When Tom Brady left Sunday’s season opener with an injured knee, his New England teammates didn’t want to believe what they’d just seen. “I was like a little kid at the candy store just hoping you would see that No. 12 come out those doors and up the steps,”said wide receiver Randy Moss. Patriots fans, too, were incredulous that the season might’ve been lost in the first quarter of the first game. The poor schlubs who took Brady in the first round of their fantasy drafts felt just as terrible. Meanwhile, NFL followers who hate the Patriots—at this point, that includes most of America beyond the Connecticut River— cheered as the heartthrob QB went down.
The only person in America, it seemed, who felt no emotion was Patriots head coach/automaton Bill Belichick. “As a team we all just have to do our jobs. That really doesn’t change,” droned the coach as he explained that the best quarterback in the league was lost for the season. “He played one position; he played it very well. We have somebody else playing that position now.” Also, the team photo is Wednesday, and players can pick up their dental insurance plans from the traveling secretary.
OK, OK, Belichick did say: “Of course, we feel badly for Tom. It’s a tough setback for him.” Still, the gears appear to be turning in the taciturn coach’s head. The Patriots have won three of the last seven Super Bowls thanks to a detached, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately personnel strategy. Belichick and Scott Pioli, the team’s vice president of player personnel, plug in new players the instant the old models cease to be effective, demand a raise, or suffer a long-term injury. Admittedly, this is the strategy of every NFL team—the Patriots just do it better and with less mercy than the other guys. Thus far, Brady has been the only Patriot who has seemed irreplaceable. His injury should destroy the team’s chances. But if Belichick does somehow lead New England to the playoffs, it will be the ultimate validation of his genius, as well as a signal that in today’s NFL the coach and the GM are more important than any single player. That will be great for Bill Belichick’s legacy, but it’ll be a sad lesson for NFL fans.
You might recall that Belichick dealt with a similar scenario in the recent past. The New England dynasty started when Belichick plugged in Brady—a lightly regarded sixth-round draft pick—after the team’s star player, Drew Bledsoe, was pancaked by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. With a callow quarterback at the helm, the team won with defense, smarts, and clutch plays in the fourth quarter. Or did it? In football, it’s impossible to separate the accomplishments of the individual from those of the team. Was it a coincidence that the Patriots started winning as soon as Brady stepped under center, or was he—at least in those early years—simply an adequate caretaker of a team that was ready to win?
We’ll probably never know if the Pats carried Brady or Brady carried the Pats in those early years. There won’t be much question who’s carrying whom this season. The guy who’s replacing Brady—the player Belichick lovingly described as “somebody else playing that position now”—is longtime backup Matt Cassel. He is the perfect test subject for this experiment. Cassel hasn’t started a game since taking the field for the Chatsworth High Chancellors in 1999. In college, he was buried on USC’s depth chart behind Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart; in the pros, he’s held a clipboard while Brady has started 128 consecutive games. Cassel has been iffy in his rare opportunities. Last season, he replaced Brady with New England winning 42-7 against Miami. After the Dolphins scored twice in the fourth quarter, once on a return of a Cassel interception, Brady was reinserted and threw a pile-on touchdown pass. Cassel was also awful enough this preseason that Brady came to his defense after announcers slammed his performance.
On Sunday, the new quarterback played creditably in getting the win against a Chiefs team that also saw its starting QB go down to injury (to somewhat less fanfare). Nevertheless, the Patriots won’t rely on Cassel’s individual brilliance to keep winning. Brady’s injury is a reminder of the critical importance of the offensive line to a quarterback’s success, or lack thereof. Early in his career, Tom Terrific benefited from the strength of the linemen in front of him; last year’s Super Bowl, by contrast, was the ultimate example of how even a historically potent offense doesn’t work without pass protection. Elsewhere in the NFL on Sunday, Cassel’s former teammate Carson Palmer had an awful day in Baltimore, thanks mainly to the fact that the Cincinnati line has the consistency of polenta. Or witness the tribulations of Marc Bulger in St. Louis, who was downgraded from a top-five quarterback to a mediocrity right around the time his linemen began dropping around him.
Compared with the team Brady inherited and led to the 2001 championship, this Patriots squad has both better line play and better playmakers. The 2008 Pats still have Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Rodney Harrison; Antowain Smith and David Patten were among the key starters in Brady’s first year as the starter. According to David Halberstam’s The Education of a Coach, Belichick reacted to the 2001 upset of the Rams by crowing, “Can you believe we won the Super Bowl with this?!” The 2008 Patriots expect to win and won’t exult about it afterward.
While it’s difficult to conjure a scenario where New England earns a playoff bye, eight to 10 wins still seem reasonable. But the difference between a solid playoff team and a Super Bowl champion is often the quarterback, and the difference between Brady and Cassel is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. That 20-game regular-season winning streak may not last past this weekend, and players like Moss won’t be kids in a candy store this season. That’s a lot of pressure on Matt Cassel—from the fans, from his teammates, and from Belichick, who has to know that if New England tanks this season, it will be said that the coach owes all of his success to Brady. If it’s any consolation to the new man in Foxborough, he’s at least likely to go further than either Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart this season.