The New England Patriots aren't in the playoff picture with divisional games set to begin this weekend, yet they remain a hot topic in the NFL regarding quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Cassel.
The chatter has heated up in recent weeks with various reports surfacing about Brady's rehabilitation from knee surgery. According to those reports, Brady is behind schedule and faces the possibility of a second surgery, which would undoubtedly affect the Patriots' decision concerning Cassel.
All signs seem to indicate the Patriots will slap the franchise tag on Cassel, which means they'll have to pay him the average of the top five salaries at his respective position, which is somewhere in the $14-million range.
This will be an expensive proposition considering they have to pay Brady, too, but the salary cap will go up next year, so the Patriots should have a bit more breathing room if and when they franchise Cassel. In other words, paying two quarterbacks roughly $30 million combined in 2009 might not be as detrimental to their financial future as one might think.
Furthermore, it makes perfect sense given the type of season Cassel had in 2008. After Brady injured his knee in Week 1, Cassel led the team to 10 wins in its final 15 games and threw 21 touchdown passes. The only negative is Cassel got sacked 47 times in 15 starts, but the security he provides more than outweighs the numbers.
The Patriots still aren't sure whether or not Brady will be ready to start the season on time. Outside of Cassel, their only other options at quarterbacks are Kevin O'Connell and Matt Gutierrez, neither of whom has much experience.
By franchising Cassel, the Patriots protect themselves on two fronts. For starters, they'll have a quarterback they know can win in their system and who'll be ready to play until Brady comes back. Second of all, they'll have the option of trading arguably the hottest commodity in the NFL if by some chance Brady rehabilitates ahead of schedule.
The Patriots are too smart to let Cassel hit the free-agent market. He'd get scooped up quickly, leaving New England with nothing in return. The Patriots could arguably get a first- and third-round pick in exchange for Cassel - perhaps even more - if they decide to trade him before the season starts.
Cassel can be franchised as early as next month. The NFL draft is in April. The question now is whether or not the Patriots will have more information on Brady's recovery before then, because that could play a factor in what they decide to do around draft weekend.
Hypothetically speaking, if Cassel isn't traded before April, the teams that need quarterbacks will get one in the draft, which could shrink the market for Cassel.
In the end, it all rests on Brady. Whatever doctors decide in the next few months about Brady will help the Patriots what to do with Cassel. The question is no longer whether they'll franchise him, but rather what they'll do with him once they make the inevitable transaction.
Bruschi Wants To Return
According to various reports, LB Tedy Bruschi plans to return for a 14th season and honor the final year of a two-year contract extension he signed last February.
Bruschi's return would help the Patriots survive another year despite limited depth at inside linebacker. Junior Seau is no guarantee to come back, so Bruschi would be the default starter unless the Patriots seek more help on the market or in the upcoming NFL draft.
Mangini Knocks Pioli Out
Scott Pioli's offseason tour continued with a scheduled trip to Kansas City to interview for the Chiefs' vacant general manager position. Carl Peterson retired after 20 years, leaving a vacancy.
Pioli also interviewed for the same position in Cleveland, but when the Bowns hired Eric Mangini as their head coach, Pioli was ruled out due to his perceived conflict with Mangini over the "spygate" controversy. Two other GM candidates have also pulled their name from consideration for the Browns, leaving some to speculate if ownership knows what it's doing by hiring a head coach before a GM
Belichick Deserves Credit
Atlanta's Mike Smith won the NFL Coach of the Year award for leading the Falcons to the playoffs in 2008, but Bill Belichick received one vote from NBC's Bob Costas.
The Falcons fell apart in 2007 in the wake of the Michael Vick scandal, but rebounded to win 11 games in 2008. Belichick earned league-wide praise for leading the Patriots to an 11-5 record despite losing his franchise quarterback in the first game of the season.
While some reports suggest Brady is behind schedule in his rehabilitation, others indicate he is right on target. Brady fought an infection following his surgery and, according to these reports, is suffering from the normal lack of motion common in patients who undergo serious knee surgery.
A Brief Respite
Bill Belichick and his coaching staff will take some time to relax during the playoffs before they try to come up with a strategy to get the Patriots back to the playoffs in 2009.
They'd rather be playing this weekend, but they'll enjoy the break.
"It will give us a little bit more time to maybe do more of a thorough analysis and breakdown of everything than what we have in the past," Belichick said. "I think one thing that we all need and deserve around here is a little bit of rest. Our guys around here work hard. They put in a lot of hours. They are very dedicated."
--The Patriots' 11-5 record in 2008 represents their fifth-highest regular-season win total. They won their final four games and five of their last six to reach that mark.
They also finished with the third-highest offensive yardage total in team history at 365.4 per game and allowed fewer than 20 points per game for the sixth time in the last eight years.