Three quarterbacks with 151 starts among them arrived at Winter Park on Wednesday morning for what can safely be called an atypical workday four games into an NFL season.
First things first: An introduction for the newbie, former Buccaneer Josh Freeman.
“I just stood up and introduced myself to the team, told them where I was from,” he said. “That’s about it.”
Second order of business: Pesky reporters arrive midday wanting confirmation that Matt Cassel, 1-0, will start Sunday ahead of Christian Ponder, 0-3 and nursing a fractured rib, when the Vikings play the Panthers in a battle not to end up 1-4?
“We’ll talk more about it as the week goes on, but we’re not at a point, without watching the guys practice, where we can make a determination about who our starter is going to be,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “We’ll monitor that throughout the week and take a look at where the guys are.”
Next up: Pesky reporters ask Panthers coach Ron Rivera, Frazier’s friend and former Bears teammate, if he’s buying that gamesmanship down in Charlotte. Apparently not, since this is what Rivera said when asked if he’s preparing for Cassel to start: “Yes, we are. We most certainly are.”
Rivera noted Cassel’s victory over the Steelers — a turnover-free game that saw Cassel go 10-for-10 passing in the second half — and Ponder’s rib injury as reasons the Panthers expect Ponder in a baseball cap on game day.
“For all the different things they do, the play action, boot action, the quarterback being exposed, I don’t know that you want to expose [Ponder] to further injury,” Rivera said. “I think that’s why they would want to go with Matt.”
Ponder’s mending rib is expected to be the reason the team uses Friday or Sunday to keep him on the bench short-term. He can throw the ball and participated in Wednesday’s practice on a limited basis, but extra caution is being used because the fractured rib is near the heart.
Meanwhile, with Freeman now on board, the team’s long-term plans for the quarterback position shared equal attention with Sunday’s contest. Freeman, a 25-year-old former 17th overall draft pick, wasn’t brought in to run scout team plays and stay after practice working with second- and third-stringers, like he did on Wednesday.
But the problem is the team is in mid-October mode while Freeman is figuratively back in early March trying to learn Step 1 of the Vikings offense. Protection schemes, terminology, knowing his responsibilities and those of 10 other positions … everything is new, which is why the earliest he might play is a week from Monday when the Vikings visit the Giants.
“I don’t think he’ll be able to digest our entire offense with the time that we have [this season],” Frazier said. “We’ll have to alter some things to get him on the field. We won’t be able to throw our entire playbook at him, but we can get that done. To put a timetable on it, it’s hard to say today, with this being his first real action with us. We’ll see how it goes.”
Focusing on Sunday
The unusual situation has offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson and assistant quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski multi-tasking this week. Musgrave is sticking primarily with the quarterback who will start this week, while Johnson and Stefanski are using some of their time to help Freeman along.
Meanwhile, at the top is Frazier, who appreciates Freeman’s talent but is more focused on avoiding his second 1-4 start in three years.
“It presents some challenges,” Frazier said. “But like I talked to our players about this morning, we have to be focused on the Carolina Panthers. This is a huge football game for our team. … I, like our players, have to be able to bring it back to the task at hand. We do have some things going on at a critical position, but the focus has to be on the Panthers.”
Ponder won’t talk to reporters until Thursday, but Cassel seems to be taking it all in stride. As 30 reporters and cameramen finished talking to Freeman and migrated to Cassel’s locker, the nine-year veteran was asked if Wednesday was the strangest day he’s seen in the NFL.
“I’ve been through some crazy, strange things throughout my career,” he said. “I don’t know if you want to categorize it or define it as strange as much as it is this is the NFL and there’s always something interesting going on.”