The Vikings' convoluted year at quarterback
December, 18, 2013
By Ben Goessling | ESPN.com
AP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesChristian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman have started games for the Vikings this season.EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The quote that's been buzzing through the Minnesota Vikings' Twittersphere since coach Leslie Frazier uttered it on Sunday is the one that might have finally lent some clarity to the team's confusing, convoluted quarterback plan of 2013. Before we examine it -- and the follow-up Frazier gave to it on Monday -- in further detail, we need a little review:
The Vikings started Matt Cassel on Sept. 29 in London, sitting Christian Ponder because a fractured rib was too close to his heart for him to play. Cassel quarterbacked the Vikings to their first win of the season, and Ponder was cleared to play after the Vikings returned from their bye week. But the Vikings benched him, first starting Cassel against the Carolina Panthers and then Josh Freeman against the New York Giants. But after Freeman sustained a concussion during his ugly performance on "Monday Night Football," Ponder -- not Cassel -- was back in as the starting quarterback.
Frazier said on Oct. 23 that Ponder got the nod based on his "body of work," which ostensibly would have been the same body of work that led the Vikings to pick Cassel over Ponder the previous time they'd had the decision. Five days later, he said he was only considering Ponder and Freeman as options to start the Vikings' game in Dallas, and when the Vikings had other decisions to make -- including whether to play Ponder 10 days after he dislocated his shoulder against Washington and after he was benched against Seattle -- Frazier said several times he thought Ponder "gives us the best chance to win."
Now, for what Frazier said Sunday, after Cassel threw for 382 yards in the Vikings' 48-30 win over the Philadelphia Eagles:
AP Photo/Jim Mone"We need to see [Matt Cassel] in a lead role on a consistent basis and see how he does," coach Leslie Frazier said.
"We made those decisions at the time for different reasons. We always felt good about Matt but there were some things we needed to see," Frazier said. "Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get wins when we were going through the process. That would have been a lot better. We knew why we were doing it back then, so hindsight is always 20/20."
I've always thought the Vikings were giving more leeway to Ponder and Freeman because of their ages -- they're 25, while Cassel is 31, and if the Vikings could have seen either one possibly turning into a long-term quarterback, they might have avoided another youth movement at the position. Frazier's comments on Sunday -- that there were "some things we needed to see" and that the Vikings couldn't "get wins when we were going through the process" would seem to suggest there were other things at work. Here's what he said when I asked him about it again on Monday.
"Looking at the guys who had been playing, primarily Christian, just seeing some of the ups and downs of his play and then when the injury occurred -- I think it was [against] Chicago he had [a concussion] -- Matt got back in and played very well for us down the stretch," Frazier said. "Made some big-time plays in that fourth quarter and overtime as well. He’s done that coming in a relief role and so now you say, ‘OK, we need to see him in a lead role on a consistent basis and see how he does in that role as well.'"
Asked to elaborate later on what he needed to see from Ponder, Frazier said: "Every time you put him out there you want to see him keep growing and keep getting better and that was a big part of why he was in that starting role. You want to see him just keep growing and do some of the things he did for us in the month of December a year ago. He helped us tremendously to get into the playoffs a year ago, so you want to build on that and watch him just continue to grow. He did some good things, but consistency is what you’re always looking for."
Obviously, the Vikings can't change their season now, but the pertinent question going forward is, how were the Vikings' quarterback decisions made? Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman have said it's the coach's call, but both have also added that Frazier has consulted Spielman and ownership on quarterback moves this year. Was he told the Vikings needed a more thorough evaluation of Ponder, and did that factor into his decision? That question could sway whether Frazier has a chance to keep his job. He wouldn't be the first NFL coach to get fired after being asked to coach partly for the future, but if he's got a chance to catch a break, it might be in light of how different the Vikings have looked when Frazier's gotten competent quarterback play.
What Frazier has said in the past few days, at least, hints at the idea there was more to the Vikings' quarterback decisions than they had let on. And as the Vikings close out their 2013 season, their confusing, convoluted quarterback plan continues to be compelling.