Those of you who know me or read my articles know I like a good debate. When fans first started calling for Matt Cassel to start, I took Christian Ponder's side. My reasons were many. We had invested a 12th overall pick in Ponder. Cassel, while capable at times in his career, had also seen bad times. He championed a 2-14 team in his final year at Kansas City. Matt is in his ninth year, while Ponder is only in his third. If we are building toward a future, it makes sense to go with youth. Finally, Ponder's finish in 2012, including four straight wins and a 120 passer rating in defeating the Packers, was proof for me that he had what it takes to win in the NFL.
I looked the other way when Ponder struggled, because he is so young and inexperienced. It was not as if the rest of the team was shining. Our main rival, Green Bay, allowed Aaron Rodgers to watch for his first three years. He learned from Brett Favre. After a rough year for Green Bay in his fourth year (first starting), Rodgers and the Packers came to life in his fifth year. Surely we could be as patient as Green Bay.
Other young quarterbacks tore up the league in 2012, including but not limited to: Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Andy Dalton. Ponder, while taking his team to the playoffs and beating a Super Bowl bound team, struggled mightily at times. This year, many of the young group of starters have imploded, some like Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez have lost their jobs since then. Christian Ponder's ratings are among the worst in the league in 2013. His team was 0-3. And then he got hurt.
Now it would be easy for me to argue still. The Browns, who barely beat the Vikings, just handled the Bengals. Chicago and Detroit, who both won close games versus our Purple, are presently both 3-1. The team that was called the Steelers we played in London was pathetic. Their left tackle so bad that he whiffed more than once on Jared Allen. So bad that Pittsburgh has since traded for an offensive tackle. Cassel in the first half missed passes, and had two thrown directly into the hands of a defender. One, Cordarrelle Patterson saved with a reach around in the end zone, the other a pick-six that was dropped like 0-4 teams tend to do. Add to that a fumble that not only was recovered by Minnesota, but it resulted in a third down conversion during a drive. Not lucky, but fortunate as the Steelers are last in the league in creating turnovers.
And no one can tell me they thought Minnesota was going to win when Pittsburgh drove down the field late in the game hoping for a tying touchdown. Ben Roethlisberger was tearing up the Vikings' makeshift secondary, and only an Everson Griffen sack (that could have been a penalty) inside the ten-yard line saved the game. The Steelers had almost thirty first downs in the game (near double the Vikings), almost 400 yards passing, and close to 50% more offensive plays. We won, but it did not feel good.
But the key words? We won. Winning is a good thing. Minnesota, now 1-3, can feel better about themselves heading into the bye week. And we now have two weeks to discuss who is quarterbacking this team in our immediate future.
I, like Leslie Frazier's words, still believe in Ponder. But I concede that Cassel played better than Ponder, as I suspected he might. While Cassel may have been fortunate to avoid turnovers, he stepped into the pocket better than Ponder ever has. Cassel benefited from big plays by Greg Jennings and Adrian Peterson, but he also delivered a second touchdown pass to Jennings that I confess Ponder seemingly could not provide. He appeared more confident from the start, and that confidence could have been the inspiration for the improved play of many on offense. Not to mention the benefit of the return of Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton.
So while I still believe in Ponder, I also believe Matt Cassel would perform better, and that like Rodgers, Ponder could benefit from watching a good quarterback lead a team. Lord knows he did not get that from Donovan McNabb or Joe Webb. But after watching WR Webb's block spring AP for his long touchdown, may I never again badmouth him. It was a thing of beauty.
I think it imperative that Cassel get another chance. The Steelers are very bad, and it would be nice to see if Cassel can help Minnesota beat someone a little better. Minnesota will host another struggling team, the 1-2 Carolina Panthers before traveling to present 0-4 New York Giants. After that, the schedule has lots of games with Packers, Seahawks, Cowboys and the like.
It would not be outrageous to think Minnesota can get itself to 3-3 before facing Green Bay in the Dome. I think Cassel's play has earned him the right to continue. If Ponder is hurt for weeks, then it is a no-brainer Cassel will go. But by Week 8, Minnesota better have its best players performing because the schedule toughens. If Ponder heals before Week 8, Frazier has a dilemma. He has said Ponder is the starter, and Christian will need to be back in the saddle well before the Packers show up.
But Ponder's ribs may be enough to keep him out for a while. And as long as Cassel keeps winning...
We are 0-3. The season's hopes for the playoffs all but gone. The chance of being competitive slipping. An angry fan base. Turmoil. It is all bad.
Matt Cassel to the rescue.
Never mind that in fantasy football corners of the globe owners are stacking up on Steelers' receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Minnesota's defense has surrendered over 30 points in each game. Reggie Bush and Joqie Bell ripped through the team like a hot knife through butter. Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte as well. Last week, Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron were virtually unstoppable. That may be the first time someone has typed unstoppable next to a Browns' player in 2013.
Forget that the offensive line allowed numerous hits to Christian Ponder last week, six sacks, and only a little athleticism helped Ponder escape worse. This line has been unable to create holes for Adrian Peterson. Brandon Fusco, Matt Kalil, Phil Loadholt and friends have taken turns not picking up stunting rushers and/or plain missing defensive ends. Ponder, not a steady quarterback, has fumbled, thrown interceptions, and missed open receivers.
Dismiss the idea that the secondary is not deep. Was it only I that noticed when Chris Cook went out A.J. Jefferson got torched twice for the length of the field and a TD? Then he was "hurt", and Marcus Sherels came in. Sherels made many tackles, but most only after a first down was usually recorded. Harrison Smith, the golden boy, was unable to stop Cameron on a key play late in the game, eerily similar to the previous week when Smith was late to cover the Bears' receivers.
Pretend that the problem is not with the coaching, because it is the same coaches this Sunday. Whether it is repeatedly kicking to Devin Hester, forgetting to cover players on field goal attempts, calling passing plays a rookie cannot make, or refusing to overuse Adrian Paterson, there is plenty of blame available to the guys that evaluate talent and call the plays. Did they not see that we have no middle linebacker this year?
No. The solution is Matt Cassel.
It is possible, even probable, that Cassel will play better than Ponder. How could he not? Ponder is ranked 30th in the NFL, only a few were worse. Cassel is a pro, he has taken two separate teams to double-digit wins and playoff visits. He parlayed the first into a big contract with Kansas City from New England. He played under Tom Brady. The second, made him an instant hero and a Pro Bowler for the Chiefs. But KC did not protect him well in 2012, and he was first injured, and then gave way to Brady Quinn in a 2-14 season that was highlighted by the fans cheering when Cassel lay on the ground with a concussion. Chiefs' fans, not Eagles' fans.
Matt Cassel, if protected, will play well. With Jerome Felton returning the running game gets a needed boost, and more likely, the passing game gets a little better protection. Zach Line, while a great story, was not very good at fullback. No one was. This team needs Felton very badly.
There are signs that Chad Greenway is playing better. Sharrif Floyd made a contribution last week from defensive tackle. Brian Robison provided a pass rush. But this Vikings' defense needs Jared Allen to be better. It needs better play from Erin Henderson and whomever they decide is the other linebacker. So far, Marvin Mitchell has not been the answer. Maybe it is time to give Desmond Bishop a try?
0-3 makes fans angry. We all have the answers. Despite the fact that we do not watch the films, we do not know what coverage or assignments players have, we still (in our anger) assess and complain. We have decided Ponder is awful, Frazier clueless, and the defense suspect.
This Sunday we find out if fans are right or wrong about quarterback. Most of us were dead wrong last year about Joe Webb, but no one is holding fans accountable for being stupid, they are allowed to say whatever they want, and if occasionally right, rant about how smart they are. If Cassel throws for 250 yards, two TDs, and Minnesota wins, we are all geniuses.
If we fall to 0-4 and Cassel is no better than Ponder, well, then we harp on something else, most likely a coach or two...
Six NFL teams have started the 2013 season 0-3. Many of the names are shockers, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and the Washington Redskins. Some are not, like the Jacksonville Jaguars. Our Minnesota Vikings lie somewhere in-between.
There are nine teams that have a worse point differential than Minnesota. In fact, the Houston Texans are only three points better, yet they are 2-1. The three losses have been close. In each game Minnesota appeared to have a legitimate chance to win. Final touchdown drives have been the nail in the coffin in back-to-back weeks.
These games that could have gone our way did not. Blame is to be had. First on fans' lists is Christian Ponder, the 3rd year quarterback who has plainly struggled this season. Ponder currently ranks 30th among quarterbacks in passer rating with a 65.9 (that is really bad). Only rookie Geno Smith of the Jets, injured Brandon Weeden of the Browns, and the deposed Josh Freeman of the Bucs are lower. That is unacceptable.
A look at the other quarterbacks struggling this year is an impressive one. Outside of the top twenty best QBs ratings includes: Robert Griffin III, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, and Colin Kaepernick. There is not a single soul in Minnesota who would not want to trade for any of these quarterbacks over Ponder. And yet they are not playing well. For example, Kaepernick and Brady have virtually the same yards per game as Ponder.
But 0-3 is 0-3. Fans are not willing to wait for Ponder. They want someone else.
That someone will be Matt Cassel.
If Cassel is given the helm because of Ponder's "rib injury", it may provide an immediate spark. Cassel has more experience, and will probably see the field better than the young Ponder. Add to that the all important return of Jerome Felton and Minnesota might have enough impetus to finally close out a game. Being that this 'home' game is in London, and the Steelers are also 0-3, a lot of national attention will be placed on this game that otherwise might not. One of these teams will be 0-4.
I cannot help but be skeptical that replacing Ponder is the solution.
It was only a few months ago that many fans were screaming for Joe Webb and then there was the playoff game in Green Bay. One difference, Matt Cassel has taken two teams to the playoffs, which is very un-Webb like. Cassel learned under Tom Brady, and must still be in some contact with him, because it was Brady who recently leaked that Cassel may start.
Cassel also led a lesser team to the playoffs in the Chiefs. Unfortunately, Cassel's magic ran out and he was booed much like Ponder is now.
Short-term, playing Cassel seems to be the right move. Maybe the offensive line will start to care more about their quarterback's welfare, as after the Browns game that is unclear? Maybe the defense will hold an opponent under thirty points? Maybe the coach will know the rules and help the officials that do not? Maybe the other coaches will prepare for trick plays?
But long-term things look bad. The offensive line that was supposed to be one year better, is not. The linebacker trio had been a step short on most plays. Special teams have not been very special, save for a single Cordarrelle Patterson return. Coach Leslie Frazier does not have the fans feeling confident, and now it appears the players feel the same. Even the defensive secondary looked bad last Sunday, mostly after Chris Cook's early exit. This despite three interceptions of the Browns' newly 29th-passer-rating-ranked Brian Hoyer.
Times are not good. A change must be made soon, or at least a concession.
Here's to hoping Felton make Adrian Peterson feel like Superman again.
When Minnesota added a field goal late in last week's game to go up 30-24, the majority of Purple fans were upset. They knew our inability to score a touchdown would mean Jay Cutler and his Bears' offense would march down the field and defeat the Vikings. It has been like that for a while now.
If there is a statistic that demonstrates the worst pass defense while leading late in a game, Minnesota would probably be atop the NFL the last few years. When Chris Cook started waving frantically to his teammates in the final seconds while lined up in front of two Bears' receivers, we knew. Cook seemingly froze between the two for just a split-second, and then tried in vain to recover late in covering Martellus Bennett, the Bears' tight end. Chicago had its' win after the extra-point. While the most dire of us hoped for a chance to make one last long throw to set up a Blair Walsh field goal, John Carlson was running sideways after recovering a squib kick and tossing the ball away.
Most pessimistic fans are now pointing to a tough schedule, a return to our losing ways, and the hopeful ouster of Leslie Frazier, Christian Ponder, and a few select others. They feel betrayed by the hype of last season's playoff run. They see a defense that has surrendered more than thirty points in each game. An offense that cannot pass down field. They point to a six or seven win season at best.
The optimists are fewer. They state the first two games were on the road. Christian Ponder played better in Chicago. Aaron Rodgers spent his first three years watching from the sidelines, so it is too early to give up on Ponder. As soon as fullback Jerome Felton returns we will see a new team. Both games were close. They hold out hope for a nine or ten win season.
Today's home opener against the Browns is a 'must-win' game for the fans. Last Sunday, it was reported that Vikings' players were secretly calling the Chicago game a must win. It made sense. Tough to be 0-2 in the division, with losses to two teams we probably need to beat in the standings. But when you make that news public, suddenly a lot of fans are thinking the same thing.
Now Cleveland comes to the Dome like a rock band that forgot their instruments. And their lead singer. Odds makers have made Minnesota a significant favorite. Without Trent Richardson and the injured Brandon Weeden, Cleveland is left with a couple of no-name players and newly signed Willis McGahee. It is assumed McGahee will play, but expect kick-returner Bobby Rainey to get some action. Brian Hoyer will be the quarterback. Some may remember him from his Michigan State Spartan days.
Some may not.
Cleveland is apparently playing for the number one pick in the draft. Their move to trade Richardson for a future draft choice is evidence that they have resigned themselves to not being good in 2013. Everything points to a Minnesota win.
And that is what is so scary. It is like we are up six points late in a game...
The season opening loss to the Lions has Vikings' fans concerned this season is already in jeopardy. With a visit to Chicago on this week's schedule, and then what was predicted to be difficult games ahead, fans are resigned to finger-pointing and frustration.
But I say "chin up".
Christian Ponder is better than you think. And the defensive secondary is looking pretty good. Adrian Peterson is healthy, and facing the Bears, a team he has had success against. Sure, Chicago held the Bengals to 63 rushing yards last week. And AP did have down visits in 2010-11, totaling just 90 yards in the two games. But last year he had 108 on 18 carries, and in 2007 he recorded his first 200-yard game at Soldier Field.
On the down side Peterson is still missing Jerome Felton, and as the preseason and first game suggest, that is a big deal. The offensive line's inability to open holes against a tough Lions' front is also considered a reason Adrian was held to 15 yards rushing after his first carry.
While fans are excited (finally) about Jerome Simpson, they wonder where Kyle Rudolph, Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson were in week one. They blame Ponder for being unable to find them and get them the ball.
And they are angry with Leslie Frazier, but mostly for sticking up for Ponder.
It has become such a blame-syndrome that idiots are tweeting a physical removal of Ponder from more than the starting job. I wonder if Matt Cassel is thinking fans here are worse than the morons who booed in Kansas City when Cassel was lying injured on his home field with a concussion?
We just want a return to greatness. We older fans are spolied from success in the 1970s. Younger fans maybe wanting redemption for the 1998 collapse. Newbie fans still angry about the assault on Favre that cost Minnesota a Super Bowl trip in New Orleans in 2009.
Being a Minnesota Vikings fan is a testimony in perseverance.
Other teams have felt our pain. The Denver Broncos were every bit as snake-bit as Minnesota until John Elway got them a Super Bowl win. The Buffalo Bills may not win as many division titles, but they have felt the pain of Super Bowl loss just as frequent. Teams like Seattle, and expansion teams, and perennial losers all feel our pain. They simply have not suffered as much loss because they are almost always bad. Their fans have become apathetic.
Not us. We suffer still.
We might not have suffered so much this year if we had not had such a strong finish last year. The seven game turnaround and subsequent playoff visit turned what looked like a bad stretch of of football into hope eternal. Despite the difficult schedule, some fans felt we were on an upswing. A 10-11 win season seemed possible to the optomistic fan.
Now the critics, the spiteful, the frustrated fan has the floor. A lackluster first game has them wanting change. And change begins and ends with young Christian Ponder. They interpret the turnovers, bad-decisions, poor throws, and shakiness as a sign he will never be a good quarterback in the NFL. Sure, he looked good for a few games late last year, but with Aaron Rodgers staring them in the face, the fans want more.
And they may be right.
Or, they may be wrong. Maybe Ponder is struggling because the offense is not playing well together? Maybe the Lions defense will do the same or worse to others? Maybe it is tough to win on the road, and especially tough to win home openers?
We will find out soon.
One thing I can already see.. that schedule that looked so tough might be a tad bit easier the next few games. The Steelers looked worse than bad game one, and Cleveland disappointed as well. They will be our first two opponents at home (if you think London is homey).
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