Cassel could provide value if Ponder falters

March 19, 2013

Immediately after Matt Cassel agreed to terms on a two-year contract last week with the Minnesota Vikings, the rumbling began regarding the hierarchy of Cassel's backup role to starting quarterback Christian Ponder.

The speculation started that soon Cassel would supplant Ponder, Minnesota's appointed franchise quarterback whose first two seasons have been filled with inconsistency and erratic play after many believed the Vikings reached to select him with the No. 12 pick in the 2011 draft. Nationally, there were even reports that Cassel signed with Minnesota to compete for the starting spot.

Let's get this out of the way: Barring injury, Ponder will be the starting quarterback for the Vikings in the 2013 season opener.

Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier likely see no other scenario. There's no consternation on their part. When Cassel finally spoke to local reporters last week after signing his new deal, he acknowledged that he's coming in as the backup. He understands the role and is accepting it. That doesn't mean Cassel didn't see the opportunity presented to him.

After being cut by the Kansas City Chiefs, he was a free agent for the first time in his NFL life. He and his agent talked. Surely other teams had called. Cassel made one visit and was soon signing a contract with the Vikings, as a backup.

But to be clear, for Ponder, it's put-up or sit-down time.

Ponder will be given every chance this season to prove what Spielman and Frazier believe, that he can continue his growth into a long-term answer at the game's most vital position. Minnesota is emboldened by Ponder's occasional moments of excellence. Its lasting vision from the 2012 season is probably Ponder's finest moment in the NFL. He threw for 234 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, connected with Jarius Wright on a 65-yard pass and beat the Green Bay Packers with the highest single-game quarterback rating of his career in a must-win game that clinched a playoff berth.

Ponder suffered a deep triceps bruise in that game, and played through it, keeping him out of the following week's playoffs. In fact, Ponder recovered from one of his poorest games against Green Bay earlier in the season to put together three strong efforts, without throwing an interception, as Minnesota won its final four games of the season.

Of course, there's the other side of Ponder. There's the Ponder who had 14 turnovers over nine weeks as Minnesota's once-promising season seemed to be slipping away. Ponder can't be considered durable either, part of the importance of signing Cassel.

Spielman says he doesn't make final decisions on draft picks until they have completed their third season.

Ponder is entering his pivotal third year. Minnesota will do everything in its power -- such as signing Greg Jennings last week, keeping the offensive line intact and likely drafting more help at receiver -- to give Ponder a chance to succeed. The Vikings want to have enough pieces around Ponder to accurately judge his progress. The 2013 season will be Ponder's to sink or swim.

With 26 career starts under his belt, Ponder has to show he can be a franchise quarterback. He has to have more flashes of games like the season finale against the Packers, or earlier in the season when he led Minnesota to a surprising victory against the San Francisco 49ers, an eventual Super Bowl team, by throwing for 198 yards and two touchdowns and running for 33 yards and a touchdown.

He needs fewer of the occasions where he too often makes poor decisions with the football that lead to interceptions, such as when he threw two interceptions in Green Bay, one on the run against his body into the end zone when Minnesota was in scoring position and already leading.

There is plenty of fuel for the Ponder proponents and opponents. How he responds this season will ultimately decide his fate as the Vikings' starter. Cassel had to know as much when he agreed to come to Minnesota in a backup role. He says he's content backing up and mentoring Ponder, but he also has to know that Ponder's fate will also partially decide his.

Ponder will begin this season as the Vikings' starter. He will be given every opportunity to earn his title going forward. But later in the ever-crucial third season of his career, if Minnesota doesn't see the growth it hoped for in Ponder, Cassel gives the Vikings someone to finish the season with and maybe a placeholder as they once again go looking for a "franchise quarterback." Then, maybe Cassel gets his anticipated chance to compete.

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