- Ben Goessling, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- From the moment the Minnesota Vikings signed Josh Freeman to a one-year contract Oct. 7 -- effectively signaling the end of whatever commitment they had to Christian Ponder as their starting quarterback -- it seemed inevitable that the team was going to get the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback on the field soon. But this fast? In time for a Monday night game against the New York Giants after Freeman had just two weeks to learn the offense?
When coach Leslie Frazier announced last Wednesday that was the Vikings' course of action, the immediate line of questioning from Twin Cities reporters was whether he'd made that decision in a vacuum, or whether he'd had involvement from his bosses -- either the approval of ownership and general manager Rick Spielman, or an outright demand that Freeman be put on the field as soon as possible.
Frazier said the decision was up to his coaching staff and him, adding that he would have been able to go another route than naming Freeman the starter for Monday's game. But then he admitted he went to Spielman and the Wilf family, telling them what he planned to do and asking for their input. And then Frazier said something that might synthesize the underlying truth behind the Vikings' quarterback mess.
"When you’re talking about the quarterback position, which affects your entire franchise, this is not a decision that you make alone," Frazier said. "I informed them what I was thinking and why I thinking this and why I wanted to do it, and they signed off on it. But no, you don’t make these kind of decisions on an island."
The Vikings are certainly on some kind of island after a 1-5 start to their 2013 season. Their ferry off of it and back to relevance officially disappeared over the horizon Monday night, as Freeman went 20-of-53 for 190 yards and the Vikings lost 23-7 to the previously winless Giants. Their best chance to get through the rest of the season without turning on each other is to get behind Freeman, hoping he can deliver something closer to efficient quarterback play as he learns the offense and provides some shred of hope heading into 2014. Otherwise, some of the Vikings' decision-makers could be paying with their jobs for a quarterback situation that has gone very, very badly.
It started in 2011, when Spielman -- then running the draft, though not with the same complete authority over personnel he now enjoys as general manager -- picked Ponder 12th overall. The Vikings seemed unsure of how to develop Ponder from the beginning, first bringing in Donovan McNabb to start the 2011 season, then handing the job over to the rookie once the McNabb experiment turned sour six games into the season. From then until this season, Ponder had complete control of the starting job, free from any challengers even as his play fluctuated between respectable and reprehensible.
But what the Vikings did at quarterback heading into this season might have been even less coherent. They signed Matt Cassel to a two-year deal in March, giving themselves a veteran quarterback they unequivocally said was not there to challenge Ponder for the starting job. Ponder went through training camp as the unquestioned starter, staying in that spot through three sloppy performances in the first three games (all losses) until a rib injury gave the Vikings political cover to look at Cassel. They said Ponder still would be the starter if he were healthy, then watched Cassel lead them to a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London. They came back from their bye week saying that Ponder had been cleared to play but Cassel was the starter and added Freeman in a week where they already had uncertainty bubbling up at quarterback. Then they made Freeman the starter and Ponder the backup, putting Cassel, who'd started their past two games, on the inactive list.
Clear, concise answers are hard to find from the Vikings about their quarterback situation these days, but what has been clear for years is how uneasy the team appears to be about fully committing to a rebuilding process. They threw their support behind Tarvaris Jackson as the starting quarterback in 2007 only to take the job away from him several times and eventually sign Brett Favre for what amounted to a one-time title shot with a roster in its prime. The Vikings paid for having an aging roster in 2010 and began to build through the draft in 2011, but here they are, barely two full seasons later, ready to start over at quarterback again.
They've had three, maybe four, Hall of Fame-caliber players (Adrian Peterson, Kevin Williams, Jared Allen and Antoine Winfield) in their primes over the past few years, which makes it hard to think solely about the future, but then why attempt to go young at the quarterback position at all? The Vikings, it seems, have been caught between what they know they will eventually have to do and what they'd like to do for immediate success. Freeman is the least familiar quarterback with the Vikings' scheme, but he might also be the most talented and the most capable of delivering a quick fix. He could allow Spielman to reclaim some credit as a quarterback evaluator after the Ponder pick, and he might deliver Frazier enough wins to keep his job. But the Vikings also are trying to get Freeman to that point in short order, and the NFL has a funny way of thwarting teams who try to piece things together on the fly.
At 1-5, the Vikings can no longer be caught between the future and the present. They've started their Freeman experiment, and they've made it clear in the past two weeks -- by sitting Cassel and refusing to put Ponder in two games where the offense has struggled -- that they don't see either of those two quarterbacks as their ultimate solution. The best way for the Vikings to attach some significance to this season is to ride with Freeman, as awful as he looked Monday night, see if he can play and decide either to move forward with him (to the tune of a long-term contract) or dip back into what's expected to be a talented quarterback draft next spring. It's entirely possible Frazier could lose his job if the experiment leads to an 11-, 12- or 13-loss season, and it's even feasible that Spielman could suffer consequences for missing on the Ponder pick.
But the Vikings have pursued a disjointed strategy at quarterback for too long, and as painful as it might be, they need to spend the rest of this year seeing what Freeman can offer them. Their only way off the island is to set a course for the future, with a plan to solve their quarterback quandary and a commitment from all parties involved to press forward through the squalls that could come.