If Matt Cassel is as good at delivering a pass as he is an impromptu one-liner during interviews, the Minnesota Vikings will be in good shape with their backup quarterback position.
Cassel signed a two-year deal with the Vikings just one day after being released by the Kansas City Chiefs, and Minnesota's management made it clear to Cassel that Christian Ponder is the starter.
It's a role that Cassel is familiar with, even if it takes him back to the beginning of his career. For most of the last four seasons, Cassel was the starter for the Kansas City Chiefs, but the first three of his four years with the New England Patriots, Cassel was the backup to Tom Brady, who likely already has his ticket punched to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Asked if it is odd to now be Christian Ponder's backup after serving in that role for the much more accomplished Brady, Cassel delivered a quick-firing one-liner.
"Well, I taught Tom everything he knows. I don't know what you guys are talking about. But I thought he really started to flourish once I got there," Cassel said with a smile.
"No, you know, it's one of those things. I've been in the role, but again the room itself, a lot of people … don't understand how much time we spend together. And so it's important as a room as a whole to be together and be good teammates and then when you have a good room it makes everybody better in the room so that's what it's all about."
Ponder started his career as a backup to Donovan McNabb, with both of them new to the Vikings offense in 2011. McNabb floundered for six games after a solid career in Philadelphia, and Ponder didn't have the benefit of an offseason with the coaching staff as the lockout took away his prime rookie learning time.
McNabb was granted his release before the 2011 season was finished as Ponder started the final 10 games of a 6-10 season. Last year, Ponder had veteran Sage Rosenfels during the offseason, but the Vikings cut him in favor of Joe Webb and first-year pro McLeod Bethel-Thompson serving as Ponder's backups, meaning the starting experience behind Ponder was less than the second-year player had himself.
Cassel brings with him the experience of starting 62 games in the NFL over eight years – four each with the Patriots and Chiefs.
But after five straight seasons of being the primary starter, Cassel returns to a backup role, this time as the mentor to Ponder rather than the student behind Brady.
"I've been in the role before, and I understand it. At the same time, your preparation can't change," Cassel said. "You always have to be prepared to play because the minute you take a day off or you start to get complacent is the day that you get called upon, and your team is counting on you, and you've got 53 other guys on that roster who are all looking for you, if something was to happen to Christian, to step in and play well.
"So it'll be a different role, because, again, you're not getting all those reps so you really have to take an emphasis and put a lot of weight on your mental reps and preparing mentally throughout the course of the week."
Cassel played sparingly in his first three NFL seasons, attempting only 39 passes over that timeframe, but he took full advantage of being the injury replacement for Brady in 2008. Cassel started 15 games that year and completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 3,693. Those were both career bests for him, leading to the opportunity to be the starter in Kansas City.
He had three decent seasons there – highlighted by his 2010 performance, when he threw for 3,116 yards, 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions – but things fell apart for Cassel and the Chiefs last year. He started only eight games and threw only six touchdowns and 12 interceptions, leading to the worst rating of his days as a starter – 66.7.
"It's one of those things that you can never put your finger on one thing. 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," he said. "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."
Maybe he'll even teach Ponder everything he knows and Ponder will really start to flourish, just as Brady apparently did upon Cassel's arrival in New England.
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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