The Vikings and the Panthers were 1-3 when Graham Gano launched the opening kickoff at noon Oct. 13 at Mall of America Field. Leslie Frazier and Ron Rivera — rival head coaches, longtime friends and former Super Bowl teammates — stood on opposite sidelines as popular picks for those trendy early-season NFL hot seats. ¶ By 3:05 p.m., they had shaken hands at midfield and gone their separate ways. Ten weeks later, Rivera is 10-4, a Coach of the Year candidate and one awfully thankful boss of Cam Newton, a 24-year-old undisputed franchise quarterback who has entrenched himself in Carolina in his third season. ¶ Frazier, meanwhile, is 4-9-1, still in danger of being fired and the unfortunate caretaker of an unstable quarterback situation whose resolution could go in any number of different directions after the season concludes a week from Sunday.
The Panthers left Mall of America Field with a 35-10 victory and the highest passer rating (143.4) of Newton’s career. Their approach to Newton’s third straight 1-3 start had been simple: Just stay patient. Newton, after all, was a former No. 1 overall draft pick with individual success and off-the-charts athleticism. He is often what you get the spring after a 2-14 fall.
The Vikings, meanwhile, retreated to Winter Park, baffled by a blowout they never saw coming and a quarterback letdown that felt all too familiar since Christian Ponder was selected 12th overall in 2011. Having already turned from Ponder to Matt Cassel in what was becoming a lost season, Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave began devising a Plan C that would surprise not only the Giants and the rest of the league but their own locker room as well. They would up the ante on General Manger Rick Spielman’s already-aggressive move to sign former Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman the week before. In what certainly qualified as desperate times, they would start Freeman on the road against the Giants on a Monday night. And they would do it with Freeman having practiced only four times with the first-team offense.
“The way he prepared, not only that week but the week prior to his start, we really felt he had a grasp of where we were with our offense,” said Frazier, who confirmed again that he has final say on all decisions involving starts and playing time. “His arm strength. Very impressive. He has a big arm, can make every throw. What we saw on tape in Tampa Bay prior to him signing with us. All that was a part of it.”
Far fewer critics questioned Frazier’s decision before kickoff. Cassel, after all, had just played poorly in the 25-point loss to Carolina, and Ponder started the year 0-3.
Things changed quickly, however, as Freeman and the Vikings began embarrassing themselves in front of the nation.
With shocking inaccuracy (37.7 percent) and an illogical game plan that resulted in what’s still a team season-high 53 passes and just 14 runs, the Vikings offense failed to score in a 23-7 loss.
“Hindsight,” said Frazier, “is 20-20.”
As the Freeman fiasco fades, people haven’t questioned why he started a game after signing in midseason as much as they’ve wondered why he hasn’t played since. Ponder started the next six games, while Cassel has started the past two and heads into Sunday’s game at Cincinnati fresh off a 382-yard performance in a 48-30 upset of the Eagles.
Frazier was asked again Wednesday if Freeman might play in the final two weeks of the season. He managed a smile and some gallows humor in the face of what’s been a three-headed albatross threatening his survival as a head coach.
“You guys might not believe this,” Frazier told reporters, “but I don’t like juggling quarterbacks.”
We know what the Freeman signing didn’t produce, which was the immense improbability of any quarterback arriving on Oct. 6, learning an NFL offense on the fly, developing rhythm with complete strangers and stepping in as a successful starter this season.
But what has it produced? Or, better yet, what were some of the more realistic objectives behind the decision to give Freeman $2 million for 12 games?
First, the Vikings got 12 weeks to exclusively interact with and evaluate the soon-to-be free agent on how he practices, studies and relates to teammates and coaches on the field, in meetings and the locker room. That was a high priority considering Freeman’s ugly divorce from the Bucs and the potential interest the Vikings may have in signing him long-term for more money this offseason.
Second, the Freeman signing was designed to try to pressure Ponder into finding a way to achieve the consistency he’s lacked his entire career. Although Ponder once again responded with some promising moments — he played consistently well in the win over Washington and would have beaten the Packers in Green Bay if not for three key drops late in regulation and overtime — ultimately it was the veteran Cassel who rose to the top when the competition heated up in practice.
Finally, not only did the Freeman signing not cost the Vikings a draft pick, it ultimately could bring a compensatory pick in 2015 if Freeman and the Vikings part ways after this season. Spielman’s stockpiling of picks in recent years has resulted in the Vikings selecting five players in the first round the past two years. Four of them — Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson — are starters, while the other — Sharrif Floyd — is a projected starter next season.
Spielman admitted last month that he’s not satisfied with the quarterback position and that all avenues, including a dip back into the draft for the second time in four years, are open to his ongoing search.
Yes, as the only general manager in the NFC North without a franchise quarterback to build around, Spielman views the Freeman signing as one of the stones that needed to be turned whether he played this year or not.
“If you’re not out there always looking and trying to find a Peyton Manning, then I feel you’re not doing your job,” Spielman said last month. “Our job is to be aggressive, to try and get that position solidified.”
Don’t bury Ponder yet
Although the Vikings obviously love Freeman’s arm strength and are satisfied with his ability to learn, they’re careful not to reveal what their level of interest in re-signing him will be.
Part of that is for competitive reasons, while a lot of it has to do with the fact that the team waits until after the season before crafting its final roster evaluations.
And quarterback will be a complicated process because of all that has transpired, including Cassel’s late-season surge and the fact that he has an option to void the final year of his contract and sign elsewhere this offseason.
Ponder could be traded but also can’t be written off because, frankly, the coaching staff could be entirely different or significantly altered. If that’s the case, Ponder might be kept in hopes that his career path follows those of notable late bloomers such as current Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
In his first five seasons, Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, was inconsistent with 51 touchdowns and 53 interceptions. But since being coached by Jim Harbaugh and his staff in San Francisco and now Andy Reid and his staff in Kansas City, Smith has become one of the league’s more steady quarterbacks with 53 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in three seasons.
Cassel playing well down the stretch is adding another layer to the possibilities. At 31, he could be brought back as the starter in 2014 while the Vikings address their long-term future in the draft, depending on where they end up in the selection order.
Altogether, the three quarterbacks cost the Vikings $8.5 million in salary and bonuses this season.
That’s not a heavy investment in quarterback dollars, but it isn’t insignificant considering any one of the three or none of the three could be the team’s starting quarterback on opening day next fall.
“If that [money] helps us make a decision on who’s our quarterback going forward,” said Spielman, “then it’s well worth it.”