Sports Monday

1220890460If we learned nothing else yesterday at Foxboro, it’s that nothing in the NFL is ever guaranteed. The Super Bowls, the chance at perfection, these things only seem like they happen every year. We won’t know the extent of Tom Brady’s injury until later today, but the indications are not good, and it’s a shame that Brady’s season might be done on what looked like a cheap hit by the Chiefs’ Bernard Pollard. (Carson Palmer, anyone?)

The Patriots have lost players before, of course, but never the quarterback. The whole no player is bigger than the team concept has driven the Pats during the Bill Belichick era and though that may start with the coach, it’s the quarterback who embodies it. Yes, Brady has become a celebrity complete with a supermodel girl friend and videos on TMZ, but from everything we hear about the Pats, he is still just one of the 53—richer and more famous than Billy Yates, but accountable just the same.

So, assuming Brady is out for the year, what now? The spotlight falls on three people.

1. Matt Cassel

A couple of weeks ago, after watching Cassel mostly flail around during a lackluster preseason, I asked the Globe’s Chris Gasper if there was a backup quarterback crisis. This is what he said:

I think there is a crisis if the Patriots have to play their backup quarterback during the regular season. If Tom Brady goes down the whole tenor of the Patriots season changes. They go from Super Bowl contender to survival mode. I think that Matt Cassel has put way too much pressure on himself to perform this preseason and that he hasn’t been helped by a patchwork offensive line that is missing Matt Light at left tackle, Stephen Neal at right guard, and now is without both of Neal’s backups, Billy Yates and Russ Hochstein.

Cassel looked decent yesterday. More than that, he looked prepared, which is a credit to him and the coaches. But he has never faced the grind of the regular season before, and the last time he was a full-time starter he was preparing for El Camino Real High School as a Chatsworth Chancellor. You can read more about his high school exploits on his player bio page on Patriots.com, because the totality of his pro and college resume is 90 passes, 18 of which were thrown yesterday.

2. Bill Belichick

I was talking to someone last night who follows the NFL religiously. His first comment was, “Now we’ll see how good Belichick really is.” I replied that was too easy, we already know how good Belichick is: three Super Bowl trophies and a perfect regular season good. My friend took the statement back, but within the knee-jerk reaction is a kernel of truth.

Aside from offensive and defensive systems the coach has employed, it’s Belichick’s team system that characterizes the Pats. And, as mentioned above, it’s easier to sell that kind of thing to a locker room full of grizzled vets and wide-eyed kids when the most famous guy in the room thinks he’s no better than anyone else. Remember, before the magazine covers, Brady was just an unknown sixth-round draft pick, managing the game, and trying to not mess things up.

You can argue that Belichick made Brady or the other way around all day and night, but does anyone believe that Belichick can’t somehow coax 10 wins and a playoff spot out of this team with a seemingly easy schedule and a division full of rebuilding teams?

3. Randy Moss

Let’s put this as delicately as possible: Moss does not have the greatest reputation of playing hard when things go poorly. He has done wonders in rehabbing his image since coming to Foxboro, but people will be watching to see if he’s running full speed on every play. The press will be looking for signs of discontent between him and Cassel. They will be waiting for Moss to slip.

It’s entirely within his control to not let that happen.

Brady’s injury has done the impossible: Knocked a Sox pennant race off the front page of the Globe. The Rays come to town tonight, clinging to a game and a half lead. The last time Tampa came to town, things got a little interesting, to say the least.

In honor of this momentous series we hit up Chad Finn, author of the awesome Touching All the Bases blog on boston.com for this week’s installment of 3 Questions.

1. Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that we would be having an MVP conversation that includes Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis?

CF: I think the only person who might have thought Dustin Pedroia would be an MVP candidate someday was Dustin Pedroia. Entering the season, if you had asked me for an MVP candidate from the Sox, I would have given you the usual answer: David Ortiz is due to win one, and Manny Ramirez certainly could with a bounce-back season. I think most of us looked at Pedroia and Youkilis as terrific supporting players, but hardly the ones who would see their names in lights.

But they’ve become legitimate stars. Pedroia, if he stays at his current hitting level (leading the league in hitting, runs, and hits, and, stunningly, near the lead in total bases) SHOULD win the award, especially with Carlos Quentin apparently done for the season. And Youkilis should get cursory consideration—he’s been remarkably consistent, batting over .300 every month of the season. I don’t even want to think about where the Sox would be without them.

2. Is Theo Epstein having an underrated year?

CF: It’s funny with Theo; after his first few seasons, during which he got something of a Boy Wonder label, he’s almost become underrated. I think a lot of fans have lost perspective on how good he is at his job in comparison to the majority of his peers. The ratio of complaints regarding his bad moves (signing Julio Lugo, trading Cla Meredith and Josh Bard for Chicken Parm Mirabelli) is much closer to 50 percent than it should be.

He’s a terrific GM, and he’s had a brilliant last month in getting (Paul) Byrd and (Mark) Kotsay, two steady, dependable pros who have filled in gaps on the roster. It’s the kind of thing the Yankees used to do during their dynastic era a decade ago. They’d get Dave Justice, the Sox would get the likes of Ed Sprague and Lou Merloni, and go into the postseason (if they made it) a few bodies short. It’s another example how times have changed under Theo’s watch, and I can’t think of a GM I’d rather have.

3. Who is the one guy you are looking at to impact the pennant race?

CF: To me, the key player from here through the postseason is Hideki Okajima. The lineup is hitting on all cylinders (even Coco Crisp is contributing — who knew?). The rotation is as deep as anyone else’s, provided Josh Beckett is as healthy as he looked against Texas, and Terry Francona seems to have them peaking at season’s end yet again. There really aren’t a lot of flaws here.

But I think we all still have concerns about how they will get from the starting pitcher to Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. Manny Delcarmen is a tease, Justin Masterson, while very poised and impressive, is still untested in the postseason, and so much of the burden falls on Okajima to replicate what he did a season ago. His numbers, on the surface, are fine this season, but he’s let an alarming number of inherited runners to score, and just when it appears he has his ’07 mojo back, he’ll have a tough outing. I don’t quite trust him yet, but there really isn’t another option in his role.

Closing number: 137.0. That was Matt Ryan’s quarterback rating in his debut as the starter for the Atlanta Falcons. Whether you’re a fan of Boston College or not, I hope everyone appreciated the kid while he was at The Heights.

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