Reporters and fans crave access. So when the Vikings sign a new quarterback, hold news conferences and allow interviews in their locker room, 40 reporters will show up to ask questions and fans will devour the resulting quotes.
Here’s the key to covering and following the NFL: Step 1: Ask the right questions. Step 2: Listen carefully to the answers. Step 3: Ignore just about everything you hear.
Sunday night, the Vikings reached a contract agreement with quarterback Josh Freeman. Monday, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier spoke about a quarterback position that currently includes Freeman, Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
Frazier said either Ponder or Cassel could start on Sunday. He said Ponder remains the team’s starting quarterback “when healthy.” He declined to cede the starting job to Freeman. He indicated the team could move forward with Freeman, Ponder and Cassel all on the roster.
Frazier is as honest a man as you’ll find coaching an NFL team. He’s also a member of management, so he is much more interested in avoiding statements that could hurt him and his team than he is in being blunt.
There is no upside for Frazier in admitting the obvious: That Freeman was brought in to be the starter, that Cassel should start on Sunday, and that Ponder’s career with the Vikings is nearing an end.
Freeman likely will not be active for Sunday’s game after spending the week learning a new offense. Cassel, coming off an impressive performance in London, will start unless the coaching staff has given up on the season and wants to spend the rest of the season preparing for the draft.
Frazier must guard against the possibility that Cassel or Freeman plays horribly or gets hurt the next couple of weeks, forcing the Vikings to turn to Ponder again.
While Frazier must hedge his bets, here’s how the next few weeks should play out, or at least how the Vikings would like them to play out:
Sunday: Cassel starts and plays well enough to beat Carolina.
Monday, Oct. 21: Assuming Cassel doesn’t look like Peyton Manning, Freeman makes his first start, beats the Giants and moves the Vikings to 3-3.
Sunday, Oct. 27: Freeman has fully grasped the offense in time for the Vikings’ home game against the Packers, a game that could be a key to the Vikings’ ability to contend for the playoffs this season.
Sunday, Nov. 3: Freeman settles into the starting role, demonstrates the ability to make big plays down the field, and becomes the penciled-in starter for the next five seasons.
With management, always judge actions, not words. The Vikings wouldn’t have signed Freeman if they believed in Ponder, or if they thought Cassel was a long-term solution. Freeman wouldn’t have signed with the Vikings, choosing them over a half-dozen other suitors, unless he was assured he will get a chance to start.
Ponder’s rib injury has enabled the Vikings’ attempts at vagueness and protected Ponder from the truth. If he were completely healthy, the Vikings would be forced to reveal more of their plans. The rib allowed the Vikings to start Cassel in London, in a move that might have saved their season. The rib allows them to pretend Ponder is relevant this week, and that there is a difficult decision to be made about the future of the quarterback position.
We haven’t seen a bunch of Minnesotans so thrilled to be in the presence of tender ribs since the first Famous Dave’s opened.
For all of his flaws, Freeman has performed, during two of his four full NFL seasons, like a quality NFL starting quarterback. In 2010, he threw 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Last year, he threw for 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns.
His bad is just as bad as Ponder’s bad. His good is far better than Ponder’s good.
The Vikings are taking an intelligent, low-risk gamble on a guy who could solve their quarterback problems for the next five years. If Ponder starts for the Vikings again, it will mean something has gone wrong with their new plan.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org