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Field-General Disarray

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

GREEN BAY, Wis.

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.

Luckily for the Patriots, other than their division opponents, the schedule calls for them to play teams from the NFC West and AFC West, which amounts to a bunch of homecoming patsies. The Chiefs, Raiders, Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers, Rams, Cardinals, Chargers. There's only two 2007 playoff teams among them (the Seahawks and Chargers).

All isn't necessarily lost, though it's tough to ignore the Patriots, at home, should have been taken to overtime Sunday by a Chiefs team that might be the 32nd-ranked team in the NFL. Out of 32.

Just standing around ready to step into the spotlight waiting to find somebody appears to be Favre. The Jets, if Favre keeps playing the way he did against Miami, could become the team to beat in the AFC East. The Jets are also the team at the front of the line waiting to get a clean shot at the Patriots.

Remember, we're only one year removed from the Patriots hammering opponents without mercy. There's no shortage of coaches and players who'd like to return the favor now that Belichick's team is vulnerable. The Patriots are both the most respected team in the NFL and the most disliked.

While Brady's injury is the No. 1 story from Week 1 of the NFL, it's not the only important one, not the only big one involving a quarterback.

Vince Young could have a sprained knee that might sideline him for two to four weeks, but that's secondary to the mini-drama of Young trying to take himself out of Sunday's game against Jacksonville several plays before the injury. It's not often a player of Young's ability and pedigree is involved in such mysterious subplots. The Titans are going to have to get to the bottom of this, and why Young feels things so deeply, before he can be a true franchise quarterback in the fashion Brady has been.

The Titans did win that game, but theirs was not the most impressive season debut. The Steelers, Eagles and Cowboys, rather expectedly, opened with decisive victories. Buffalo, somewhat unexpectedly, did, too. The Atlanta Falcons, bless their hearts, pounded the Lions, who could be the biggest stumblebum team in the league if not for the Bengals.

Asked what team had the most impressive Week 1 performance, ESPN's Ron Jaworski said it was the only team that went on the road and spanked a division champ opening its new stadium. He was talking about the Chicago Bears going to Indianapolis and smacking around Peyton Manning and the Colts in their new digs. An admission should be in order, since I thought the Bears would be quarterback-challenged (again) and headed toward 4-12 or some such.

It's too early to draw definitive conclusions on who's going to be good and who isn't, even teams with healthy quarterbacks. But it's not difficult to know the Patriots, with one injury to one indispensable quarterback, have gone from the most envied team in the league to perhaps the least.

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