MINNEAPOLIS — Matt Cassel stopped his backpedal, looked ahead and saw the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense part down the middle the same the Minnesota Vikings’ defense did in practice during the week on a designed run.
Cassel took off and was untouched on a 6-yard touchdown run to give Minnesota a surprising 24-9 lead in the third quarter, against Philadelphia, which had won five in a row. The play unfolded just like the Vikings and Cassel had practiced. He never thought the same would occur in Sunday’s game.
“It opened up like that in practice and I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m going to get smashed in the game, for sure,'” Cassel said after Sundays’ 48-30 win. “And then, sure as day, I take the drop and it just parted like the Red Sea. I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is great.'”
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Cassel and the Vikings (4-9-1) found space all game long against a Philadelphia defense that hadn’t allowed more than 21 points in a game since Week 4 and had held teams under 300 yards passing the past four weeks. Without injured running back Adrian Peterson, Cassel took the game in his hands and was 26 of 35 for 382 yards passing, three total touchdowns and an interception.
With receiver Greg Jennings hauling in a career-high 11 catches for 163 yards and Jarius Wright adding a career-high 95 yards receiving, Cassel threw for the most yards by a Minnesota quarterback since Brett Favre tallied 446 yards on Nov. 7, 2010. The Vikings scored their most points in a game since scoring 50 points on Dec. 20, 1998.
“We got a special group in that (receivers meeting) room, and it’s almost as if we fly under the radar because of our running game and because we don’t throw the ball as much as other teams across the league,” Jennings said. “But when we have an opportunity to make plays, this is what can happen. And when we have a guy that’s back there who’s divvying it up and spreading the ball around, and the offensive line did an outstanding job all afternoon.
“It was awesome to see the in-sync-ness of the offense and just the way we operated as a well-oiled machine all across the board.”
Cassel has been the lubricant to the Minnesota offense, at least to the after-thought passing game.
With the Eagles’ big-play offense facing a short-handed Vikings defense and without the team’s top two running backs in Peterson and Toby Gerhart, Cassel took control. He hit his first nine passes, including a 57-yard touchdown to Jennings.
“Very smart quarterback,” Jennings said. “He just has a lot of poise back there and he tries to make plays down the field with his eyes and his arm.”
Minnesota has four pass plays of 50-plus yards this season, all by Cassel. His 90.7 quarterback rating leads the team and he has nine touchdowns and five interceptions.
The 31-year-old veteran is the efficient, consistent starter the Vikings hoped Ponder would become, and he adds one piece Christian Ponder (36 career games) can’t.
“He has a good idea of how we want to work our offense, and also his input in giving some feedback the things that he’s seeing really helps (offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave) and our offensive staff in calling plays based on what he sees on the field,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “So, I think his veteran experience is probably what separates him at this point.”
In five games of playing at least a half, Cassel has thrown for at least 241 yards, a total Ponder hasn’t matched once this season. Yet, Cassel was repeatedly passed by for Ponder — and one game for Josh Freeman — as the Vikings season slipped away.
“Made those decisions at the time for different reasons,” coach Leslie Frazier said after Sunday’s game. “Always felt good about Matt, but there was some things we needed to see. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get wins as we were going through the process. That would have been a lot better. But knew why we were doing it back then. So, hindsight’s always 20-20.”
Cassel’s performances have added another chapter in the “what might have been” of Minnesota’s seasons with inconsistent quarterback play and a defense that has faltered in late-game situations.
“Yeah, you wonder it, but we have to move on,” Jennings said. “I remember mentioning something like that to Matt and he’s like, ‘We got three games, let’s make the best of it.’ I love that because that’s his mindset. He’s not worried about what could of, should of, what could have possibly been. He stays in the now. As a quarterback, as a player, that’s how we have to operate. We have to stay in the now and take advantage of what’s right in front of us.”
Cassel is doing just that. There won’t be any midweek quarterback questions. Frazier has already said Cassel will start next week at Cincinnati.
“He took advantage of this opportunity,” Frazier said. “He’s played with so much poise each time he’s got in the ball game, whether he’s coming in relief or in this case, starting. He’s done some good things. Credit to him because it has not been easy.
“I’m sure there were other moments where he felt like he should have continued to stay in the starter role and it didn’t happen. He didn’t pout. He kept preparing every day in practice, going through tape, preparing himself as if he was going to start and he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity.”
Cassel is seizing the opportunity Ponder wasn’t able to this season. Ponder, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2011, returned as Minnesota’s starter. Cassel, after losing his own job in Kansas City because of a concussion, came to town as the backup. Ponder continued to work through erratic play and injuries.
Cassel continued to go about his way, not causing any disruption and preparing himself for his chance.
“You don’t really have much of a choice, you know,” Cassel said when asked how he stayed patient. “I think the main choice is whether you’re going to let that get to you or whether you’re going to continue to move forward in the right direction and have a positive attitude, and help the guys around you. I think that I chose to go that route than the other.”