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Cassel is traded to Chiefs

He, Vrabel dealt for 2d-rounder

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / March 1, 2009
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The Kansas City Chiefs changed the course of Matt Cassel's career by injuring Patriots franchise quarterback Tom Brady in the 2008 season opener, and now the Patriots have sent the franchise-tagged Cassel to Kansas City to be the Chiefs' franchise quarterback.

Striking a deal with former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, the Patriots traded Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel to Kansas City in exchange for the Chiefs' second-round pick (the 34th overall selection) in April's NFL draft.

"I have a long history with both players," Pioli, Kansas City's general manager, said in a statement yesterday. "Mike and Matt are men that I respect both personally and professionally. I look forward to having them as new members of the Chiefs family."

Details of the deal began to leak Friday, when Vrabel confirmed an NFL Network report that he had been traded to the Chiefs. It turned out that was just part of a larger trade between Bill Belichick and his former Patriots team-building partner that helped New England clear cap space and clear up any doubt as to its starting quarterback in 2009.

The Patriots put themselves in position to capitalize on Cassel's Cinderella season when they used the franchise tag on him Feb. 5, guaranteeing Cassel a one-year contract at $14.65 million.

The move prevented Cassel from becoming an unrestricted free agent, but it left the Patriots with $29.27 million of the $127 million salary cap committed to Cassel and Brady, virtually ensuring a trade.

Pioli had competition for Cassel from former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, now coach of the Denver Broncos.

According to multiple NFL sources, McDaniels and the Broncos were considering a deal to get Cassel that would have involved Denver trading Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler to Tampa Bay for a first-round pick (No. 19 overall) that then would have gone to New England for Cassel.

After Cassel's shaky exhibition season, few would have expected any team to give up a first- or a second-round pick in a deal involving the 26-year-old, a career backup dating to his college days at Southern California and a 2005 seventh-round pick who in three previous NFL seasons had thrown a total of 39 passes.

Everything changed Sept. 7, when just 15 offensive plays into the season Brady suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. Cassel took over on the next drive, and his first pass, which came on third and 11 from his 1, was a 51-yard completion to Randy Moss. He capped the drive with a scoring toss to Moss and led the Patriots to a 17-10 win.

The next week, Cassel made his first NFL start - his first start at quarterback since 1999 at Chatsworth (Calif.) High - and led the Patriots to a 19-10 road victory over the New York Jets.

In all, Cassel made 15 starts in place of Brady and guided the Patriots, a non-playoff team for the first time since 2002, to an 11-5 record. He completed 327 of 516 passes for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions and rushed 73 times for 270 yards and two scores.

Cassel had some highlights along the way:

In November, he had back-to-back 400-yard performances against the Jets (400) and Dolphins (415), giving him one more career 400-yard passing game than Brady. Cassel memorably forced overtime against the Jets with a perfectly-placed touchdown pass to Moss with just 1 second remaining.

In that OT loss to New York, Cassel became the first player in NFL history to pass for 400 yards and rush for more than 60 yards (62) in the same game.

Cassel provided the season's most poignant performance in Oakland Dec. 14, when a mere five days after learning of the death of his father, he threw a career-high four touchdown passes in a 49-26 victory over the Raiders, clutching the game ball as he left the field.

"It is very easy to root for guys like Matt Cassel, who do everything the right way and flourish as a result," said Belichick in a statement. "As much as we would have loved to continue working with Matt, we wish him nothing but the best as he takes this next step forward in his career."

Sources close to Cassel indicated he was happy with the trade, even though the deal was done without him having a long-term contract in place with Kansas City.

If he plays out 2009 under his current one-year contract, Cassel would be a restricted free agent as the NFL heads into an uncapped 2010 season. The Chiefs would have to give him 110 percent of his $14.65 million salary to retain the right to match any offer to him.

For the Patriots, the price of moving Cassel was that they had to part with Vrabel, one of their starting outside linebackers and pillars of their success.

Belichick went out of his way to praise Vrabel, part of a free agent class that came to the team in 2001 and helped turn it into a dynasty.

"When Mike arrived in 2001, we knew we were adding a solid outside linebacker," said Belichick. "But where Mike took it from there exceeded our highest hopes. Mike Vrabel epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player: toughness, intelligence, playmaking, leadership, versatility, and consistency at the highest level.

"Behind the scenes, Mike's wit and personality is one of the things we have all enjoyed about coming to work every day. The toughest aspect of my job is the day I stop coaching people like Mike, who did everything in his power to contribute to team success.

"Of all the players I have coached in my career, there is nobody I enjoyed working with more than Mike. In the same way people recognize guys like Troy Brown, we appreciate and thank Mike Vrabel. He is one of the very special Patriots champions."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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