Coach Leslie Frazier introduced a new drill at the Vikings’ voluntary workouts last week. It’s called two-huddle and used primarily at the college level.
In the drill, the first- and second-team offenses line up near midfield. The two units run plays toward opposite end zones, one immediately after the other. The drill is designed to squeeze in extra snaps to maximize practice time.
The pace is harried and, as reporters also witnessed, occasionally a mess. In one rapid-fire sequence, Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel threw interceptions that left the defense woofing with delight.
Had it not been one drill in a harmless OTA in early June, Frazier might have required a dose of antacid. But those mistakes served to remind that, even in a mundane summer workout, the quarterback quandary continues to hover as the Vikings attempt to discern whether Ponder can be entrusted as a long-term solution at that position.
That question was supposed to be answered last season. The well-worn narrative didn’t play out that way though, because Ponder’s collective performance reflected too many extremes to draw concrete conclusions. He was alternately awful and outstanding, and often times stuck in between. More safe than good or bad.
In theory, this upcoming season represents an ultimate yes-or-no test for Ponder and his future in Minnesota. But as that situation plays out, the Vikings now have a legitimate alternative in Cassel — at least in the short term — in the event that Ponder encounters another game or stretch that makes fans pine for someone else. The offseason acquisition of a competent veteran backup gives Frazier an option, if needed.
The Vikings have done everything short of renting billboards to let everyone know the pecking order. Ponder is the starter, Cassel the backup, nothing to see here.
Cassel knows the drill. He’s been both starter and backup. He’s played well at times and fallen out of favor with an organization. He’s prepared for anything.
“My approach is always the same — You have to prepare to play,” he said. “At the same time, I know Christian is the starter and I understand that. But our [meeting] room revolves around us pushing each other and continuing to push each other each and every day.”
This should be good for Ponder’s development because competition remains a hallmark of the NFL. Pressure is a product of competition and Ponder had no one pushing him last season.
Despite Joe Webb’s wonderful physical attributes, he’s not an NFL quarterback. His emergency start in place of Ponder in the playoff game at Green Bay — however difficult the circumstance — embarrassed the Vikings brain trust sufficiently enough for them to quit fooling themselves and seek a qualified backup.
The fact that Webb is attempting to play wide receiver reflects the team’s confidence in him as a quarterback. Deep down, Frazier knew Webb wasn’t a real option last season. Even as Ponder singlehandedly cost his team a game in Green Bay in December, Frazier had no choice but to stick with him, no matter how bleak things looked.
The Vikings gave Ponder every opportunity to rise or fall without any background interference once they released veteran Sage Rosenfels before last season. To their credit, they realized that couldn’t happen again.
An unexpected run to the playoffs forced their hand because they got caught with their pants down after Ponder injured his arm. Realistic or not, the postseason is now the benchmark for this team, and that supersedes any other motivation. This is no longer just about Ponder’s development.
To be clear, nobody is suggesting that Cassel is a savior who will replace Ponder by Week 5. If anything, Cassel is probably best suited as a backup at this stage of his career, a quarterback who provides some insurance and veteran perspective.
Internally, the Vikings hope Ponder builds on his late-season performances and leaves little doubt that he’s their guy. They’ve invested a lot in him and need him to succeed. They seem confident that will happen.
I’m not sold yet, but it’s encouraging to know that Ponder has someone pushing him, helping him and perhaps even making him fear for his job. There’s nothing wrong with a little competition.