If Peyton Manning has to miss a game, the story becomes when he gets back, not if. If Tom Brady has to sit out, no one wonders if Ryan Mallett will take the reins and win the starting job. When you’re sitting at 0-3, however, the coverage takes a different turn.
Christian Ponder has been ruled out of Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh in jolly ol’ England. Ponder has a fractured rib very close to his heart, so sitting him is a precautionary measure, more about preventing a more serious injury from occurring than a necessary inability to play necessarily. One way or another, it means turning to the backup quarterback, and the Vikings are in a better position this season then they were last year, when they were forced to turn to Joe Webb in their playoff game. Webb, you may have noticed, is still on the roster, but as a wide receiver, which tells you all you need to know about his passing qualifications.
Instead, they turn to Matt Cassel, the former Chiefs starter and Patriots backup who was signed for just this reason. Streaky, but with a decent arm, he’s definitely an improvement over Webb, and against an 0-3 Steelers team, is more than enough to keep the Vikings competitive. After all, this is an Adrian-Peterson led team anyway, and the quarterback’s job is to provide enough spark through the air to keep Peterson running against seven-man boxes – or at least, take advantage of it when the defense refuses to adjust.
Cassel was hired with specific assurances that Ponder was the starter – Cassel was not competing for the starting job, he was just someone who “can step in if need be.” If the Vikings lose on Sunday, that’s precisely what he’ll be – a guy who stepped in, had little success, and will step back out. But what if the Vikings win, and what if Cassel plays a key role?
Ponder’s week-to-week, and with the Vikings on a bye next week, there’s every possibility that he could simply miss one game and be back behind center immediately for Carolina in week 6. Coach Leslie Frazier said that he doesn’t “foresee a quarterback controversy”, but Ponder hasn’t done anything this year to prove he’s deserving of that level of confidence, nor does he have a long track record of success to cushion him from a poor start. Ponder’s got an ESPN QB rating of 43.1, is completing less than 60% of his passes, and has a 2:5 touchdown to interception ratio. Nor has he played better than these statistics indicate – he’s been unable to take advantage of the defense keying in on Peterson to convert through the air in short yardage. He’s been unable to complete passes on first down, pushing them into second-and-long situations repeatedly. He is still young, and has moments and series where there are notable signs of improvement – his second half against the Bears was actually very solid, and showed his scrambling chops against the Browns – but he’s certainly nothing to write home about.
Cassel wasn’t, either, as a starter in Kansas City, but his highs were higher. Three years ago, he threw 27 touchdowns to 7 interceptions and was a Pro Bowl quarterback, and of course he had success when playing with the far-more-talented Patriots squad. At this point, we know who Cassel is, as a quarterback. If he’s able to give the offense any sort of a spark against the Steelers who, despite being 0-3, have done fairly well holding opposing passing games in check, it’s probably for the best interest for the team this season to role with Cassel and hope his streakiness trends positive.
If they’re not thinking of this season, but next season, however, they need to get Ponder as much starting time as he can, because they need to determine if he’s the quarterback of the future or not. This is a make-or-break season for Ponder; the Vikings need to determine if he can be at least an average NFL starter, or if he should be replaced. It feels odd for a playoff team to be considering abandoning their hopes for this season after only four games and, honestly, even at 0-4, I wouldn’t give up all hope if I was Minnesota; just most of it. Still, this injury at least gives them an opportunity to make a decision – a decision that gets much tougher if Cassel leads them to victory.
They could always choose to take a third option, of course. Rumors have begun circulating that the Vikings are interested in trading for deposed Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman. That feels like a bad decision – Freeman may not be notably better than either Cassel or Ponder, and he’s a free agent at the end of the season, so it could just be a rental. When you start 0-3, however, these are the sorts of questions that are asked. The Vikings need to decide on a direction at the most important position, or these questions will continue to be asked.