In the eyes of many, the Patriots this decade have become a model franchise in the NFL - on and off the field. A significant part of their success has been a core fundamental of business: asset management.
From acquiring and grooming players, to hiring and grooming bright young coaches, to producing cutting-edge ideas in the front office, the Patriots are well-stocked. Sometimes those assets stick around for the long haul. Other times they end up elsewhere, and in doing so, they can yield a return that helps keep the asset-producing business churning.
The list is long, but what has unfolded over the last 2 1/2 months - the rise of quarterback Matt Cassel from unproven, clipboard-holding backup to bona fide starter - trumps all.
Now, with Cassel set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, the question is: What next?
"It's remarkable, as he's become a valuable commodity," said former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese, who now works for ESPN.
Some might say this isn't the time for the discussion, with such a vital game to be played Sunday when the Patriots (7-4) host the Steelers (8-3), and it's a fair point. At the same time, Cassel's stunning emergence (he hadn't started a game since high school prior to this season) and potential earning power (he's making the minimum $520,000 this season) are becoming more powerful stories each week.
So given all that, what are the Patriots' options with such a valuable asset?
One possibility is assigning Cassel the franchise tag.
NFL teams can assign the franchise tag to one player each offseason, restricting the player's ability to fully experience the free agent market. The player is tendered a one-year contract at the average of the top five players at the position, which will be approximately $14 million for quarterbacks in 2009.
Other teams can still sign a player who has been assigned the franchise tag, but they have to surrender two first-round draft choices if the original club doesn't match the offer.
The spirit of the franchise tag is for teams to have a chance to retain their top players - the tag offers the sides more time to negotiate a longer-term deal - but it hasn't always been used that way.
Just this past offseason, for example, the Packers put the tag on defensive lineman Corey Williams before trading him for a second-round draft choice. The Chiefs did the same with defensive end Jared Allen and acquired a first-round draft choice in a trade. The Patriots previously used the tag on safety Tebucky Jones before trading him.
While some might see the tagging of Cassel as potentially violating the spirit of the rule, the Patriots would have a strong case if they made the decision out of concerns about Tom Brady's health.
Still, financial considerations could lead the team away from that choice.
If Cassel was counting about $14 million against the salary cap, coupled with quarterback Brady's $14.6 million charge, the Patriots would have almost $29 million of the projected $123 million cap on two players.
That runs counter to the team's philosophy of spreading the wealth to a variety of players, creating a strong middle class on the roster.
"That would be a giant concern, tying up a fourth or fifth of your cap on two players. That is extreme," Reese said. "The other side of it is that quarterback is the most important player, and you have two that are very, very good.
"So it's a risk assessment, and you ask, 'Would it be worth it to do this?' It wouldn't shock me either way."
The transition tag is another option, although it's seldom used.
A player with that tag would be tendered a one-year contract that averages the top 10 salaries at the position, which for quarterbacks could be in the range of $10 million in 2009.
Other teams could still sign the player, and the original team would not receive any compensation if it chose not to match, so in essence, the transition tag simply gives the original team the right of first refusal.
And, of course, there is the outside possibility that the Patriots and Cassel's representatives could hammer out a contract extension before the start of the 2009 league year in late February/early March.
But given that Cassel is already close to the open market - which most players yearn to hit just once, especially when their value is rising - there is likely to be little motivation for him to pursue an extension. Plus, the Patriots simply might not be able to offer him what others can: a starting opportunity.
Which is why, in the end, the Patriots are likely going to see another team benefit from an asset they produced. In a sense, they are handcuffed by their own success.
The consolation prize in that case would be a compensatory draft choice in 2010.
If Cassel lands a megabucks contract elsewhere - and other pieces fall into place - chances are the Patriots would receive the highest possible compensatory draft choice, a third-rounder.
So while they wouldn't receive immediate return on their asset, they could - at the very least - boast that an unheralded backup quarterback gave them one remarkable season few saw coming.
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org