Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman have been very clear: Christian Ponder is their starting quarterback in 2013, despite the team signing Matt Cassel to a two-year, $7.4 million contract (it could be voided without penalty after 2013).
Ponder, meanwhile, is still on his four-year, $10.15 million rookie contact and hoping to prove himself in a pivotal year. Those are the economics of the NFL, when a young starting quarterback can rank 37th among the league's quarterbacks in average salary per season and his older veteran backup can be 25th.
But no matter the declarations from Frazier, Spielman or other decision-makers in the process, Ponder is approaching this season as if Cassel presents a legitimate challenge to the starting spot.
"Even though they say (he's the backup), I think there's always competition. Matt has come in and worked his butt off," Ponder said. "He's thrown well. He's a great asset to have on this team and for me. Some of the things we've already talked about is going to help me out. But there's competition there for both of us."
The Vikings pursued Cassel as soon as he was released by the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. They went a different direction after Cassel and the Chiefs as a whole struggled in 2012, posting a 2-14 record and bringing in a new coaching staff, as well as quarterbacks Alex Smith and Chase Daniel.
"It's a team effort, and anytime you go 2-14 you're part of the problem. But at the same time there was a lot of problems on that team," Cassel said about the 2012 Chiefs. "Like you know, in this league, when you're not winning and things aren't going right, well, you're going to go in a different direction. That's what they did. But at the same time I feel very fortunate and blessed to have another opportunity here with the Minnesota Vikings, and I'm excited to get going and I'm going to work hard and do whatever I can to contribute."
Despite Ponder indicating otherwise initially, he said he does feel secure as the starter.
"That's my mindset. But in the back of your mind, you always think there's competition. I don't think you want to get very comfortable where you are no matter who's back there," he said.
Behind Cassel and Ponder are Joe Webb, whose failed efforts as the replacement starter in the Vikings' playoff game led to the Cassel acquisition, and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who was able to spend a full year with one team (the Vikings) for the first time in his young professional career last year.
Whatever level of competition there might be, there also appears to be an early mutual respect and cooperation between Ponder and Cassel.
"We talk about leadership. We talk about offense specifically. We watch film. We talk about how receivers should be running their routes. There's just a lot of communication going on between us," Ponder said. "It's great. It's good to have a guy like that to bounce ideas back and forth. He worked with Tom (Brady) in New England and started in Kansas City, so he's got a lot of knowledge that I can soak up."
Cassel called the Vikings "up and coming" and extolled Adrian Peterson and the offensive line.
Despite their position on the depth chart, Cassel has twice the starting experience and four times as many years in the league as Ponder. In eight seasons, Cassel has 52 starts with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. In two seasons with the Vikings, Ponder has 26 starts.
Cassel believes Ponder can continue to ascend as a quarterback in his all-important third season.
"Each year that he gets more experienced he's going to get better and better. He had an outstanding year last year leading this team to 10-6, so for me it's only my second week with Christian and I think that we're still getting to know each other and everything like that," Cassel said. "If there's questions that he has or things that I want to impress upon him, we'll have that conversation. Again, it'll be a mutual respect. It's not like I'm going to come in here and teach him the ropes. He's a guy that's had success in this league already, and he's a guy that's going to continue to get better."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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