Pats have decisions to make on Cassel, Brady

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

An innocent question to stimulate conversation ignited outrage.

One reader demanded I resign from ESPN.com. Another implored my bosses to terminate my blog completely. They wrote in to ridicule my intelligence, mock my background and question my journalism ethics.

All for asking a question to which I didn't give my opinion.

What I dared to do was broach the subject of what's going on with the New England Patriots quarterback situation and the uncertainty clouding it.

Sporting icon Tom Brady is rehabbing his surgically rebuilt, infection-prone left knee. Information has been scarce. So much is unknown.

Matt Cassel has developed into a bona fide NFL starter before our eyes, but he will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.

This is the exact question I posed before opening the floor to comments:

Do you bank on the superstar maintaining his elite status, or invest in the rising prospect, who years from now still should be in his prime when the veteran retires?

That line didn't seem inflammatory when I typed it, but after the backlash from incensed readers, I decided to check with some professionals to see whether they thought I had raised a legitimate issue or I was nuts.

Charley Armey

Background: Former St. Louis Rams general manager, New England Patriots assistant director of player operations.

Note: As Rams director of player personnel, Armey dealt with Trent Green's season-ending knee injury and emergence of unheralded Kurt Warner en route to a Super Bowl title.

The risk is too great not to move forward with the quarterback you have right now. You have to get him signed and give your team stability at the position. There's no absolute. That's the problem. You've got to protect yourself and the organization.

I would do whatever I had to do to sign him. I would try to structure the contract so that at some point in time I could deal the player if it's convenient but keep him around until Brady is back and 100 percent.

After Brady is back, you address what you do with both quarterbacks. You have to proceed as though Cassel will be your quarterback until proven otherwise. There are no other options for the Patriots. They have to get the guy signed.

This kid [Cassel] has proven that his arm is getting better and better. They've invested the money and the time to get him to this point. He's a commodity now. You can't let him get away for nothing. I would figure out how to get it done. I would not let him out of there, period.

But the deal can be done. [Cassel] ought to feel a strong sense of loyalty for to the organization for drafting him when they did, showing faith in him and investing in him the way they did.

You know who the quarterback is when he's healthy, but it sure is a nice problem when you have two. Otherwise, you're looking for a free-agent quarterback who's 105 years old to come in and be the backup.

It took Trent Green almost two years and maybe three years until he was comfortable on that knee. Some guys come back and are comfortable on it right away.

You don't know how [Brady's knee] is going to react until you start working out in game mode. He has to step up, take a hit, pivot on it, slide to the left, slide to the right, plant it, come off it. You won't know until you get in a game situation regardless of how the off-field rehab goes.

Ken Herock

Background: Former player personnel executive for Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers.

Note: With Pro Bowl quarterback Chris Miller in Atlanta, he traded raw prospect Brett Favre.

It's a great, great article. It's going to generate a lot of opinions, but nobody is going to be right until two years from now, when we know whether Brady is as productive as he was going into the last Super Bowl. There's going to be a lot of discussion on this for a long time.

It's not an easy decision. There's a lot of nervousness. There's a lot of apprehension. You're dealing with a guy who's coming off a serious knee injury. You don't know what's in store, but when he's healthy he's taking your team to Super Bowls. I'm willing to take that chance on his knee being fine because of the greatness of the player.

They don't have a decision to make because Brady will be their quarterback. Cassel will have to move on. You keep the great quarterback. Then I stand the chance of losing [Cassel], but I'll just have to lose him. I have to go with my gut.

[Brady] is going to be a question mark. They need to sign another veteran quarterback, a guy like Kerry Collins, but I don't know if he's out there. They'll have to find somebody.

Floyd Reese

Background: Former Tennessee Titans general manager.

Note: In 11 drafts, three first-round picks won Rookie of the Year, including Vince Young. Another first-round pick was Steve McNair.

I'm not sure the gamble is weighted one way or the other. The gamble is what Tom's knee is going to be like versus what Matt will be like in two years. The gamble probably is pretty equal on both sides. I'm not sure one outweighs the other.

If anything, right now, the decision would be "Is there such a thing we can keep Matt around until we trade him or franchise him for a period of time?" He's a commodity. You keep him around until you have the opportunity to trade him later on.

As good as Matt is playing, if you compare their two bodies of work, there's not much of a comparison. He's a 6-4 quarterback versus a several-time Super Bowl winner and a Hall of Famer.

Right now, I think it's good chatter, but Tom and his legacy are set. His knee is a concern, but he's been so injury-free you have to imagine this is a fluke and he comes back fine. He may not be as good. Maybe instead of 50 touchdowns, he throws for 40.

We've seen what a guy like that can do for a Randy Moss. Randy feels a lot more comfortable with Brady there. His knee won't affect his distance much, his accuracy much. You'll probably be timid when people start falling at your feet, but some guys who haven't been injured are like that.

If this was a knee that Tom has had five or six procedures on and Tom was 37, I think there would really be a concern. But that is not Tom's situation now. The additional procedures on a knee that is injured to that magnitude is not unusual. Sometimes you clean out some scar tissue or other minor things with ACL injury.

I know infections in a knee can literally eat a knee up. But, other than that, you expect the knee to come back and respond, although it might take the first six, eight games to come back and be Tom Brady.

Unnamed AFC player personnel executive

Background: Spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want to publicly comment on another team's players.

It's a fun conversation, and a lot of commentators might go with Cassel because they're playing with other people's money. But if I'm in the Patriots front office and there's no hidden issues with Brady's knee, I'm going with Brady.

Brady can play a number of years. You'll get more years out of Brady than Cassel will get out of his next contract.

Plus, it's one of those things where no matter what you say, you don't want to get nailed [by public reaction]. Everybody wants to be liked. Of course, you're taking a risk with Brady, and Matt Cassel is the only game in town right now, but you just have to assume Brady is coming back. You can't do anything else.

Leigh Steinberg

Background: Agent for several former star quarterbacks, including Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Warren Moon.

You and I are not in possession of those facts [regarding Brady's knee]. There has not been public revelation regarding the nature of his injuries and subsequent treatment and operations. It's difficult to assess his future. And only the Patriots' medical team and coaches and front office are involved in that balancing act. But I will say that every year the premium on escapability becomes higher.

Unless the condition of Brady's knee is something that is career-threatening, that is his job for many years to come. He's an institution with the Patriots and certainly their most valuable player.

The position of franchise quarterback is the most excruciatingly difficult spot on a roster to fill, and teams spend years on a frustrating search. Quarterbacks are playing well into their 30s, and Brady has been as productive in reaching the ultimate prize of the Super Bowl in a way that's virtually unparalleled.

That's the difficult assessment that they have to make because the one element that can hamper the effectiveness of any quarterback in the contemporary NFL is the lack of mobility. So I often I hear people say that as long a quarterback is not hurt in his legs he can play easily into his early 40s. But given the nature of a withering rush and the limitation the salary cap has of assembling a line of five All-Pro offensive linemen, the quarterback will be under pressure and need to have escapability.

It's not his age because quarterbacks can play -- without injuries to their legs -- as long as they have escapability, and it doesn't have to be speed. It can be quick release, pocket anticipation. But as long as they can avoid being hit consistently, which is a process fraught with peril, they can play productively for 15 years or more because their decision-making and game command get better with each passing year, and Brady, if he's not the most dominant, is at least in the top two or three quarterbacks in the National Football League today, a future Hall of Famer and impossible to replace.

If the No. 1 quarterback has a massive amount of cap dollars tied up in him, generally his backup will be a veteran of much lesser talent or a younger mid-round draft pick who has not played much.