Leslie Frazier won’t tell who is starting at quarterback this weekend when the Vikings visit the Cowboys, except to say that it won’t be Matt Cassel. Given that Cassel is the only Vikings QB with a win under his belt in 2013, it seems a little odd to summarily disqualify him from the competition. Or am I crazy about that?
This is assuming there actually is a quarterback competition. From the outside, it appears that Christian Ponder is being allowed to duke it out with Josh Freeman for the privilege of lining up behind center. But all indications are that this is not really the case. In all probability, Freeman has been handed the starting job, and it’s just a matter of time before he gets command of the offense and his own mechanics. Then the apparent competition will be closed.
Okay, but why Christian Ponder? That’s the question a lot of fans are asking themselves. What has Ponder done this year to earn the #2 job over Matt Cassel?
Let’s compare the performance of the two quarterbacks thus far:
Ponder – 0-4 record as a starter. 60% completion percentage. 2/5 touchdown-to-int ratio. 69.4 QB rating. 44.6 QBR.
Cassel – 1-1 record as a starter. 69.6% completion percentage. 3/2 touchdown-to-int ratio. 92 QB rating. 38.6 QBR.
Ponder has Cassel in one category, the ESPN-invented QBR which factors in mobility and other non-passer-related stuff. Yes, Ponder is a better scrambler than Cassel. He is also a more eager scrambler than Cassel. Mr. Cassel’s problem is that he actually tries to stay in the pocket and complete passes downfield, otherwise his QBR would be more in that astronomical 44.6 range.
All right so in all fairness Cassel’s stats aren’t that much better than Ponder’s. Except that one vital stat, winning percentage. .500 ain’t great but it’s better than .000.
By any measure you care to throw out there, including actual concrete number of victories, Cassel gives the Vikings a better chance to win than Ponder. Who in their right mind could doubt this after watching Ponder’s uninspired performance against the Packers?
Yes Cassel was equally uninspired against Carolina, but consider the circumstances. Cassel had been given the starting job over Ponder and actually gone out and won a real life football game played on an actual football field (in London, but still). And then the Vikings picked up Josh Freeman and Cassel and everyone else knew the writing was on the wall.
Cassel said all the right things, but you knew he had to be disappointed and upset. And that was reflected in his play on the field vs. Carolina. Not exactly a great display of professionalism by Cassel you could argue, but under the circumstances I can’t blame him for being a bit mentally checked-out.
Now you take Ponder. He has as much reason to be disappointed as Cassel, even though his argument for starting is far less valid (guys who start the season 0-3 with more picks than TDs don’t have much of case). Unlike Cassel, Ponder gets a second chance to prove himself. And what does he do with this second chance? Plays just like Christian Ponder.
After all that big talk about Ponder learning something by being benched, Ponder knowing he had “nothing to lose,” Ponder going out more relaxed – even after an “impassioned” pregame speech by Ponder, the newly-minted true leader of the offense – Ponder laid a big fat egg.
That performance against the Packers proved once and for all that Ponder just doesn’ t have the mental edge required to be an NFL quarterback. That’s what the diehard Ponder boosters don’t seem able to grasp. It’s not about his arm strength or his durability or any of the other physical stuff. The mental side of the game is where Ponder comes up short.
Cassel is no one’s idea of a great quarterback, but he has a greater grasp of how to play the position than Ponder. He’s better at reading defenses, he’s better at dealing with the rush, he’s better at the leadership side of it. Physically he is limited; his arm isn’t great, his accuracy can be off at times and he certainly isn’t mobile. But QB is as much about what’s between the ears, and in that area Cassel has an obvious edge over Ponder.
So we return to our original question: Why is Matt Cassel out of the competition for the Vikings? Why is it between Ponder and Freeman for this weekend’s start? Why is it not Cassel vs. Freeman? Or Cassel vs. Ponder if you’re convinced Freeman isn’t quite ready yet?
Conspiracy theorists have their answer: Rick Spielman is tanking the season for draft position, so he wants the clearly inferior Ponder in there. But if you’re trying to tank, wouldn’t it make more sense to play Freeman, who is even more screwed up mechanically than Ponder?
Unless you’re concerned Freeman might get his act together and accidentally win the game. But then why have Freeman on the roster at all? Is he there just to mess with Ponder mentally, helping to insure that Ponder plays badly?
Are we sure Spielman wasn’t the guy on the grassy knoll?
This is the problem with conspiracy theories: the more logically you look at them, the more they unravel. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some chicanery going on behind the scenes here. I believe Spielman does have a good reason for ordering Frazier to permanently bench Matt Cassel, and it has nothing to do with tanking games. It has everything to do with avoiding a quarterback controversy.
Yes, Spielman knows that Cassel is better than Ponder. He knows Cassel gives the team a better chance to win. He knows that if Cassel actually goes out there and plays well and wins, the cry will come up from the fans to start Cassel over Freeman. And if he then puts Freeman in and Freeman fails, the already-edgy fan base will go ballistic.
In short, Spielman knows that as long as he puts the mentally over-matched Ponder in the game, there will be no chance of the Vikings coming out of their tailspin. So when his guy Freeman goes in – and make no mistake, Freeman is Spielman’s guy – there will be no worry about the fans complaining. Spielman is lowering expectations by playing Ponder, setting up Freeman to look that much better.
The rest of this season is all about Josh Freeman. Getting Freeman to where he can take the field and not embarrass himself. And then seeing if Freeman can play well enough to put himself in the mix for 2014.
If Freeman does play well and the Vikings start winning? This will disappoint people who think it’s all about tanking for draft position. But trust me, no one on the Vikings is thinking about tanking for draft position. Rick Spielman certainly is not. He wants to win some games, and he wants Josh Freeman to do the winning. So then he will look like a genius.
And if Freeman doesn’t get it done and the Vikings end up staggering to a one- or two-win season? Then they will be in position to draft their QB of the future. They can cut Freeman loose and move forward.
Spielman has it all laid out in his mind, how he wants this season to proceed. The only one who can mess up that vision is Matt Cassel. And that’s why Cassel is stuck on the bench while Christian Ponder prepares to play Sunday against Dallas (at least that is what Jerome Simpson says).
Ponder gets one more shot to go out the right way, but does anyone think it will turn out differently than the Green Bay game? Only if Ponder gets a brain transplant between now and Sunday.