For just the second time this season, the Minnesota Vikings fused efficient quarterback play with a late defensive stop to win a football game.
Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel combined to complete 21 of 27 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns, and the Vikings defense held Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins on four straight downs inside the 10-yard line to clinch a 34-27 win Thursday night.
Minnesota finally showed a pulse in an otherwise lost season.
But with a record that still sits at 2-7—and with just seven games remaining on the 2013 schedule—the Vikings are starting to run out of time to complete the evaluation process on quarterback Josh Freeman.
No head coach wants to make a quarterback switch following a win, especially after the starter, Ponder, played so well for most of Thursday night. He completed over 80 percent of his passes, threw for two scores and nearly ran in another. It was his best start of 2013 by a wide margin.
However, Ponder's injury once again complicates the Vikings' ever-changing quarterback situation.
Minnesota included Freeman in the active 46-man roster against Washington, mostly because of injuries at other positions. But when Ponder exited the game in the fourth quarter with a dislocated left shoulder, the Vikings called on Matt Cassel.
Freeman, who has just one appearance since signing with Minnesota on Oct. 8, watched on from the sidelines.
The Vikings now have nine days between today and a Week 11 matchup with the Seattle Seahawks. While that may give Ponder time to nurse his shoulder back to health, it would also provide head coach Leslie Frazier with an opportunity to appropriately prepare Freeman to make another start.
|Minnesota Vikings Remaining 2013 Schedule|
|Week 11||at Seattle Seahawks*|
|Week 12||at Green Bay Packers|
|Week 13||vs. Chicago Bears|
|Week 14||at Baltimore Ravens|
|Week 15||vs. Philadelphia Eagles|
|Week 16||at Cincinnati Bengals|
|Week 17||vs. Detroit Lions|
|* in 9 days|
At this point, the Vikings can't be satisfied with how far Freeman's evaluation has come.
Frazier unfairly threw Freeman to the wolves against the New York Giants, a decision that came less than two weeks after the former Buccaneer signed with Minnesota. His performance was understandably horrific. Freeman connected on just 20 of 53 passes, and his completion percentage of 37.7 still represents the worst single-game mark of 2013 (minimum 20 attempts).
Frazier originally committed to starting the 25-year-old quarterback again, but Freeman eventually lost that role when lingering effects of a concussion arose the following week. He hasn't been on the field since.
If Ponder can't go against the Seahawks next Sunday, it would be time for Minnesota to begin the process of finding out what Freeman offers long-term.
The Vikings can be fairly confident in knowing exactly what they have in both Ponder and Cassel. While Ponder has a few games like Thursday night, history still suggests the next head-scratching performance is right around the corner. At 31 years old, Cassel remains an ideal backup candidate.
Much more is unknown with Freeman.
If selected to start next Sunday, Freeman could realistically get seven starts in for a Vikings team that is all but out of the playoff picture after nine games.
If Freeman is an uncorrectable disaster through the first two or three starts, the team could always go back to Ponder and plan accordingly at the quarterback position next offseason. If Freeman plays well, leads the Vikings to a few victories and wins over the coaching staff and management, Minnesota could make him the new long-term option at quarterback.
Either way, the Vikings need to make that assessment before the time to do so is wasted on two quarterbacks Minnesota already knows about.
Much of Frazier's eventual decision next week will and should ride on Ponder's health. If his shoulder injury isn't severe and team doctors clear him medically, Frazier will likely have no choice but to give Ponder another start. It would set a bad locker room precedent to bench a player who is healthy and coming off one of the best performances in his three-year career with the team.
But if Ponder's status is up in the air, the time to start the Freeman evaluation will have arrived.
The Vikings can't confuse a seven-point win over a three-win team as a sign of a instant revival. This is still a poor football team with little to no chance at salvaging a lost season.
Assessing Freeman now is an investment in the future.