There are times when you want to spin Matt Cassel around and check for the pull string that would explain why he sounds more like a 6-4 Ken Doll than a competitive athlete who has seized control of the Vikings quarterback competition heading into Week 2 of the preseason.
“You know how it is at quarterback,” left guard Charlie Johnson said. “They have to say all the right things.”
Usually, reporters come away from Cassel with empty notebooks and a fuller appreciation of Brett Favre’s loose lips. But there are times when Cassel will offer a sentence that comes subtly wrapped in the kind of unwavering confidence that teammates are looking for, at least until rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater fills himself with enough knowledge and experience to reach his high potential.
For Cassel, it’s a confidence that stops comfortably short of cockiness or unattractive one-upmanship directed at a teammate.
“It’s something all of us respect in Matt,” Johnson said. “You want the guy who is going to be polite and respectful, but also has a way of saying he’s in charge.”
Cassel did that on Aug. 2 following a night practice at training camp in Mankato. He was asked how it had felt to watch Bridgewater take all of the first-team reps in the team red zone segment that night.
“That’s normally what happens wherever I’ve been,” Cassel said. “The No. 2 guy, you’ve got to get him ready to play. He’s going to get reps with the 1s and this is the time of year to do it.”
Cassel’s grip on the No. 1 job was strengthened with a crisp performance in the Vikings’ 10-6 preseason-opening victory over the Raiders on Friday. Playing just one 10-play series at TCF Bank Stadium, Cassel completed five of six passes to four targets for 62 of the 70 yards the offense marched en route to a touchdown.
“To be honest with you,” Johnson said, “it felt like a practice.”
Bridgewater also played 10 snaps with the first team, but fell understandably short of the efficiency level reached by a 10-year veteran. A procedural penalty and a red-zone sack were among the reminders that patience is needed while watching rookie quarterbacks.
Afterward, Cassel was complimentary of Bridgewater, but he also made it clear that he expects to play more than 10 reps when the next preseason game arrives on Saturday.
“It’s a new system,” he said. “The more reps I get, the more comfortable I’ll be when the season starts.”
Bridgewater said he senses that Cassel has embraced a mentoring role in his development.
“I’d say the relationship with Matt is a veteran-rookie relationship,” Bridgewater said. “He’s one of those vets who has his best intentions for the team.”
It must be difficult to help the person who probably has more natural talent and is earmarked to replace you at a yet-to-be-determined point over the next 12 months. Right, Matt?
“Competition is competition,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re teammates.”
Then came that subtle confidence.
“If I play well,” he said, “the rest of it takes care of itself.”
At this early point of the season, unlike last year, there isn’t controversy and head-scratching indecision swirling around the quarterback position. Coach Mike Zimmer opened up the competition, but named Cassel the tentative No. 1, meaning it became his job to lose.
The players, some of whom suffered through last year’s three-headed quarterback fiasco, seem to have fallen in step behind Zimmer’s lead. They recognize Bridgewater as the quarterback with the “bright, bright future,” as receiver Cordarrelle Patterson put it. But they are also comfortable with Cassel maintaining a comfortable distance ahead of a rookie.
“Matt is our guy this year,” Patterson said. “I feel like Matt is always smooth. He’s calm. He doesn’t feel any pressure. You need that out of your quarterback. You don’t need no quarterback who is going to panic under pressure.”