THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Cassel trade is a loud statement

Patriots clearly counting on Brady's healthy return

Matt Cassel called out a play during a game last September. He won 11 games, which almost always gets a team into the playoffs. Cassel ended up being so good as a Brady replacement that there was actually some notion that the Patriots should trade Brady and keep Cassel. Matt Cassel called out a play during a game last September. He won 11 games, which almost always gets a team into the playoffs. Cassel ended up being so good as a Brady replacement that there was actually some notion that the Patriots should trade Brady and keep Cassel. (Associated Press/File)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / March 1, 2009
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Patriots fans worship at the altar of Bill Belichick. "In Bill We Trust" is embossed on sweatshirts, jackets, posters, and commemoratives from Super Bowls won in New Orleans, Houston, and Jacksonville. Woe is anyone who questions His Hoodiness. It makes you a traitor, a nitwit, or both.

This blind allegiance will be tested in upcoming days, weeks, and months, because Belichick has swapped rising-star quarterback Matt Cassel and popular veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs for the 34th pick in this year's NFL draft.

It's a deal that's got everything - history, emotion, high finance, backroom dealing, and the certainty of infinite speculation and second-guessing.

The trade is a clear sign that the Patriots believe Tom Brady will be his old self at the start of the 2009 season. This is good news. We have lived in an information vacuum concerning all things Brady since the cover boy QB went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 campaign (against the Chiefs, oddly enough). There were multiple reports of post-surgery infection and slow recovery, and neither Brady nor the Patriots offered much in the way of clarification.

Trading Cassel puts it to rest. The Patriots and Brady obviously think he can pick up where he left off when he was the league's Most Valuable Player, throwing 50 touchdown passes, in 2007. Belichick simply would not trade Cassel if he had any doubts about Brady's readiness for September.

So we still don't know for sure if Tom is married, but we finally can believe he's going to be OK to play. His was not a career-ending injury and he'll be back on the field for the season opener.

The not-so-good news is that it looks from a distance as if the Patriots got shortchanged in this exchange. Salary cap experts and draftniks will explain that the Patriots could not afford to commit a quarter of their payroll (Cassel and Brady add up to $29.2 million) to two players, and one position, on a 53-man roster.

The market for Cassel was limited because not many teams could afford him. A second-round pick from Kansas City is more like a late first-round pick because the lowly Chiefs draft at the top of the deck. You can get a quality player at No. 34. Vrabel was past his prime, going into the last year of his contract.

Intellectually and strategically, the deal makes sense, especially if the Patriots come away with another player like linebacker Jerod Mayo in the draft. They can get younger and they have new money to spend.

But emotionally, it's asking Foxborough fans to swallow a gummy hairball. Cassel and Vrabel for a second-rounder? Might Chiefs fans someday think of this as their version of Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb?

The legions can cope by reminding themselves that Belichick knows football. Historically, he usually does what's best for the Patriots.

Most fans have come to accept the abject bloodlessness of Patriot Place. There are no gold watches or thank you notes passed out in Foxborough. Sentiment is wasted energy. When the Patriots are done with you, they say, "We wish [insert popular player's name] the best," then they move on to the next guy. Thanks for the Super Bowl rings you delivered, now turn in your playbook and clean out your desk. We'll walk you to your car.

No one is special. Not Lawyer Milloy, not Adam Vinatieri, not Troy Brown, not Vrabel, not Cassel. And it'll be the same when it's time for Tedy Bruschi to go. There's no crying in football.

Still, saying goodbye to Cassel is particularly risky because he's young (26) and he has what we call "big upside." A lot of us wondered if Cassel belonged on the team at the end of the 2008 exhibition season, but when called to duty he completed 63.4 percent of his passes and threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns.

Oh, and he won 11 games, which almost always gets a team into the playoffs.

Cassel was so good, so much better than we thought he would be, there was actually some notion that the Patriots should trade Brady and keep Cassel. True lunacy, right?

Looming large over all this is the Gump-like presence of Scott Pioli in Kansas City. Pioli worked beautifully with Belichick in Foxborough for nine years as vice president of player personnel and turned down a lot of chances to leave before settling on the Chiefs job in January. Now he's bringing a taste of New England to Arrowhead Stadium and it makes this trade a referendum on the two men who built the Patriot dynasty. Did Bill make Scott look good or was it the other way around? And why would they conspire on a deal of such immense consequence just two months into Pioli's new gig?

The whole thing is mildly reminiscent of the smoke-filled-room days of the 1920s when former Red Sox field manager Ed Barrow went to the Yankees front office and commenced building a New York dynasty with players he had in Boston.

Oh, one other thing. Let it never be forgotten, especially now, that Pioli is the son-in-law of Bill Parcells - a man who has come back to threaten his nemesis, Bob Kraft, while working for the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins. All these years later, there's still a smell of Tuna in the air when something big happens to the New England Patriots. Even a deal involving the Kansas City Chiefs.

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