Those of you who know me or read my articles know I like a good debate. When fans first started calling for Matt Cassel to start, I took Christian Ponder's side. My reasons were many. We had invested a 12th overall pick in Ponder. Cassel, while capable at times in his career, had also seen bad times. He championed a 2-14 team in his final year at Kansas City. Matt is in his ninth year, while Ponder is only in his third. If we are building toward a future, it makes sense to go with youth. Finally, Ponder's finish in 2012, including four straight wins and a 120 passer rating in defeating the Packers, was proof for me that he had what it takes to win in the NFL.
I looked the other way when Ponder struggled, because he is so young and inexperienced. It was not as if the rest of the team was shining. Our main rival, Green Bay, allowed Aaron Rodgers to watch for his first three years. He learned from Brett Favre. After a rough year for Green Bay in his fourth year (first starting), Rodgers and the Packers came to life in his fifth year. Surely we could be as patient as Green Bay.
Other young quarterbacks tore up the league in 2012, including but not limited to: Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Andy Dalton. Ponder, while taking his team to the playoffs and beating a Super Bowl bound team, struggled mightily at times. This year, many of the young group of starters have imploded, some like Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez have lost their jobs since then. Christian Ponder's ratings are among the worst in the league in 2013. His team was 0-3. And then he got hurt.
Now it would be easy for me to argue still. The Browns, who barely beat the Vikings, just handled the Bengals. Chicago and Detroit, who both won close games versus our Purple, are presently both 3-1. The team that was called the Steelers we played in London was pathetic. Their left tackle so bad that he whiffed more than once on Jared Allen. So bad that Pittsburgh has since traded for an offensive tackle. Cassel in the first half missed passes, and had two thrown directly into the hands of a defender. One, Cordarrelle Patterson saved with a reach around in the end zone, the other a pick-six that was dropped like 0-4 teams tend to do. Add to that a fumble that not only was recovered by Minnesota, but it resulted in a third down conversion during a drive. Not lucky, but fortunate as the Steelers are last in the league in creating turnovers.
And no one can tell me they thought Minnesota was going to win when Pittsburgh drove down the field late in the game hoping for a tying touchdown. Ben Roethlisberger was tearing up the Vikings' makeshift secondary, and only an Everson Griffen sack (that could have been a penalty) inside the ten-yard line saved the game. The Steelers had almost thirty first downs in the game (near double the Vikings), almost 400 yards passing, and close to 50% more offensive plays. We won, but it did not feel good.
But the key words? We won. Winning is a good thing. Minnesota, now 1-3, can feel better about themselves heading into the bye week. And we now have two weeks to discuss who is quarterbacking this team in our immediate future.
I, like Leslie Frazier's words, still believe in Ponder. But I concede that Cassel played better than Ponder, as I suspected he might. While Cassel may have been fortunate to avoid turnovers, he stepped into the pocket better than Ponder ever has. Cassel benefited from big plays by Greg Jennings and Adrian Peterson, but he also delivered a second touchdown pass to Jennings that I confess Ponder seemingly could not provide. He appeared more confident from the start, and that confidence could have been the inspiration for the improved play of many on offense. Not to mention the benefit of the return of Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton.
So while I still believe in Ponder, I also believe Matt Cassel would perform better, and that like Rodgers, Ponder could benefit from watching a good quarterback lead a team. Lord knows he did not get that from Donovan McNabb or Joe Webb. But after watching WR Webb's block spring AP for his long touchdown, may I never again badmouth him. It was a thing of beauty.
I think it imperative that Cassel get another chance. The Steelers are very bad, and it would be nice to see if Cassel can help Minnesota beat someone a little better. Minnesota will host another struggling team, the 1-2 Carolina Panthers before traveling to present 0-4 New York Giants. After that, the schedule has lots of games with Packers, Seahawks, Cowboys and the like.
It would not be outrageous to think Minnesota can get itself to 3-3 before facing Green Bay in the Dome. I think Cassel's play has earned him the right to continue. If Ponder is hurt for weeks, then it is a no-brainer Cassel will go. But by Week 8, Minnesota better have its best players performing because the schedule toughens. If Ponder heals before Week 8, Frazier has a dilemma. He has said Ponder is the starter, and Christian will need to be back in the saddle well before the Packers show up.
But Ponder's ribs may be enough to keep him out for a while. And as long as Cassel keeps winning...