EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Norv Turner knows what to look for in a franchise quarterback after a long NFL career, having worked with the likes of Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers as an offensive coordinator and head coach.
Turner is still waiting to see who will emerge in the role of franchise quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings.
During Turner’s first public statements as Minnesota’s new offensive coordinator, he made clear the organization doesn’t believe the franchise quarterback is on the current roster.
"I think everyone is in agreement that we are trying to add a young quarterback to the organization," Turner said. "We just have to make sure it’s a good one, wherever we get him."
Christian Ponder, who never lived up to the billing through three up-and-down seasons as the main starter, is the only quarterback on the roster. Matt Cassel voided the 2014 part of his contract with the Vikings using his player option, though Turner didn’t rule out a return for Cassel, who eventually became Minnesota’s starter last season in the final five games.
Cassel will head to free agency with his options open, along with Josh Freeman after three months with the Vikings spent mostly as a weekly inactive.
Minnesota owns the No. 8 pick in May’s NFL Draft and is widely expected to address the quarterback position early. Turner is happy he doesn’t have to answer the question of whether the Vikings will select a quarterback, with Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr expected to top the scouting ranks.
Turner noted Sunday’s Super Bowl and third-round pick Russell Wilson as an example that a franchise quarterback can come from anywhere. But the topic of a long-term answer at the position has plagued Minnesota for years, dating back to when Daunte Culpepper suffered a devastating knee injury in 2005.
"Well, the guys I’ve been around that are so-called franchise quarterbacks weren’t considered franchise quarterbacks until they started winning," Turner said. "So you’ve got to get a guy in that everyone believes and you start out and put good people around them and find out how far you can go. I was with Brad Johnson in Washington when we went to the playoffs and won the division and the owner was convinced he couldn’t win a Super Bowl. So, we let him go and he went to Tampa and the next year he won a Super Bowl. I think you get a really good player and you get him with a really good team and you find out how far you can go."
Johnson, a former Vikings starter, was named to a Pro Bowl under Turner. The same goes for another Minnesota short-term starter in Gus Frerotte. Aikman and Rivers, both established NFL quarterbacks before working with Turner, also went to Pro Bowls with Turner as a coordinator or head coach.
Turner at least knows what skill-set he and the Vikings are looking for.
"I think this league has gotten to a point where the mental part of it is really, really critical," Turner said. "Guys that can grasp concepts, who can make quick decisions, guys who understand how to play the game; that is easier said than done. After that, the physical skillset it takes to play and, to me, accuracy is as important as any skill in terms being a passer. You look at all the great passers in there, the starting point is that they have great accuracy. People get caught up in arm strength, but I think when a guy is open, being able to hit him. And I think that guys are able to play under the culmination of physical pressure of playing the game and the mental pressure of playing the game."
While Ponder flopped in his third season as Minnesota’s starter last season, Cassel entered and gave the Vikings a semblance of a passing game and balance to go with the running game of Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart and Matt Asiata.
Cassel signed a two-year contract to back up Ponder, but ended up starting six games for Minnesota and passing for team highs of 1,807 yards, 11 touchdowns and an 81.6 quarterback rating. He completed 60.2 percent of his passes with nine interceptions. With a week free-agent market among quarterbacks, Cassel opted out of the second year of his deal, which would have paid him $3.7 million.
"There’s a business side and there’s a reason things get done," Turner said. "I think Matt is interested and he liked his experience here. I think he’s excited about the things we’re doing, the things we’ve done. I’ve known him for quite a while. We’ve talked football. So, I don’t think I’m surprised by him opting out. But I’m excited to work with Matt."
Turner said his son, Scott, who was named the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach, has talked to Cassel about returning.
"We’ve missed each other," Turner said of talking with Cassel personally. "Scott Turner has talked to him and I think it was very positive."
Meanwhile, Ponder is the only quarterback on the roster, and Turner has taken a look at him in his initial evaluations.
"The hard thing in this league is you can be playing good and you can do a lot of good things and then at that position if you have a negative play or a sack-fumble, an interception, a play like that, at the wrong time it takes away all the good things you’ve done," Turner said. "I’ve been impressed with Christian and the things he does in terms of his movement. He throws extremely well on the run. He’s made a lot of big plays. The starting point with any quarterback, with me, is eliminating negative plays and that would be one of our starting points."
Turner is just starting out in his new role. The evaluation at quarterback will come with much scrutiny. He’s just not sure where the Vikings will end up at the game’s most important position.
"Well, it’s a process," Turner replied when asked who his quarterback is. "It’s something you do when you come in. Coach (Mike) Zimmer’s working on it, obviously (general manager) Rick Spielman, and we’re evaluating the players that are here and it’s a process we go through. We’ll see where it takes us."