Field-General Disarray

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, September 9, 2008


At some point Aaron Rodgers and whatever he's doing here for the Packers will be big news even to people with no inclination to wear giant cheese heads. But not now. Not in the immediate aftermath of the league's Golden Boy, Tom Brady, suffering an injury that will keep him off the field for the rest of the 2008 season.

Of course, Bill Belichick and the Patriots players are saying all the things coaches and professional athletes say when told they'll be without perhaps the best quarterback in the NFL and one of the great quarterbacks in history. They've talked about doing their jobs, about moving on, about supporting backup Matt Cassel, about their goals and aspirations remaining the same as they were before Brady crashed to the ground Sunday afternoon.

And while the loss of Brady won't hit pro football the way the absence of Tiger Woods devastates professional golf, the Patriots could be crippled this season. With Brady, the Patriots are an 18-1 sort of team. Without him, the Patriots are quite capable of going 6-10.

To say the NFL is quarterback-driven is an understatement. Quarterback has become the most important position in American sports. The Starting Quarterback has become such a big deal that the NFL has gone to extreme -- some would say absurd -- lengths to protect its biggest assets, though it could not keep Brady out of harm's way in the season opener.

Nowhere is the importance of The Starting Quarterback more evident than here in Wisconsin, where Rodgers on Monday night officially succeeded Brett Favre as quarterback of the civic treasure known as the Packers.

Brady had become what Rodgers dreams of being, a three-time Super Bowl champion and reigning MVP who holds the league record for touchdown passes in a season (50, last year) and who doesn't seem to date anybody who can't be seen on "Entertainment Tonight." He's one of only a handful of true pop culture stars in the NFL, and the Patriots figure to miss him desperately.

Coach Bill Belichick disputed reports that the Patriots, by Monday afternoon, had called in Chris Simms and Tim Rattay, a couple of out-of-work quarterbacks, to add to their roster. It's so hard (and unwise) to believe anything that comes out of the mouth of Belichick, who at Monday's news conference wouldn't even confirm Brady's exact injury. It's a wonder he didn't deny Brady was hurt and put him on this week's injury report as "probable" for Sunday. He has that little regard for the truth in such matters.

Probably, there are more than a few Belichick sycophants who believe he will have Cassel ready to replace Brady in the same tradition Brady was prepared to step in for Drew Bledsoe at the turn of the decade.

At least Brady, who wasn't a star at the University of Michigan, played. Cassel, on the other hand, has been a clipboard holder since high school. In college, at Southern Cal, he backed up Carson Palmer, then Matt Leinart. In New England, he's caddied for Brady. It's wonderful work, but it doesn't mean Cassel's attempt to go from understudy to actor in a leading role is going to go smoothly, if it goes at all.

For every Tony Romo, there are dozens of backups who can't cut it as the starter. The Patriots have great players on offense, beginning with the offensive line. But will Cassel make the proper decision as quickly as Brady? Will he see the field as well as Brady? Will he be as calm as Brady with a linebacker blitzing? Will he be as instinctive? Not surprisingly, Cassel said he's not trying to be Brady, just Cassel. But the obvious skeptical question is whether being Cassel will be anywhere near good enough. The feeling here is, um, no.

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