Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Coach Leslie Frazier finally said what everyone has been expecting him to say since Matt Cassel led the Vikings to a turnover-free 34-27 victory over the Steelers in London back on Sept. 29:
"Matt Cassel is going to be our starting quarterback on Sunday."
There, it's official. But it wasn't an easy decision. Naming Cassel the starter ahead of a now-healthy Christian Ponder along with signing former Bucs QB Josh Freeman on Monday has serious ramifications for the future of a guy who three weeks ago was still considered the team's quarterback of the future.
"I think it's always tough when you make a change at quarterback," Frazier said. "You have to take a lot of factors into it when you’re doing that. You don’t make those decisions lightly and we didn’t. We’ll see how it plays out. But this is the start of this ballgame. We’ll see how Matt does. But we’ll see how it plays out over time.”
Ponder, who missed the Steelers game because of a fractured rib, will back Cassel up on Sunday against the Panthers at Mall of America Field. As for Freeman, Frazier said, "we have not decided at this point what we’re going to do with Josh. We don’t see him being able to play this ballgame yet, based on where we are and where he is with our offense.” In that case, Freeman would be a game-day inactive.
As for what happens next week, Frazier said that will take care of itself next week. Obviously, if the Vikings win and Cassel moves the offense with the same rhythm that he did in London, well, it will be difficult to remove him. Of course, the Vikings didn't bring Freeman in to stand on the sideline for 12 weeks either.
“I think we need to sit back on Monday after the game and evaluate things and see where we are," Frazier said. "See how it goes.”
The Vikings next game after Sunday is Oct. 21 at the Giants. Asked if Freeman would be able to play in that game, Frazier said, "Probably have to look at some things next week to make that determination. I’m not sure, even as we speak, if that would be the case. But we’ll evaluate it when we come back next week.”
Cassel said he was anticipating that would start and was preparing as if he would. But he said he didn't know for sure until this morning.
"You never know in this league," Cassel said. "I wouldn't have guessed on Monday we'd have another quarterback in the room as well. You never know what's going to happen. But at the same time it's always about getting myself prepared and being accountable to my teammates, getting ready to go."
Cassel said he's not looking beyond Sunday's game.
"It's just one more opportunity," he said. "[Against Pittsburgh], we took a great approach and the guys came out and responded well. We all responded well. We played well as a team and hopefully we can build off that. For us it's always a one-game season right now to get ourselves back in to this race."
Cassel did allow himself a second to enjoy the moment.
"It's exciting," he said. "That's why you come out here and you compete through OTAs and minicamp and all that stuff."
In other news:
The Vikings were afraid someone would claim No. 3 QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson before they had a chance to sign him to their practice squad. And for good reason. The 49ers claimed him not long ago.
Bethel-Thompson was released to make room for Monday's signing of Josh Freeman.
The Vikings also released defensive end George Johnson and claimed defensive end Justin Trattou off waivers.
Meanwhile, Christian Ponder practiced today, but only on a limited basis as he comes back from the fractured rib that sidelined him for the Steelers game two weeks ago.
Also limited in practice today were: CB Chris Cook (groin), TE Rhett Ellison (knee), SS Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) and DT Kevin Williams (knee). Earlier today, coach Leslie Frazier said he expects Sanford and Cook to return after missing the Steelers game. Ellison, who has missed the past two games, also is expected to play.
LONDON -- The Vikings injury report has become lengthy. Seven players either were limited or did not participate at all on Wednesday.
As addressed earlier today, quarterback Christian Ponder was limited because of a rib injury. Also limited were Kevin Williams (knee) and running back Matt Asiata (hamstring).
Three defensive backs did not practice -- Chris Cook (groin), Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) and A.J. Jefferson (ankle). Tight end Rhett Ellison also did not participate after missing Sunday's game against Cleveland because of a knee injury.
The Vikings health issues in the secondary are a major concern because they potentially could be without two starters in Cook and Sanford. General manager Rick Spielman gave a rare in-season media session today and said his staff, including assistant GM George Paton, stayed back in the Twin Cities to monitor the waiver wire so they could be in position to handle logistics if they need to make a roster move this week.
"I've been monitoring at 2 a.m. the wires for any potential moves that can be made, the logistics of making those moves, how you get that guy over to England, does he have a passport if we have to bring a player over here," Spielman said. "That's been kind of interesting. I didn't get to sleep until 2:30 this morning and had to get woken up. I called my people over there and it's 3 in the morning over there and they're asking what you're doing.
"We've got until 9 o'clock tonight to make a move but we have to do it on your (Minn) time. It's worked out great so far and we'll see anything from a personnel standpoint, if we have to do anything, that we'll be able to get that accomplished."
The injuries in the secondary create speculation about whether the team has contacted Antoine Winfield to see if he will put off retirement for now. Spielman declined to discuss their potential interest in Winfield.
"I won't get into any facts on who we talked to or what we're doing," he said. "We always look at options when there are injuries. We'll continue to that."
Asked if Winfield has been ruled in or out of consideration, Spielman said, "I can't rule anything. You never know."
Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams missed today's practice to tend to a personal matter, but his knee is good to go on Sunday in Chicago, coach Leslie Frazier said after practice.
"[Missing practice] has nothing to do with him physically," Frazier said. "He should be ready to go on Sunday."
Williams, who suffered a severely strained right knee in the third preseason game, missed the season opener at Detroit. The Lions won 34-24 and were able to run well between the tackles with running back Reggie Bush, who averaged 4.3 yards on 21 carries.
Williams was listed as probable. The Vikings listed six other players as probable. The only one with limited participation in today's practice was center John Sullivan (knee). Listed as probable with full participation were: LB Larry Dean (shoulder), LB Erin Henderson (heel), RT Phil Loadholt (knee), S Mistral Raymond (shoulder) and CB Josh Robinson (quadriceps).
For the Bears, CB Charles Tillman (knee) and DE Julius Peppers (illness) were listed as probable. Peppers was limited in practice. Tillman had full participation.
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams walked off the practice field after limited participation and gave a positive report on his first practice since suffering a severely strained right knee in the third preseason game at San Francisco.
"We went out to see how it felt," he said. "And it felt great."
But that's not the end of it. Not yet.
"Questions?" Williams said when asked if there were any questions that he would play on Sunday at Chicago. "I'll tell you tomorrow. Hopefully, it won't be sore tomorrow and we'll go from there."
If Williams gets up Thursday with unusual soreness, the Vikings are likely to back off and not practice him on Thursday. If he's not too sore, the Vikings will ramp up his work when they put the pads on for an afternoon practice. Either way, he'll only be limited in Thursday's practice.
"[Thursday morning] is pretty much the key," Williams said.
Also on today's injury report as being limited were cornerback Josh Robinson (quadriceps), center John Sullivan (knee) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (knee). Those three are expected to play on Sunday.
Two starters -- middle linebacker Erin Henderson (heel) and strong safety Jamarca Sanford (shoulder) -- are on the injury report but had full particpation in today's practice.
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