LONDON – By late Sunday night, the Minnesota Vikings should have understood they have a quarterback problem. That is not a good thing. Not when they have spent the last two years pushing Christian Ponder as their quarterback of the future, brushing aside the errors of youth – misreads and interceptions – to suddenly cast him away in favor of Matt Cassel.
Franchises at the bottom of the league do not rebuild with 31-year-old quarterbacks that carry a history of flopping. The Vikings, who have invested in Ponder, built around Ponder and tried to establish an identity around Ponder can't suddenly change direction with a player destined to be a backup.
But Cassel may have given the Vikings no choice by starting in place of the injured Ponder and completing 16 of 25 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns in Minnesota's 34-27 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday night. He did not turn the ball over. He managed the game well enough to allow running back Adrian Peterson to win it with 140 rushing yards.
So when Peterson was asked after the game if Cassel should be the quarterback he said, "What do you think?"
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It's an answer the Vikings can't ignore, not at 1-3 with Peterson standing as the franchise's best hope of winning. If Peterson wants Cassel and Cassel isn't turning the ball over, what other decision can Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier make no matter how healthy Ponder's broken rib might be.
Peterson raved about Cassel's presence in the huddle on Sunday. He did it in a way that made it seem that he doesn't believe Ponder has such an aura. He seemed to imply that Cassel was a better leader.
"[Cassel] is more vocal," Peterson said, "so he was out there and he was saying it to us in the huddle and you could see guys buying into it and keeping the huddle together. And that is all you can ask for from any player, especially in the quarterback position."
Players don't usually say things like this. Not about their quarterbacks. They are often more diplomatic. But the Vikings have lost a lot in this very short year. They were 0-3 with Ponder turning the ball over seven times. If Peterson thinks the players are listening more to Cassel than Ponder, Frazier has to listen to Peterson or risk losing his locker room.
Of course this is a difficult decision. There is little in Cassel's recent biography that says he is a better option to lead the Vikings in the future. Yes, he had a fine year replacing Tom Brady when Brady tore apart his knee in the first game of the 2008 season. But Cassel's time in Kansas City was forgettable. Maybe he has more experience than Ponder and is more careful than Ponder, but he doesn't seem like a player who gives you much of a foundation.
"If you are asking, our quarterback is Christian Ponder," Frazier said Sunday night.
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That could change when the Vikings play again in two weeks. It probably has to change. Ponder's performance in the three losses and the Vikings' 0-3 record with him makes that all but a certainty.
It's not really Ponder's fault. There is so much pressure in the NFL now for teams to find their next great starting quarterback. Bad teams stretch to make a college quarterback the cornerstone. They draft them high and are forced to play them before they are ready. Who knows if Ponder is the answer in Minnesota? Nobody could wait a year or two to let him develop, they had to KNOW. They had to put him on the field, watch him and try to make great judgments with little history.
In so many ways, the Vikings made Ponder the face of Peterson's team. Even the passes for official events before the London game had Ponder's picture on the front, not Peterson's.
"I don't think there will be much discussion about that," Frazier said of Ponder and the job.
Too late for that.
"I don't know what the circumstances are going to be," Cassel said. "I don't know how Christian will recover or how all that will go. Christian Ponder is a heck of a quarterback. Any time I've been in a situation where you get hurt or you get banged up, you never want to see that happen. Hopefully he gets healthy and comes back soon."
Not that it will matter.
A fine mess the Vikings have now. They have to hope that Cassel isn't just the answer for one game across the ocean but for the next few seasons as well.