At no point during the last week did it look like anything other than Matt Cassel becoming the starter. Really, it was the only logical move.
Christian Ponder can and will continue to have his backers. They may be dwindling, but it's only natural for fans and even teammates to formulate their own opinions and take sides. But if Leslie Frazier really wanted to do "what's best for the team," as he stated throughout the week, starting Cassel against the Carolina Panthers was the only option that followed that philosophy.
An argument could made that Ponder's increased athleticism would be a better fit against a Carolina defense that can bring the pressure, but trying to justify re-inserting Ponder after Cassel got the win would have been a hard sell to veterans who care first and foremost about wins.
It's been clear for over a year now how the dynamics work regarding the roster and depth chart at Winter Park. General manager Rick Spielman has control of the roster. If he wants to make a change – a cut, addition or trade – that's on him. Once the players are on the roster and able to play, it's Frazier's decision. He confirmed that chain of command last week.
Ultimately, though, even if former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Shaun King says Frazier wasn't on board with the signing of Josh Freeman, both of Frazier's previous options – Cassel and Ponder – eventually will be moved to the bench. The Vikings aren't paying Freeman $2 million to be a backup (is there such a thing as a mercenary backup?).
The only reason Freeman isn't starting Sunday, and isn't likely to even be active, is because he isn't up to speed yet. There is a reason coaches talk about the value of offseason practices and three weeks of training camp.
Freeman spent the week going through intensive training. While he rotated taking snaps with Cassel and Ponder during individual drills, he also spent a lot of time talking through philosophies and concepts with quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson and assistant quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski. Either way, it will be an expedited delivery of Freeman to the fans, but putting him in this week would be unfair to everyone involved.
Eventually, however – whether that is next week against the New York Giants or in the following weeks – Freeman will be on the field and that is the right decision. If Cassel can continue to win until that time, all the better for the organization. But it seems clear that none of the movers and shakers in the organization is convinced anymore that Ponder or Cassel are the long-term solutions at quarterback.
Freeman may or may not be, but there is only one way to start finding out.
Although it's hard to view simulations by PredictionMachine.com as anything other than educated entertainment, their conclusion was that Freeman is the best option for the Vikings, although not by much. They have projected statistics for each of the quarterbacks for the remainder of the season if they were the starters:
How would those statistics translate into wins and losses for the full season, according to their simulations? Ponder would have 5.2 wins and 10.8 loss, Cassel 5.3 wins and 10.7 losses, and Freeman 5.6 wins and 10.4 losses.
That doesn't seem like much of a difference, but Freeman will be given the opportunity to prove himself and thereby earn a contract that reaches beyond 2013.
Look no further than Sports Illustrated film junkie Doug Farrar for the practical reasons why Spielman was enamored with Freeman in 2009, when the Vikings knew they were bringing in Brett Favre as the temporary savior from quarterback insanity, and why he was still intensely interested when Freeman's issues became too much for the controlling ways of Bucs coach Greg Schiano.
This may not be the same offense the Vikings ran under Brian Billick and others when Robert Smith and the three-deep receiving corps of Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed were lighting up scoreboards, but they have an opportunity to create some of the same elements with a power running game and stretching the field with Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings.
From Farrar's assessment: "In 2012, Ponder attempted just 36 throws of 20 yards or more (Andrew Luck led the league with 102), and completed just eight of those passes for 269 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Freeman, on the other hand, attempted the NFL's third-most deep passes (89, behind Luck and Joe Flacco), completing 31 passes for 1,178 yards, five touchdowns, and three picks in an offense designed for these types of throws. … Freeman surely excited the Vikings' brass with his capacity for making stick throws downfield — and doing it with the required indifference to pressure."
Not only should that, in theory, anyway, help Peterson face softer defensive fronts trying to protect against the deep pass, the advantage would be reciprocal. The play-action is also something that Freeman has thrived on, according to the statistics cited by Farrar.
"In 2012, only Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson had a higher percentage of play-action passes than Ponder, who used it on 32.4 percent of his passing snaps. … He completed 94 passes in 156 attempts for 983 yards, nine touchdowns, and four interceptions out of play action. Without it, he was 206-for-327 for 1,952 yards, nine touchdowns and eight picks.
"Freeman was even more impressive in play-action, through the Bucs didn't use it as much — just 23.4 percent of the time — which is kind of inexcusable when you consider that (Doug) Martin was one of the league's most productive and efficient backs. In play-action, Freeman completed 76 of 132 passes for 1,018 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Without it? 230 of 426 for 3,047 yards, 17 touchdowns and 14 picks."
The message is this: Ponder had 29 career starts to take control, or at least show improvement. He showed flashes at times, and regression at times. If there wasn't the Freeman experiment available to the Vikings, he might still be re-inserted into the starting lineup. As it stands, however, Cassel is the starter now and Freeman is tagged as the starter in the near future.
It's the only way the Vikings can find out if they should make a big effort to re-sign him for 2014 or go after another first-round quarterback in April. It's really the only choice the Vikings have at this point.
Ponder can be disappointed and frustrated, as he claims, but ultimately he had the opportunities and didn't take full advantage while Spielman worked to erase the excuses: The offensive line was shored up with the addition of Matt Kalil last year, along with the running game with fullback Jerome Felton. The wide receivers were upgraded to at least average, maybe better, with Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Now it's next man up, and we're not too far away from seeing if Freeman can seize his best opportunity in the NFL.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer is still irked by the two fakes that the Cleveland Browns pulled off against the Vikings three weeks ago. Thankfully, he isn't upset with the Browns for attempting them, but rather himself and his defenders for allowing them. "That should never happen to one of our coached teams. We're too disciplined for that," Priefer said. "… I like to think that we're the type of team that it shouldn't happen to, but they got us. So going forward we're just going to change a little bit the way I call punt return and field goal block. I'm going to learn from it. I have to learn from it and we're going to move on."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.