FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Opponents expecting the New England Patriots to fall apart as a result of Tom Brady’s season-ending knee injury would be wise to remember the last time the team had to turn to its backup quarterback.
His name: Tom Brady. And after Drew Bledsoe was injured in 2001, he led the Patriots to Super Bowl victories in three of the next four seasons.
“Everybody here understands that things like this happen; they’ve happened before,” offensive lineman Matt Light said Monday, shortly after the team confirmed that Brady would have surgery on his left knee and be placed on injured reserve. “I feel good about this football team.”
Brady too, is confident.
“It will all be OK. I’m excited to see what our team is made of. ... I still like our chances,” Brady wrote in an e-mail Monday to NBC Sports.
Brady was a former fourth-stringer, the No. 199 pick in the 2000 draft, when Bledsoe sustained a sheared blood vessel in his chest two weeks into the ’01 season. Brady stepped in and took the Patriots to their first NFL title.
Coach Bill Belichick said comparing the situations was like “comparing apples to grapefruits.” But others around the league remembered Brady’s humble beginnings and wonder whether Belichick might have another star in the making.
Matt Cassel, who had to fight for playing time in college — like Brady — and wait for his chance in the pros, came in and helped New England beat Kansas City 17-10.
“I say they’re still a very good team because they have so many other pieces and they’re well-coached and they’ve got a good defense,” San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson said.
“They did the same thing when Bledsoe went out. Everybody was saying the same thing. Then Tom Brady comes in, nobody knows who he is. Our first game, I remember, I was a rookie. And it was like, ’Who is this guy?’ And he beats us. So you never know.”
Cassel will start Sunday against the New York Jets — his first NFL start and, in fact, the first meaningful start since high school for the longtime backup who held a clipboard for Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at Southern Cal.
“I’ve always been impressed with Matt. ... He’s a capable quarterback, and he’ll do fine,” Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “They may not win all 16 (but) they’ll be there. They’ve got too much talent on that team and too good coaches to not be there at the end.
“Now, there’s only one Tom Brady. It’s very unfortunate for the Patriots and the league to lose a marquee player like that.”
Even without Brady, the Patriots remain a team stocked with veterans in a mediocre division, and with one of the most successful coaches in NFL history.
“We’re not going to tank it the rest of the season. That’s not going to happen,” defensive lineman Richard Seymour said in the Patriots locker room, across from where Brady’s locker remained stocked with equipment and personal items. “There’s always a way to win. We’re not going to have a lot of excuses about it.”
Brady led New England to 18 consecutive victories and the brink of a fourth championship last year before a loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl spoiled the team’s hopes for an unprecedented 19-0 season. After missing the entire 2008 preseason with an unspecified right foot injury, Brady lasted just 7:33 into the opener when a takedown by Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard ended his season.
The Patriots issued a one-paragraph statement on Monday confirming that Brady, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player and a two-time Super Bowl MVP, will have surgery on his left knee. Belichick would not say what the injury is, but the play, Brady’s reaction and the prognosis all point toward a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“As a team we all just have to do our jobs. That really doesn’t change,” Belichick said. “He played one position, he played it very well. We have somebody else playing that position now.”
The Patriots have just two quarterbacks on the roster: Cassel and rookie Kevin O’Connell. Matt Gutierrez, who signed as an undrafted free agent before the 2007 season and has thrown one career pass, was released in the final cutdowns before the season.
Belichick denied media reports that out-of-work quarterbacks Chris Simms and Tim Rattay were headed to Foxborough to take physicals or to audition.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“In spite of what some people are putting out there, we haven’t worked out anybody,” he said. “We had a lot of people call us, I can tell you that.”
For now, Cassel is his starter.
“I’m not trying to be Tom Brady. I’m just trying to be Matt Cassel,” he said when subbing for Brady on his regular weekly radio show. “I don’t know where that’s going to take us.”
Pollard, who apologized to Brady immediately after the play, said Monday that it was an “accident” and prayed for Brady’s speedy recovery. “I can’t change what happened,” he said. “As soon as the play happened, I said, ’Oh, man.’ When I heard him scream, I knew it was serious.”
While not calling Pollard’s play dirty, Belichick said his players are taught to hit quarterbacks between the knees and shoulders. Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork complained that he was penalized and fined for a hit similar to Pollard’s, but league spokesman Greg Aiello said supervisor of officials Mike Pereira determined it was legal.
“It is not a foul because the defensive player was coming off and affected by a block by the offense,” Aiello said.
ProFootballTalk: Patriots QB Tom Brady addressed Wes Welker’s decision to head West to Denver. Brady says he isn’t surprised by anything after being in the league for so long and hopes that Welker has a great season with the Broncos.
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Rotoworld's Fantasy impact
The team is unlikely to reveal the injury's exact extent, but the NFL Network's Adam Schefter reported that Brady's MCL may have been torn in addition to his ACL. It's unclear when he'll have surgery. Randy Moss is locked up through 2010 and Wes Welker is under control through 2011, so Brady could remain a top-five fantasy QB in 2009 barring setbacks. But he's unlikely to return to the top of the heap coming off this devastating injury.
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