Last week, fan-favorites Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead left the New England Patriots in free agency. The loss of these players reminded me of 2009, when the Patriots traded Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs along with Matt Cassel. Although the trade of Cassel was inevitable, the trade of Vrabel, a key member of the Patriots Super Bowl teams, was a reminder of the fact that teams and players alike view the NFL as a business, even if fans do not. Here is my article from 2009 about the Vrabel and Cassel trade.
Free agency is underway in the NFL, and fans will hear a familiar refrain from players and teams alike: ”it’s just a business.” For example, the New England Patriots franchise made a couple of solid business decisions this past weekend. But in so doing the team lost a proven insurance policy at quarterback, Matt Cassel; and the heart and soul of its defense, Mike Vrabel.
In September, Cassel was presented with an incredible opportunity. In the last year of his contract, at 27 years old, he was given the keys to a Patriots’ high-performance offense that rewrote the NFL records books the previous season. Cassel did not disappoint. After he gained a feel for the game and his pocket awareness improved, Cassel displayed the talent that made him a top recruit coming out of high school (14 TD passes against only 4 interceptions in his last 8 games). His ability was on full display when he threw for 3 TDs and 345 yards against the Arizona Cardinals. Matt Leinart, whom Cassel backed up at USC, only entered the game for Cardinals for mop-up duty.
Cassel’s success necessitated his departure. Too valuable to allow him to leave via free agency, the Patriots applied the franchise tag to Cassel, allowing the team to either keep him, or receive some trade value for him. Although the Patriots applied the franchise tag to Cassel, it was unlikely that the team would pay in excess of $14 million for a backup quarterback. Now Cassel will have a chance to be an undisputed starter, and will be paid accordingly. He earned it.
Vrabel is another story – no one predicted that he would be playing elsewhere in 2009. Although Vrabel’s statistics had declined this season, the Patriots defense struggled as unit. Moreover, Vrabel’s salary was palatable, especially for a veteran leader. As much as Tedy Bruschi, Vrabel was the heart and soul of three Super Bowl Championship defenses. He also contributed on special teams and even on offense, as a red-zone tight end. Perhaps no other Patriot represented the Patriots ethos of teamwork, selflessness and hard-nosed play. And no player better represented the Patriots model of player acquisition – Vrabel was signed as an unheralded special teams player for the Pittsburgh Steelers before blossoming into a Pro Bowl linebacker.
There have been a number of reports analyzing whether the Patriots received too little in return for Cassel and Brady (See Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback). No matter how you view the compensation issue, Vrabel’s departure was based on clearing salary cap space to sign other players.
Although professional sports is a business, few businesses engender the type of passion and loyalty often surrounding the hometown team. It was easy to root for Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel. But sometimes it’s hard to root for a business.