What initially seems like a simple assessment – deciding who should be the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback – has many more layers than might initially meet the visceral fan reaction.
On the surface, the answer seems easy. Veteran Matt Cassel produced a 123.4 passer rating Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was higher than any single-game rating Christian Ponder has produced in 29 previous starts.
Case closed, right? The answer is Cassel, isn't it?
That depends on what exactly the question is, and there are several additional ones entangled with that inquiry. Are the Vikings looking for the best quarterback to win the next game or are they looking to make their final assessment on Ponder and need more evidence one way or another? Should they base their decision strictly on statistics? Do they need to decide the starter for Oct. 13 10 days in advance? And who, exactly, is making the final call?
All of those are legitimate questions, and could be why head coach Leslie Frazier confused everyone that listened to his press conference Tuesday, two days after Cassel's performance.
First, there was this statement: "Christian is still injured, but he's our starting quarterback."
That led everyone to believe that Ponder would be the starter when the Vikings host the Carolina Panthers in 10 days. But, as Lee Corso would caution, not so fast, my friends.
Frazier admitted that the increased efficiency of the offense was due, in part, to what Cassel did.
"I think a lot of it had to do with Matt getting the ball out on time, being able to get us out of runs and execute when we had some eight-man fronts in the passing game. So, I think a lot of it had to do with his execution as a quarterback," Frazier said.
Which brought the natural follow-up question about why Cassel wouldn't just be named the starter. Based purely on the post-game numbers, it would seem to be the easy decision. He didn't have a turnover, threw as many touchdown passes (two) in one game as Ponder did in the three previous games combined, and led the team to its first victory.
Frazier said the decision comes down to much more than one game, but Cassel has had just one game to prove himself. Ponder, meanwhile, is compiling a career – albeit it still a young career – of inconsistency. So it's very possible that the decision-makers are still hoping the younger Ponder can increase the good times and minimize the bad decisions.
To be sure, Cassel's performance was far from flawless, and those willing to look beyond the stated numbers will see that. He started the game hitting on only 6 of 15 passes for 128 yards – and 70 of those yards came on a 7-yard hitch that Greg Jennings broke with elusive moves through the rest of the defense.
But Cassel's first series included a bad overthrow of John Carlson and a deep shot to Cordarrelle Patterson that should have been a touchdown if Cassel would have thrown it inside, where Patterson had position. Instead, the ball sailed to the sideline and Steelers CB Ike Taylor would have had the interception if Patterson didn't turn into a proficient defensive back and rip the ball out of Taylor's grasp.
Cassel finished his first quarter with another pass that might have been a touchdown with an accurate pass. What could have been at least a 45-yard reception to Jerome Simpson instead turned into an incompletion because Cassel overthrew Simpson instead of leading him across the field.
Still, the backup quarterback is usually the most popular player in an NFL city when its team is struggling, and Cassel is proving that to be true, even if Frazier isn't willing to accept that right now.
"I don't think our fans will be upset (if Ponder starts). They just want the Vikings to win," he said Tuesday. "We've got great fans. They want the best for our football team. And they've been so supportive throughout. I would expect our fans to be cheering for everybody that's wearing purple on Sunday when we get back at home."
But Ponder and numerous teammates admitted that they heard the boos for the offense throughout the game when the Vikings dropped their third game to the previously winless Cleveland Browns on Sept. 22.
Frazier shouldn't let the fans dictate what is best for the team, but he should tune into his locker room. Several players, including Jennings and Adrian Peterson, have talked about Cassel's more commanding presence in the huddle and on the field, with Peterson saying players were buying into it. That is an essential component in the decision.
Frazier said he hadn't seen those comments, but the bye will give him a chance to catch up on his reading. And early next week should be spent talking to the leaders of the team for their input.
"We'll see how things go this week as well as next week with Christian. Matt did a good job," Frazier said. "His experience definitely showed in that ball game. That's one of the reasons we signed him in the offseason, for moments like this past weekend. We were all hoping he'd play well and he did."
That leaves Frazier – and just as likely, general manager Rick Spielman – with a big decision on their hands. Spielman is the one that drafted Ponder in 2011. While many of his other decisions in the draft have been sound, no position can make or break the future of a team like quarterback. Is Spielman looking for one last stand from Ponder and hoping this time it will be a grand stand?
It would be as unpopular a decision as any in a long time in Vikings history. And that's just among the majority of the fan base. The risk is even greater in the locker room if Ponder is declared healthy when he returns from the bye and re-inserted as the starter.
Even on Cassel's misfiring opportunities to Patterson and Simpson deep, give Cassel credit for two things: First, he recognized the single coverage in both cases and was willing to take the shots deep. Those are both qualities that Ponder hasn't shown consistently enough, and it's why Cassel should be the starter on Oct. 13, even if that decision wasn't announced this week.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Yotter: Many layers to QB situation
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