Signs point to Matt Cassel to start Sunday, but Josh Freeman’s time coming

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is a longtime friend of Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. The two were teammates with the Chicago Bears in their playing days and have coached together. Rivera credits Frazier in part for getting him into coaching.

Rivera says he can empathize with Frazier’s quarterback situation with no clear-cut starter for Sunday’s game between Minnesota and Carolina, with the Vikings having three former starters on the roster; the previous starter recovering from a fractured rib, the backup who did well in his first start in the last game and another signed this week who Minnesota will try to get up to speed quickly.

Frazier hasn’t announced who this week’s starter will be between Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, only ruling out the recently-signed Josh Freeman from starting this week. Rivera, who said he talks with Frazier weekly except this week, didn’t do his friend any favors.

“Yes we are, we most certainly are,” Rivera said on a conference call Wednesday when asked if the Panthers are preparing for Cassel to start Sunday. “We looked at what he did against Pittsburgh and did some really good things. I think as you look at their offense right now, with Christian Ponder having the rib injury, for all the different things they do, the play action, the boot action, the quarterback being exposed, I’m not sure you want to expose him to further injury.

“So I think that’s why they would want to go with Matt. I do know they have Josh Freeman as a guy that we got to see out here a couple times a year and I think Josh is a solid quarterback. He’s had some success against us, so I know what he’s capable of as well.”

Frazier has Ponder, who had started 29 straight regular-season games for the Vikings before Week 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cassel started in place of an injured Ponder and looked in control of the team’s offense in Minnesota’s first win of the season. Freeman, signed Monday from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has to integrate himself into the offense before being able to play.

On a day in which the starting quarterback usually holds a press conference after Frazier in the team’s fieldhouse, Freeman and Cassel spoke in the locker room. Ponder, who was limited in practice as he comes back from the broken rib, didn’t speak to reporters Wednesday.

Frazier’s decision, which seems obvious to his longtime friend Rivera, didn’t come Wednesday. Frazier didn’t announce a starter for Sunday’s game. He knows he doesn’t need to be in any rush to announce a decision and said he’s keeping his options open.

“That might be a good way to put it,” Frazier said of keeping his options open. “I don’t know if it’s, from our standpoint, a necessity to say on Wednesday which direction we’re going to go. There’s no urgency in getting that done.”

Rivera didn’t figure Frazier would help him out by saying who would start, but the signs certainly point to Cassel getting another start. Cassel was 16-of-25 passing for 248 yards and two touchdowns in the Vikings’ 34-27 win against Pittsburgh before last week’s bye. With Cassel comfortable at the helm and decisive in getting the ball out, Minnesota posted season-highs in points and total yards (393 yards).

Cassel seem to get more comfortable as the game went on too, connecting on all 10 of his passes in the second half.

“The No. 1 thing I think we did well as a group is we took care of the football,” Cassel said. “Anytime you have zero turnovers, it gives yourself a chance to win. We did a great job and coach (Bill) Musgrave called a great job of mixing and matching the run, play-action passing alleviated some of the pressure. I think a lot of it was just managing the football game, making sure I controlled the huddle of getting in and out of the huddle.”

He said he doesn’t know if he will start Sunday and hasn’t changed his approach in preparation even with Ponder returning to practice and Freeman being added. Cassel was the first quarterback through practice repetitions in the portion of Wednesday’s practice that was open to the media.

“You always have to do what’s best for the team,” Frazier said Wednesday when asked how hard it would be to not give Cassel another chance. “Whatever that is, that’s what you need to do in the seat that I sit in. Every decision is based on that, what’s best for the team.”

Rivera knows his Frazier isn’t going to help him this week, but he’s not being fooled either.

“It’s a tough one, but I got to believe that Christian having the rib injury and the sensibility of sticking with Matt one more week makes sense to me,” Rivera said. “I think that’s a great opportunity. Again, the Josh Freeman thing, it’s a good situation for Minnesota and I think it’s a good situation for Josh as well.”

While Sunday’s starter is still up in the air, the decision in the future might not be quite as complicated. Frazier said Monday Freeman was signed and the ability to start was “part of the equation.”

The Vikings are trying to get Freeman indoctrinated quickly and he appears set to start once he’s ready.

“Oh, there are definitely some challenges for a guy who has not been around you for (organized team activities) or preseason,” Frazier said. “Then you talk about the quarterback position, where you’ve got to know everybody’s responsibilities. There are some challenges but there are some things you can do to try to condense things and try to help a guy get on the field. But you don’t want to do it to the point where you affect the rest of your team in a negative way, in our case, our offense.

“We’ll work as hard as we can, he wants to work and get it. We’ll put something together where hopefully real soon he’ll have a chance to get on the field.”

Freeman has been working since he signed Monday on getting familiar with the team’s terminology and systems and called the past few days a “whirlwind.”

“You get in the books,” Freeman said. “You see the concepts. You watch cut-ups of it and really try to verbalize it as much as possible.”

Freeman and Frazier weren’t sure how long it would take for him to be ready to play. Freeman said he’s trying to be ready to play this week in an emergency situation, though it would seem unlikely.

Frazier said he doesn’t believe Freeman, who was signed to a one-year contract, will be able to learn the entire offense this season.

“With all the time you spend in the offseason getting ready for the season, to try to condense that in a short span and get ready for the season, we’ll have to alter some things to get him on the field,” Frazier said.

Make no mistake, Cassel might start this week, but Freeman will soon be on the field.

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