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Monday, October 28, 2013
Matt Cassel and the Vikings' pecking order

By Ben Goessling

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The most frequent question appearing in my Twitter feed this afternoon is probably also the most obvious one raised by coach Leslie Frazier's admission the Vikings are only considering Josh Freeman and Christian Ponder to start on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. And that question is: Why is the one quarterback who has led the team to a victory this season -- Matt Cassel -- the only one not being considered for the job?

The question is probably a pertinent one if you're thinking about it solely from the perspective of the Vikings' play so far this season and which quarterback has the best resume (though ESPN's QB Rating would differ with traditional metrics on the answer to that question). But there's probably more at play here, and though he said the decision is about who will give the Vikings the best chance on Sunday, even Frazier seemed to admit later there are other factors involved.

Cassel
Reserve QB Matt Cassel has led the Vikings to their only win of the season and has the team's best passer rating.
Cassel is 31, is in his ninth season and might not be more than a reliable backup at this point in his career. Whatever they might turn out to be, both Freeman and Ponder are only 25. If one of them has some kind of chance to be the Vikings' quarterback for the next four or five years, they'd theoretically be spending those years in their primes. And in Freeman's case, the Vikings are paying him $2 million this season as a kind of deposit, a chance to acquire more information about him and see if they want to pursue a longer relationship with him after the season. The only way to make that happen is to play him, as Frazier admitted on Monday as part of a discussion about both Freeman and Ponder.

"Christian did some good things in that ballgame [on Sunday against Green Bay]. There were some things he could obviously do better, but that has something to do with it," Frazier said. "He has led us to some wins in the past. Josh, we brought him here to evaluate him and determine whether he could be a guy that could be a potential player for us in the future. That's what goes into trying to evaluate the both of them."

Cassel did lead the Vikings to their lone win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in London, and put up solid numbers in that game (though he could have had an early pass intercepted). But the guess here is that the Vikings have decided he's not in the mix to be a long-term starter, and might even feel he's not the best fit for their offense now. He's more assertive, but less mobile, than Ponder, who did a few nice things on bootlegs on Sunday. He's been slightly more accurate than Freeman over the course of their careers -- though both players have a career completion rate under 60 percent -- but lacks Freeman's arm strength. His passer rating for the year is 92.0, easily the best on the team, but ESPN's QB Rating statistic has Ponder above Cassel (44.6 to 38.6). None of the options before the Vikings have been stellar recently, so the team might be rolling the dice on potential, too.

If Freeman is recovered from his concussion, the guess here is he starts on Sunday; Ponder has probably shown the Vikings enough for them to know what he is, and they need to continue their evaluation of Freeman. Cassel might be more popular in the eyes of some fans because he has the best game by a Vikings quarterback this year, but in a season that's now mostly about planning for the long-term, how much weight should one win in a small sample size carry?

Probably not as much as future considerations, which would seem to play against Cassel here. The Vikings could try to trade him before Tuesday's deadline, or they could keep him in hopes of having a steady backup should Cassel not opt out of his deal after this season. But if the team feels Cassel isn't going to be more than that, there's probably no reason for them to spend one of their nine remaining games on him. Their QB conundrum could extend into the future, and the Vikings need all the time they can get to figure it out.