Decision Between Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel Remains Difficult for Vikings

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IOctober 2, 2013

Simple logic would suggest that the Minnesota Vikings have a straightforward decision to make at quarterback in the near future. 

In his debut for Minnesota last Sunday in London, veteran Matt Cassel put together an efficient, turnover-free performance that helped the Vikings win for the first time in 2013. Christian Ponder, whose rib injury opened the door for Cassel to start, had previously played maddeningly inconsistent and turnover-prone football through his first three starts this season, each of which ended in defeat. 

A neutral onlooker could take these independent but related observations and make the completely rational decision that Cassel should start against the Carolina Panthers in Week 6, and Ponder should sit.

However, this remains a difficult decision for Leslie Frazier and the Vikings, mostly because it's not as ridiculously simple as the rather mundane situation laid out above. One way or another, Frazier's choice at quarterback will have a ripple effect inside the organization. And there are not only implications now, but also on the immediate and long-term future of both Frazier and the club.

A conveniently timed bye week provides Minnesota the necessary interval to make a determination on the team's starting quarterback, but for now, Frazier is sticking behind Ponder, a former first-round pick of the Vikings in 2011. 

"Yeah, Christian is still injured, he's our starting quarterback," Frazier said, via Andrew Krammer of ESPN 1500. "We'll see how he does coming out of the bye week."

Later, when directly asked if a healthy Ponder would start against the Panthers in 11 days time, Frazier was mostly vague in his response.

Ponder hurt his ribs against the Browns in Week 3.
Ponder hurt his ribs against the Browns in Week 3.Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

For now, Frazier can stick with the defensible narrative that because one of the players is injured, no quarterback controversy currently exists. But eventually, whether it's before Week 6 or some time shortly after, Ponder's rib will fully heal, and Frazier will have to make a decision between two healthy quarterbacks.

Judging by the information given by Ponder last week, it's a safe bet that he'll be ready to play by the time the Vikings welcome the Panthers to Minnesota on Oct. 13. 

While Ponder threw the football with no issues in the lead-up to Sunday's win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Vikings held him out of the game because his fractured rib hadn't set and was dangerously close to his heart. 

Via Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, Ponder said that the rib would take "10 days" to finally set back into place, a development that would significantly reduce the risk of taking another hit to the area. He should be able to practice fully when the Vikings begin preparations for Carolina, and a 10-day window from when the injury originally occurred would put Ponder well within the timeline of playing without any risk against the Panthers. 

Of course, the Vikings could also push toward more extreme caution in regard to the injury while allowing Cassel to start again under the convenient cloak of Ponder's continued "recovery." 

Conspiracy theories aside, Frazier and the Vikings might be coming up fast on a franchise-altering decision. 

Without much doubt, Cassel played well enough against the Steelers to earn another start. The 31-year-old completed 16 of 25 passes (64.0 percent) for 248 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His last 11 passes were completions. He also averaged nearly 10 yards per attempt (YPA) and finished with a passer rating of 123.4. For context, consider that Ponder has just one career game with a better YPA, and zero with a higher passer rating than what Cassel produced last Sunday. 

The Vikings locker room has also seemed to gravitate toward Cassel. After it was announced that Cassel would start, receivers Greg Jennings and Jerome Simpson both went to bat for how the veteran commanded the huddle. The two combined for 10 of Cassel's 16 completions, 216 of his 248 yards and both touchdowns.

The praise continued pouring in after the win, including from All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson

When asked if Cassel should remain the starter, Peterson replied with, "What do you think?" 

If Frazier does decide to put Cassel back on the bench and start Ponder, he may have some selling to do inside the locker room. In the present, it appears most players are on board with the idea that Cassel, not Ponder, gives the Vikings a better chance to win right now. 

The Vikings fans certainly made it abundantly clear who they want as the starting quarterback when a chorus of boos and unison chants for Cassel were echoing from the Metrodome during Minnesota's loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 3. Momentum has built all around the club for Cassel to be named the starter. 

However, players and fans don't make these decisions. The Vikings would have reasons for going back to Ponder, too. 

While Cassel has been praised for not turning over the football against the Steelers, luck seemed to play a heavy role in that outcome.

Taylor (24) should have had a first-quarter pick.
Taylor (24) should have had a first-quarter pick.Julian Finney/Getty Images

He put a deep ball intended for Cordarrelle Patterson right into the hands of cornerback Ike Taylor on Minnesota's first drive, but Patterson made a heads-up play to knock the ball free. Later, Cassel had another short pass that could have been a pick-six, and a third that, if not knocked down at the line of scrimmage, could have been intercepted by a flashing Ryan Clark. There was also Cassel's fumble that was scooped up by the Vikings. 

Ponder had seven giveaways (five interceptions, two lost fumbles) in three games for the Vikings. But a bounce here or a bounce there, and Cassel could have been surprisingly Ponder-like in the turnover category Sunday. 

The Vikings also protected Cassel better against the Steelers than at any time with Ponder at quarterback this season. 

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Cassel was under pressure on just three of his 27 dropbacks, or roughly 11 percent. Ponder didn't receive the same type of protection in his three starts. Over 122 dropbacks, Ponder was under pressure on 47 of them, or almost 39 percent. 

The defense also made a stop on Pittsburgh's final drive, which is something it failed to do in last-minute losses to the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns in consecutive weeks. 

But possibly the most complicated matter in this situation is the message potentially being sent to Ponder and the franchise as a whole. 

By starting Cassel over a healthy Ponder, the Vikings would essentially be giving up on a first-round quarterback who was hand-picked to elevate the franchise in the post-Brett Favre years. Ponder is in many ways tied to Frazier, a coach with only one year remaining on his contract. He may now want to sink or swim with Ponder. 

Starting Cassel would also be the strongest of signals that the Vikings are starting over at the quarterback position, likely with next year's draft. A 31-year-old with a spotty past, Cassel likely isn't a long-term option. Management could ultimately decide that with a new quarterback should come a new head coach and staff, especially with the option available of simply declining to re-up Frazier after this season. 

Frazier likely understands this dynamic. His best chance of sticking around as the Vikings head coach past 2013 might just be to turn back to Ponder and hope he can provide another turnaround, much like he did last season. 

Could Cassel lead the Vikings to a playoff appearance this season? Maybe, but it remains unlikely given Minnesota's 0-3 start (only three teams have recovered from an 0-3 start to make the postseason since 1990). Winning seven or eight games and missing the playoffs with Cassel in charge might still seal Frazier's fate, and it wouldn't be nearly enough to consider the Vikings quarterback situation fixed. 

Common sense would seem to paint the decision to start Cassel in Week 6 against the Panthers as an easy one. He earned it, and Ponder has done nothing in three games to prove he's the unquestioned starter if healthy. 

But there are so many moving parts to this situation than what originally meets the eye, and that's why this decision is much more difficult to make for Frazier and the Vikings than most realize. Cassel might deserve the start, but it wouldn't be at all shocking if the Vikings went back to a healthy Ponder. 


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