Ross Tucker
Wednesday September 10th, 2008

The question that so many people like me have often pondered is finally about to be answered, though it comes via the most unfortunate of circumstances. During my time in the NFL, playing both for and against the New England Patriots, I frequently wondered how much of their success was directly related to the greatness of Tom Brady. My hunch is Brady makes a huge difference. Now that he is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, we are about to find out.

I've been on record as saying, based upon my personal experiences, the Patriots have the most impressive organization from top to bottom in the league. Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick form the best personnel man-head coach combination in the league and they have assembled a roster over the years that is both deep and talented.

All that being said, how good are the Patriots without Brady?

My guess is they are average at best, and that is not really a knock on Matt Cassel, who has been in the system for four years and will attempt to fill Brady's enormous shoes. In fact, I was impressed with the moxie Cassel showed when I was on the field with him for a two-minute drill in the 2005 season finale against the Miami Dolphins.

But there's only one Brady. His statistics, championships and awards speak for themselves. But Brady is so much more than that. He is the best leader I have ever been around. His work ethic is the stuff of legends. Most importantly, he has "It".

The "It" that makes Brady so special consists of an absolutely magnetic personality and demeanor that immediately instills confidence and belief in everyone around him. Every Patriot believes they are going to win when Brady is under center in crunch time, mainly because of the look on his face when he stares into their eyes in the huddle. They believe they are going to win because Brady knows he is going to find a way to get it done when it matters the most.

The confidence the other players have in Brady is a huge reason why they are able to play to the best of their own abilities. I truly believe only the elite among us can make those around them better, and Brady is the very definition of elite. Had you really heard of Wes Welker before last year, when he played with Brady for the first time? Think Brady's ability to get rid of the football quickly and change the protections at the line of scrimmage didn't help factor into three Pats offensive lineman going to the Pro Bowl?

For his part, I believe Cassel will play at a competent level and help the Pats win about half their games from here on out. Call it 8-8 or 9-7.

But Brady is so much more than competent. He is the integral difference between good and great, and what happens the next 16 weeks will be the answer to the oft-debated question that many thought would never be answered.

Teammates of Vince Young have had a reason to be concerned even before the strange events from earlier this week made national news. The concern that led to Titans head coach Jeff Fisher calling the Nashville Metro Police is just the latest in a series of events that call in to question Young's maturity.

Young's had a maddeningly inconsistent career to this point. On the plus side, he was the Rookie of the Year in 2006. He led his team to 10 wins and the playoffs in 2007, even though some thought that he had regressed.

But the negatives are beginning to outweigh the positives in the mind of many observers in light of his apparent reluctance to get back in the game after he was booed by the hometown fans for his second interception of the game. Evidently, Young did not want to subject himself to further ridicule. But he did go back in after he was coerced by Fisher, and injured his knee four plays later.

The fact he tried to take himself out of the game or didn't want to go in is just the latest example of a player who lacks the leadership qualities to lead the Titans to a championship. Need further evidence?

How about missing the team plane for a game in his rookie season? What about sitting out a preseason game last year after he skipped curfew? Or veteran teammates publicly questioning his knowledge of the offense? More troubling was his absence from the team this offseason as he went back to school at Texas, which wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't been photographed having too much fun in a Texas bar while the rest of the offense was learning new coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's system.

The most damaging knock against Young was his admission this offseason that he thought long and hard about retiring after his first NFL season. Can you imagine Brady or Peyton Manning ever having those thoughts, let alone talking about them publicly? I didn't think so.

You have to wonder how much faith Young's teammates have in him when they step back and consider his track record to date, especially in light of his effort to bail on them Sunday, a cardinal sin in the eyes of NFL players.

For the first time I had the opportunity to watch parts of every game via the DirectTV Sunday Ticket in my job last week as co-host of the Sunday Drive on Sirius NFL Radio. One thing immediately jumped out at me above all else: how brutal this game really is.

As a player, you recognize the potential for injury is there every time you step on the field, but the odds are small that it will actually be your turn to go down.

As a fan you typically watch one game on television at a time, so you likely notice an injury or two throughout the game, and usually don't pay much attention to it.

But when you are able to watch all of the games at one time you realize how many guys really suffer significant injuries on an almost minute by minute basis. Brady, Young and the Chiefs' Brodie Croyle are some of the quarterbacks who went down. The Seahawks' Nate Burleson, Rams' Drew Bennett, and Saints' Marques Colston all suffered serious injuries from their wide receiver positions, with Burleson out for the year.

Perhaps no team was devastated as badly as the Jacksonville Jaguars, who lost both starting guards, Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams, to significant injuries. This just adds to the toll the team took up front when it lost starting center Brad Meester.

Depth is a critical component of NFL success, but it is hard to imagine any team being prepared to lose all three interior starters in such a short time. The Jags ability to patch their line should go a long way toward deciding whether they remain legitimate Super Bowl contenders throughout the 2008 season.

Watching multiple games at once allowed me to experience the brutality of the NFL on a broader spectrum and helped me see that consistently building the back end of your roster for situations like the one in Jacksonville is more important than I had ever realized previously.

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