Saturday night, Matt Cassel made the Arizona Cardinals defense look about as effective as the security team at 400 Soundbar.
Cassel hit Kyle Rudolph in stride on a 51-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. He threw a pass from the Arizona 3-yard line that Rudolph should have caught in the back of the end zone. He even ran effectively, picking up 23 yards on one play in what might have been homage to Joe Webb.
Saturday, Cassel completed 12 of 16 passes for 153 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, and ran for 30 yards in a 30-28 Vikings victory. For the preseason, he is 17-for-22 for 215 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.
For this, he received golf claps. When Teddy Bridgewater completed a few passes in the fourth quarter, including a go-ahead score with 18 seconds left, against a defense comprised of future baristas, he received the full “Teddy! Teddy!” chant.
Despite public opinion, the competition that was never really a competition is now over: Cassel will begin the regular season as the Vikings starter, and Bridgewater will enjoy being one Cassel interception from becoming the most popular man in Minnesota.
This was grooved to happen. When the team signed Cassel to a two-year contract in March, it did so expecting him to be the starter on Sept. 7. Taking a quarterback with the 32nd pick in the draft wasn’t likely to change that.
Now that the silly season of made-up quarterback controversies has come to a close, we can ask more interesting questions about Cassel:
Is he good enough to keep the job all season? Is he good enough to lead the Vikings to a winning record?
Former Eagles quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski ranked Cassel as the worst starter in the league. But is he, really? And in a situational game, does Cassel’s current situation give him a chance to succeed?
He will be playing for famed quarterback whisperer Norv Turner. He’ll be playing in the same backfield as Adrian Peterson, who lugged Christian Ponder to the playoffs two years ago. He will be throwing to an intriguing group of receivers, including Rudolph, Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Jerick McKinnon. And he won’t miss any games this year so the Vikings can give Josh Freeman a tryout.
Last year, Cassel started six games. In only one did he compile a passer rating below 73.9 — when the Bengals defense run by current Vikings coach Mike Zimmer overwhelmed him late in the season. He threw more than one interception only twice — against Cincinnati and Carolina, two of the NFL’s best defenses.
While most of the discussion about the Vikings’ 2014 schedule has rightfully centered on an unproven secondary facing Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford early in the season, the schedule also reveals that Cassel, if he keeps the job, will only face two defenses that were ranked in the top five statistically last year — Carolina and New Orleans.
Cassel will pale in comparison to his opponents early in the season. More to the point, he will pale in comparison to the other quarterbacks in the NFC North — Rodgers, Stafford and Jay Cutler.
Jaworski, among the best NFL analysts at combining film study, experience and bluntness, could have pointed out that Cassel would look a lot better in another division, and particularly in the other conference.
In the NFC, it’s difficult to imagine any other team giving a starting job to Cassel. The weakest starter outside of Minnesota might be Tampa Bay’s Josh McCown — and McCown threw 13 touchdown passes and one interception in Chicago last year while Cutler was hurt.
The AFC is filled with teams unsure about their starters. Chad Henne, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, Matt Schaub and Jake Locker all could start in Week 1, and Ryan Tannehill, E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith remain unproven.
Cassel won’t be the worst starter in the NFL, but unlike his NFC Central peers, he won’t enjoy the privilege of throwing against a Vikings secondary that has been a work in progress since, oh, the retirement of Paul Krause.