EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Mike Zimmer assembled his team on Monday morning and ended what little suspense there might have been — Matt Cassel is the Minnesota Vikings’ starting quarterback.
The expectation all along was the veteran Cassel would be the starter when Minnesota opens the regular season on Sept. 7 at St. Louis. Zimmer said Cassel was the No. 1 quarterback when training camp opened, simply stating the pecking order on the depth chart, but the veteran had to win the starting job over rookie Teddy Bridgewater, who the team traded into the end of the first round to secure as the team’s future at the position.
But Cassel is the present after starting the first three preseason games.
"Matt did not do anything to lose the job this preseason," Zimmer said Monday. "I think he’s played great. The team has a lot of confidence in him. They feel good about his veteran leadership and presence. I had to think about the whole football team, it wasn’t just about the quarterbacks.
"I’ve said this before, it’s not always the best player at that position and I’m not saying Matt’s not, but any position it’s how everything works together and at this stage in where we are at right now I feel like that’s the best thing to do."
Zimmer had indicated he had a day in mind when he would announce the decision between Cassel, Bridgewater and third-string quarterback Christian Ponder. The timing wasn’t unexpected as the team finished its third preseason game and will finish the preseason on Thursday at Tennessee.
Cassel, 32, re-signed with Minnesota in the offseason with the expectation of being the team’s starter after he started the final four games of last season. Cassel opted out of the two-year contract he signed with the Vikings in 2013, only to re-sign for another two years with more guarantee and security.
"I’m not celebrating," Cassel said. "I am excited, there’s no doubt. There was a lot of hard work that went into this offseason to put me in this position and I feel great about that accomplishment. Then again, we haven’t even started the season. My main goal is to go out there and us to win ballgames and make the playoffs and win championships. So, right now I’m definitely not satisfied. It’s one step in the process."
Cassel completed 66.7 percent (26 of 39) of his passes in the preseason for 9.4 yards per attempt. He had two touchdowns, one interception and was sacked four times while guiding Minnesota’s first-team offense, and had a 103.3 quarterback rating.
Cassel has started 68 games in his career and he started 47 of his 48 games with the Kansas City Chiefs before being released and signing last year with the Vikings.
"I’ve been through a lot in my career," Cassel said. "I’ve been through the ups. I’ve been through the downs. I’ve been through the highs and the lows. At this point, nothing really surprises me in my career. I think because of those, it calluses you to a few different situations that as a younger player I might not have taken it as well."
Bridgewater had fared well in the competition, showing some of the promise he holds for the organization. Bridgewater is 26 of 40 (65 percent) passing for 6.7 yards per attempt with four touchdowns and zero interceptions in the preseason. He was sacked three times and had a 117.3 quarterback rating.
"I feel pretty good about the preseason because I’ve been able to make strides and get better each game," Bridgewater said. "But I also feel like I have a lot to learn and a long way to go. I’m just going to use this time, this next week and prepare for Tennessee, and just going to try to continue to build off the momentum that I have so far."
Bridgewater said after the draft he felt Minnesota was the best situation for him, and now he will have the chance to develop behind Cassel.
"For me, as I stated when camp first started, I just wanted to try to learn as much as I could and try to get better each and every day and not make the same mistakes twice," Bridgewater said. "I take my hat off to Matt. He’s been playing great this preseason and I’m just going to continue to just learn under him."
Bridgewater, 21, has impressed the Vikings’ coaching staff since being selected in the first round and can ease his way into a starting role the team hopes he will have for years.
"I told Teddy this morning that I’m so happy that he’s here with us," Zimmer said. "I’m glad he’s the guy we picked. I’ve loved everything he’s done and it wasn’t anything that Teddy did or didn’t do. But Teddy will be still, in my estimation, a great player for this franchise for years to come."
Ponder has played sparingly throughout the preseason and training camp, receiving limited snaps during practice.
The former Vikings’ starter and first-round pick, Ponder hasn’t played in the past two preseason games. His lone game action was in the first game when he was 3 of 7 for 39 passing yards and a 61.0 quarterback rating.
Zimmer said Cassel "had the advantage going in" based on his experience. But Cassel will need to perform to keep the job, just as in the preseason. Zimmer said he was prepared for a question about Cassel’s future job security.
"We will hold the quarterback position to the exact same expectations as we do every other position: if you perform, you play," Zimmer said. "If you don’t perform, then the next guy will get an opportunity at some point. When we decide to do that, we sit down and discuss it. That position, just like the outside linebacker spot, we have an expectation of performance and as long as those guys perform, they play."