BEFORE THE Patriots-Jets game yesterday, there were more storylines in the media than lobbyists in Washington. Tom Brady, last year’s NFL most valuable player and GQ/Esquire cover boy, tore the A.C.L. and M.C.L. in his left knee last week, jettisoning unknown, 26-year-old Matt Cassel into the starting role for the Patriots. Cassel hadn’t started a game since his senior year in high school eight years ago. In contrast, Brett Favre, the once-retired future Hall-of-Famer was going for his 255th straight start and his second consecutive win with his new Jets team. And as if those weren’t enough, Jets coach Eric Mangini and Patriots coach Bill Belichick like each other about as much as mosquitoes like citronella.

But after the game one story dominated. When the clock hit all zeros on Sunday evening, Cassel had done what most thought he couldn’t: he lead his team to victory by a score of 19-10.

No doubt today’s sports pages will be filled with praise for the young Cassel, and most of it will be deserved. He was calm, poised, and most of all, he didn’t screw up. But what you probably won’t hear (as much) is that football, not the Patriots, won this game. Why? Because football reminded us this sport is never about one player.

But wait, doesn’t this sound familiar? Didn’t we hear this whole lecture a month ago when Favre tried staging a comeback with the Packers? Yes, we did. And it was as true then as it is now.

In August, Favre came out of retirement and expected the Packers to welcome him back like he was the prodigal son. But the Packers were in no mood to kill the fatted calf, let alone sacrifice the future of the team by reneging on their promise to Favre’s heir, Aaron Rodgers (now 2-0 as a starter). What ensued was a divorce that played out publicly, ending with Favre being traded to the Jets. The parting was so difficult because Favre had become larger than life—larger than the Packers. Still, though, while Packers fans still choke up when talking about Favre’s exodus (including this fan), many of them are starting to recognize that no player, not even the deified Favre, is bigger than the team.

With today’s game, that became even clearer. When Brady’s knee blew up last weekend, many quickly declared the end of the Patriots’ season. ESPN’s Bill Simmons said the entire season was “gone in eight minutes.” Why? Because Brady is the Patriots. He burst on to the field seven years ago, filling in for an injured Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots won the Super Bowl that year and Brady earned Super Bowl M.V.P. honors. They would go on to win back-to-back Super Bowls in ’04-‘05 with Brady at the helm.

Understandably, then, Brady’s name is now synonymous with the New England Patriots. He will enter the Hall of Fame wearing the red, white, and blue minute man. Like Favre was the Packer, he has become the Patriot. Without him, then, there is no season, no hope.

But football has in ironic way of reminding us of basic principles. While it still may turn out that the Patriots’ season is doomed, for now the future looks bright. And it’s bright because Cassel is doing exactly what Brady did seven years ago. Saturday, the Patriots were underdogs. Today, they’re 2-0 under Cassel, and those fateful eight minutes appear to be nothing more than an extended timeout.

As one announcer said today, “the Cassel era has begun.” Ouch. That was quick. Brady’s only been gone a little over a week and already it’s a new era in New England. But no matter how painful, it’s probably for the best. While we’ll see if it really is a new era in New England, the mere possibility reminds us of a basic natural law: one part is never greater than the whole.


Jonathan M. Seidl is Patrol reporter.

 
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