Caught in the shuffle last season, Matt Cassel was just as unsure as outsiders were watching the Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback rotation.
Cassel, the veteran, didn’t know what to expect. Even after leading Minnesota to its first win of the season, he watched as the Vikings signed Josh Freeman. One poor game against the Carolina Panthers and Cassel was back to being a backup. Freeman started one game and then Minnesota went back to Christian Ponder, again hoping Ponder, the 2011 first-round pick, could capitalize on another opportunity.
Ponder’s injuries, first a shoulder and then a concussion, opened up another chance for Cassel. Cassel eventually started the season’s final four games — and helped the Vikings to wins in four of the six games in which he played at least a half — but he never knew with any certainty when he would be in the lineup.
"I don’t think I always knew where I stood," Cassel said of the situation last year. "Obviously, from week-to-week, there was always something going on and you never really knew until Coach would tell you what’s going on. You just prepare to the best of your ability and you sit there and you hope that you get a chance to get on the field. And at the end of the day, I was able to get on the field and we were able to finish pretty strong and give myself another opportunity to come back."
Cassel, 31, signed a two-year contract with Minnesota — and the team’s new coaching staff — with little doubt where he stands entering next season. Ponder is still on the roster, but Cassel returns to the Vikings with the expectation of being the team’s starter next season.
"That’s my mentality, absolutely," Cassel said Tuesday after officially signing his two-year, $10 million contract. "I go in with the expectation to be the starter and that won’t change. At the same time, you still have to go out there and prove it and compete. There’s going to be two other quarterbacks, maybe three other quarterbacks, in here competing, as well, and that’s what it is on every NFL roster."
Ponder is around and Minnesota is sure to add a young quarterback to the roster — the Vikings have the No. 8 overall draft pick to work with — in hopes of filling the void for the future. Cassel, even after a season in which he showed positive signs following a turbulent ending as Kansas City’s starter, is still a shorter-term solution for a position that has ached for a long-term resolution since Daunte Culpepper tore up his knee in 2005.
Cassel had an 81.6 quarterback rating, 60.2 completion percentage and 11 passing touchdowns to nine interceptions last season. He believes he will have to earn his keep again this season.
But Cassel says he won’t be left in limbo again by new head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
"I’ve talked to coach Zimmer on the phone and we’re all very optimistic about working with each other," Cassel said. "At the same time, I’ve never had one practice with coach Zimmer. So you’ve got to go in, you’ve got to earn your keep like it is every year in the NFL, and that’s part of the business."
Cassel knows the business well.
He signed last offseason to backup Ponder on a two-year contract. Cassel held a player option for the second year of the deal and exercised his right to opt out of the contract earlier this offseason. It was a business decision for Cassel.
"Basically, it was just a decision about, based on the contract and nothing being guaranteed in the second year, anything like that," Cassel said. "It was just really a decision that was a pretty easy decision to be made. But all at the same time understanding there was a great possibility that I would be back to the Vikings."
Cassel bet on himself that he would find another contract as a free agent. In a week market for quarterbacks, including few starting options, Cassel’s small gamble would pay off when he re-signed with Minnesota before ever getting the chance to be courted by other teams.
"I felt very comfortable, especially with the fact that you honestly never know what’s going to happen," Cassel said of deciding to become a free agent. "I felt comfortable like if you turned on that film from last year that you’d see that I could play and was confident in my abilities. Again, you never know what’s going to happen, but I wouldn’t have done it unless I was comfortable that I’d have an opportunity to play, or at least have a job next year."
The nine-year pro has been with three teams. He said he’s worked with seven coordinators in the past six seasons. He’s never worked with Turner before, but the two knew each other from years playing as opponents in the AFC West, along with some mutual acquaintances.
Cassel knows the offensive talent he reunites with in running back Adrian Peterson, tight end Kyle Rudolph and receivers Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jarius Wright. And Cassel believes Turner will make the most out of the offensive pieces.
"I just think it’s a trust factor," Cassel said. "I trust that he’s going to put you in a position to be successful because his resume definitely will show that throughout his career he’s going to put his quarterback in a great position to be successful, along with everybody else on that offensive side of the field. Then you go in with that trust factor, and then you obviously have to build that relationship and get to know him, how he likes to call the plays, how he sees the field, watching film and doing all of that stuff. But at the same time, it gives you a lot of confidence as a player knowing that hey, if I go in and do what I’m supposed to do then there’s a great possibility that I’m going to be very successful."