots looked at Cassel's potential and manageable price tag ($540,000), and deemed him the better option over $2.75 million- to $3 million-per-year players like Collins, Green, and Lemon, who while more proven, still aren't foolproof insurance options.

The money saved then could go to another player who would play more often.

In the worst-case scenario, the Patriots will be in a get-what-they-paid-for situation with Cassel. The best case would be what recently happened to Collins.

While Collins is now considered one of the NFL's top backup quarterbacks, he wasn't rated that way as recently as 2005, when he was a free agent after spending eight years in Kansas City without making a single start. What Collins needed was a chance to prove he could do the job, then he aced the assignment with impeccable timing, as he was becoming a free agent.

It's why backup quarterbacks are very much like stocks.

Their value can fluctuate, primarily based on opportunity, and now Cassel has his.

Cassel, like Collins last season, will be a free agent after this campaign. His stock could rise. Or it could dip.

Whatever it does, chances are the Patriots' season will head in the same direction.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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