picby Scott Benson

The Patriots waited but 36 hours into the new league year before closing the book on the biggest question of this – maybe any – off-season.

Matt Cassel, the stand-in who like Kramer won a Tony, is gone, off to Kansas City with Scott Pioli, who got a starting quarterback and 3-4 linebacker with a single draft pick.

The Patriots, with nearly a quarter of their total payroll invested in two players who play the same position, suddenly find themselves flush with cash (at least fourteen million I’d guess, plus Vrabel’s reported four million cap figure) and in possession of a 2009 draft pick just outside of what is said to be an unusually strong first round. They turned the 230th selection of the 2005 draft into the 34th pick in this one, after just fifteen career starts. 

They also move toward the days ahead having made their most public acknowledgement yet that times have to – and will – change on the New England defense. They traded one of the most versatile, enduring, popular Patriots ever, a veritable Mt. Rushmore figure when it comes to New England championships. And they did it because they wouldn’t win another by relying on him, and others like him, for too long.

I for one take hope in this affirmation that shared glories, long held confidences, deeply rooted trusts and alliances still count in New England….but only to a point.

Naturally, the public dialogue will focus on a perceived meager return for a beloved team icon and a developing quarterback who could conceivably compete for a third of the starting jobs in the league. 

That will be primarily because we oversimplified and overestimated Cassel’s marketplace appeal from the beginning, just as we now oversimplify and overdramatize the forthcoming absence of the 2009 Mike Vrabel, and frankly, we don’t know who else but the Patriots to blame for it.  

Lost in the maelstrom, at least for now, is the significance of all this on the matter of Tom Brady.  Cassel’s departure leaves only Brady and Kevin O’Connell between New England and another year without the playoffs.

Now, I know they had to think a lot of O’Connell to spend a third round pick on him, but somehow I don’t think today’s trade was a proclamation of his readiness. So that’s kind of a story too, isn’t it? 

The final analysis won’t come until we see whether Cassel and Vrabel (and Pioli) take hold in the Midwest, and what the Patriots will make of the 34th pick in this April’s draft.

And in the here and now, with a newly found salary surplus that could swing the public back to the Patriots side. If this deal today nets not only an early second round draft pick (an outside linebacker, a corner or safety…even an offensive lineman) but also enables early action on long-term deals with players like Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins, could you really kick?