Souhan: Ponder still a mystery, but Cassel fits all the requisites

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 21, 2013 - 11:00 PM

The guy who has started the Vikings’ past two games has come through in a way they wish Christian Ponder had.

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel (16) threw under pressure from Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin (96). The Vikings won 48-30.

Photo: Mckenna Ewen, Mckenna Ewen

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The Vikings will be looking for a quarterback in the draft. If they could draw up a prototype of the ideal prospect, he would look something like this:

About 6-foot-4, 230 pounds. Good mechanics. Able to control a huddle and read defenses. Adept at throwing the deep ball.

He’d possess leadership skills and experience. He’d be able to complete about 62 percent of his passes, move well within the pocket and handle the diplomatic demands of the modern NFL quarterback.

The Vikings absolutely should draft someone like that. They also should realize that they’ll have that guy in their huddle Sunday.

If you want to label Matt Cassel, you can pick any convenient phrase, and you’d be right. He has been project, prospect, young backup, winning starter, losing starter, demoted starter, castoff, veteran backup, emergency starter and, this season, a third quarterback on a team that temporarily favored two struggling quarterbacks.

At season’s end, either he or the Vikings can opt out of the second year of his two-year contract. The Vikings would be wise to keep him around. Asked whether he wants to stay, Cassel said, “I would love to be back here.’’

Cassel has done exactly what the Vikings wanted Christian Ponder to do: take advantage of defenses stacked up to stop Adrian Peterson. Last Sunday, Cassel went further, taking advantage of a defense that had probably never heard of fill-in starter Matt Asiata. Cassel produced 48 points with an offense missing its top two backs and top two tight ends.

A Vikings quarterback has thrown for 240 yards five times this season. Ponder and Freeman have done it zero times; Cassel has done it five times.

His teammates have raved about his huddle presence and leadership. He’s experienced, smart, tough and polished.

He’s also the kind of guy you can root for. He didn’t start at USC. He didn’t attend the scouting combine. When he showed up for USC’s pro day, in which prospects work out for NFL scouts, he wasn’t given the right time. He showed up late, and was asked to finish the infamous Wonderlic Test in about 10 minutes.

His score? “I have no idea,’’ he said, smiling. “Let’s just say I got 100 percent.’’

He was drafted by the Patriots in the seventh round. After three years of studying under Tom Brady, he led the Patriots to an 11-5 record in 2008.

“When I first came into the league, Tom Brady took me under his wing and mentored me,’’ Cassel said. “I was so blessed to have someone like that, who I still talk to just about every other week. That’s what this league is about, is continuing to help those guys around you.’’

Cassel remembers completing a pass in practice once but forgetting to put a receiver in motion. “Tom got all over me,” Cassel said. “I said, ‘We completed the pass!’ He said, ‘You have to be perfect. If you want to get in the huddle and scream at those guys and hold them accountable, you have to be perfect. They can’t look at you and say, ‘Hey, you’re the guy who forgot the motion.’ ”

Cassel calls Brady “unbelievably competitive, whether it’s pickup basketball or golf. We’ll play golf in the offseason — golf! — and somehow it becomes a knock-down, drag-out fight.”

Cassel rarely exudes that kind of fire, but he says it’s there.

“Of course I view myself as a starter,” he said. “I’ve started a lot of games in this league over a long period and I’ve worked hard to get there. Perceptions can change, one season to the next. I’ve been through it all. I know I’m capable. I know I’ve shown that I can play at a high level and be a good player at times in this league, and be a great player at times in this league.

“I don’t take anything for granted. I feel very fortunate to be in this position even nine years down the road.”

Cassel belongs to the class of quarterbacks who needs to find the right team, the right offense, at the right time in his career, and he may have.

“My family and I have had a great experience here,” he said. “The fans have been great to us. The organization, the people inside the locker room, have been great. That’s why I came here in the first place, because I thought it was a great fit for me, and my family, and my skill set.”

Passer rating is a highly imperfect statistic, but Cassel, if he had enough attempts to qualify, would this season rank ahead of Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler, Ryan Tannehill, Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan, Carson Palmer, Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck.

The Vikings prayed that Ponder would be just good enough to run their offense. It turns out that the guy they signed as Ponder’s backup can do more than that.

 

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN.

His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib.

jsouhan@startribune.com

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