When Matt Cassel re-signed with the Minnesota Vikings in March, the assumption was the veteran was returning as Minnesota’s starting quarterback.
As the Vikings open their three-day mandatory minicamp, coach Mike Zimmer isn’t ready to say Matt Cassel is "the guy."
"I’ve never said that," Zimmer said. "I know I’ve heard other people say it, but I’ve never said it. From the day I walked in here, I said I want tough, intelligent, smart football players and I want competition at every position. To me, we’re still competing, everybody’s still competing for jobs. I’m competing to be a good head coach, assistants are competing to be good assistant head coaches. Again, I don’t want to rush into anything."
After Cassel re-signed, Minnesota drafted Teddy Bridgewater in the first round of the NFL Draft in May. Bridgewater was considered the most pro-ready of the available quarterbacks. The Vikings, of course, still have former starter Christian Ponder around, as well.
Cassel supplanted Ponder — seemingly for good — at the end of last season when he started the final four games. Cassel played at least a half in seven games last year and the Vikings were 4-3 in those games in the midst of a 5-10-1 season.
Cassel finished with an 81.6 quarterback rating, completing 60.2 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions while giving the offense a spark seemingly missing with Ponder.
But Cassel opted out of the final year of a two-year contract he signed in 2013 before deciding to re-sign with Minnesota just before the start of free agency in March, agreeing to a more lucrative 2-year, $10.5 million contract, the assumption being he’d return as the team’s starter.
The majority of the first-team snaps in Tuesday’s minicamp went to Cassel, who only ceded occasional repetitions to Bridgewater. Ponder wasn’t as involved nearly as much.
"You’ve got to take advantage of every snap that you get," Cassel said. "I think that it’s so important this time of year just to get the repetitions, especially with a new system. We’ve been out here, we’re working hard. I think everybody is, and I’m just thankful to be getting the reps this time of year."
Cassel said he’s not worried about being named the starter now, or when a decision might be made.
"I don’t think it really matters, to be completely honest," Cassel said. "We’re all out here trying to get better. I think the decision will come, and ultimately you just have to go out each and every day. You don’t worry about that as a player. You go out, you perform, you try to work hard and at the end of the day, they make that decision."
Still, Cassel took the majority of first-team snaps throughout the summer and was largely expected to be the starting quarterback Sept. 7 when Minnesota opens the regular season at St. Louis. The only impediment to Cassel being the starter appeared to be Bridgewater showing he is ready to start right away in his first season out of Louisville, where he completed 71 percent of his passes last year for 3,970 yards, 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
Zimmer wants competition and expects to divvy up the snaps through minicamp and into training camp in Mankato next month.
"Obviously it’s hard to get three ready, but (offensive coordinator) Norv (Tuner) and I talked about it a little bit yesterday on some of the things we’re planning on doing as far as training camp," Zimmer said. "I want to give everybody an opportunity and make sure that it’s a legitimate opportunity for all of them, and then we’ll start narrowing down the reps as we get going, but it won’t be for a while."
In his first season as a head coach, Zimmer wants to make sure he chooses the right player to start at the most critical position. Ponder’s failures ultimately led to Leslie Frazier being fired after three inconsistent seasons led by Ponder’s inability to secure the position long-term.
Frazier also dealt with a rotation last year that saw Cassel start two games before being benched for Ponder and also the inexplicable decision to start Josh Freeman on the road two weeks after signing with the team.
Zimmer wants to avoid any confusion, or making the wrong decision, when it comes to his quarterback.
"The thing I want to guard against most is rushing into a decision where we make the decision quickly as opposed to making the correct decision," Zimmer said. "So our main focus now is making the correct decision, not so much for the fans or the media or anybody else on this football team. That’s really in regards to all positions, not just the quarterback position."