What Does Benching Christian Ponder For Matt Cassel Accomplish?

The Vikings have just won their first game of the season, a 34-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. This coincides with Matt Cassel starting at quarterback for the first time this season. As I expected this has led to a legion of Vikings fans calling for Christian Ponder to be benched and Cassel to be named the starter.

In case you’re not a Vikings fan, be aware that at one point in time Vikings fans wanted Daunte Culpepper to be benched so the Vikings could sign Jeff George off the street and make him the starting quarterback. Vikings fans do not have a history of being particularly intelligent when it comes to their quarterbacks.

What Vikings fans don’t seem to have is any sense of delayed gratification. Years of using veteran stopgap solutions at quarterback have conditioned Vikings fans into expecting a quarterback to be good right now. They don’t appreciate the time it takes to draft and develop a franchise quarterback. Instead they have a history of using post-prime quarterbacks like Brett Favre, Randall Cunningham, and Warren Moon.

What the Vikings should do at quarterback depends on what the goals of the franchise are. If the goal of the Wilf family (team owners) is to simply win as many games as possible THIS YEAR, then benching Ponder and promoting Cassel makes sense. If the goal is to build the team towards an eventual Super Bowl victory then promoting Cassel would be a mistake.

Like most fans, I want to see the Vikings win a Super Bowl. I’ve seen the Vikings make it to the NFC Championship Game three times and lose all three. Two of the losses were heartbreaking overtime soul-crushers, the other was a 41-0 stomping. Seeing my team lose in the playoffs hurts. I’d rather not lose in the playoffs, so for me, the goal is to win a championship.

With that in mind, here’s the first question that has to be asked. Is Matt Cassel good enough to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory?

Cassel has started 62 NFL games in his career (before today). His career passer rating is 80.4. His career passer rating in New England was 88.2 and his career passer rating in Kansas City was 77.5. His Total QBR in 2008 as the starter for New England was 63.15. His Total QBR in four years as the starter in Kansas City was: 30.88, 52.22, 51.23, and 36.54.

Based on the available statistical measures, Cassel is a below-average starting NFL quarterback. According to last year’s statistics, a passer rating of 80.4 would have placed 25th out of 37 quarterbacks (min. 200 attempts). A Total QBR of 46.80 (Cassel’s average) would have placed 23rd out of 37 quarterbacks. Cassel’s actual numbers last year were much worse than this, but on a dreadful Kansas City team.

Last year, Joe Flacco won the Super Bowl after a regular season in which he earned an 87.7 passer rating and 46.3 Total QBR. In 2008, Ben Roethlisberger won the Super Bowl after a regular season in which he earned an 80.1 passer rating and 46.82 Total QBR. There is a precedent for quarterbacks winning a Super Bowl with a performance as good as what Cassel has produced as his career average.

However, Flacco and Roethlisberger both have better career statistics than Cassel. Both quarterbacks performed much better in the postseason than they did in the regular season. It’s unlikely that Cassel would be able to duplicate their performances if he were to lead a team to the playoffs.

I believe Cassel is about the worst quarterback in the NFL who has any realistic chance of winning a Super Bowl as his team’s starter. It would be difficult for a franchise to view Cassel as a long-term answer or solution.

Here’s the second question: is it possible for Christian Ponder to develop into a quarterback who has a realistic chance of winning a Super Bowl?

If it is possible for Ponder to develop into an above-average NFL quarterback, it would be in the best interest of the Vikings to continue developing him this season. We know what Cassel is at this point – a decent quarterback with a limited upside. Ponder is much younger and presumably hasn’t finished developing yet.

In his rookie season, Ponder earned a 70.1 passer rating and 33.73 Total QBR. These are unacceptable numbers for an NFL quarterback but typical of a rookie.

In his second season, Ponder earned an 81.2 passer rating and 53.77 Total QBR. These numbers were about league-average and are both slightly better than Cassel’s career output. These are good numbers for a second-year quarterback.

In this season so far, Ponder has a 65.9 passer rating and 43.11 Total QBR. The passer rating is skewed because Ponder has rushed for two touchdowns. If those rushing touchdowns are counted as passing touchdowns, Ponder’s passer rating would be 79.2. These are still not good numbers either way.

So far, Ponder has not shown the ability to be a quarterback with the potential of winning a Super Bowl. However, Ponder is still a young and developing quarterback and it remains unclear how good he can be. Ponder is not Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback who gets dominated by opposing defenses on a routine basis. Ponder has at least shown glimpses of potential in the past.

If the Vikings bench Ponder and promote Cassel, they’ll be swapping a quarterback who might become above-average for one who we know is not above-average. In other words, they’ll be benching a quarterback who might become a franchise QB for a quarterback who we know is not a franchise QB. These are not decisions that smart organizations make.

None of this is to disparage Cassel. I love that the Vikings have a veteran like Cassel as their second-string quarterback. I’m convinced he is one of the 32 best quarterbacks in the league. Cassel played well against Pittsburgh and helped lead the Vikings to victory.

At the same time, let’s put Cassel’s performance in context. Having watched the game, I know Cassel was fortunate to have not turned the ball over three times. Two passes were dropped by Steelers defenders. A fumble was recovered by Minnesota. Cassel had very positive luck in this game. This is reflected in Cassel’s 52.0 Total QBR for the game, which indicates that he had an average performance.

Cassel also produced these numbers against what is clearly a weak opponent in Pittsburgh. I never would have thought the Steelers would be this bad this year, but as it turns out, they get dominated on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Cassel faced an easier opponent in Pittsburgh than Ponder had faced against Detroit, Chicago, or even Cleveland.

Ponder deserves the remainder of this season to show whether or not he’s capable of developing into a franchise quarterback. If Ponder improves on last season’s performance and becomes an average or above-average starter, the Vikings should continue to develop him. If Ponder instead regresses then the Vikings should draft or pursue a new prospect to become their next potential franchise quarterback.

Promoting Cassel would rob Ponder of a proper opportunity to develop. The Vikings would forfeit the chance of having a franchise quarterback for the immediate gratification of having a slightly better quarterback right now (and even that is very much up for debate). It might result in a slightly better team in the short term but would be a poor decision in the long term. The right move is to stick with Ponder for the time being.

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Week 4 Counter-Intuitive NFL ATS Picks

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the first three weeks of the NFL season, it’s that it’s very foolish to try to be smarter than Las Vegas, Football Outsiders, and other smart guys around football. That’s why I’m not going to do my own NFL team ranking anymore – because Football Outsiders does it better.

Eating humble pie has led me to remember how I was successful picking NFL games against the spread the last two years. I always kept in mind the following phrase: “Las Vegas knows something I don’t.” If there’s a point spread or an over/under that just seems strange or “off,” there’s a very good reason for it.

With that in mind, here are my picks against the spread this week. My picks are going to be counter-intuitive because that’s the only way I’ve been successful making picks in the past. I’m 17-28-3 against the spread this year trying to be smart, so now it’s time to pull a George Costanza and do the opposite of what makes sense.

St. Louis (+3) vs. San Francisco

The Rams were blown out by Dallas and now face last year’s NFC champion – but what we might be seeing is a 49ers team that is this year’s “shock” bad team.

Minnesota (+1.5) vs. Pittsburgh (in London)

The Vikings defense has looked horrible all year and they just lost a home game to the Cleveland Browns with Brian Hoyer. Now they travel to London to play an outdoors game against Pittsburgh. I thought the Steelers would be favored by at least a field goal, but again, Las Vegas knows something I don’t.

Buffalo (+3.5) vs. Baltimore

The Bills are coming off a loss to the Jets (in which they made Geno Smith look like a Pro Bowl QB) and the Ravens are coming off a blowout win over Houston. Time to take Buffalo.

Cleveland (+4.5) vs. Cincinnati

Don’t let the Browns game last week fool you – Brian Hoyer did not have a good performance. It makes sense that Hoyer would be shut down by the Bengals defense, which is why the Browns will probably cover the spread.

Indianapolis (-8) at Jacksonville

The Colts are not an elite NFL team but they’re being favored by more than a touchdown on the road because they’re playing the Jaguars. Jacksonville might be historically bad this year.

Houston (+3) vs. Seattle

The Seahawks are a Super Bowl contender coming off two blowout wins. The Texans are a defensively oriented team whose defense has suddenly been average or worse in three games in a row. It doesn’t make sense that the Texans would pull everything together against the best team in the NFC, so that’s why they’ll probably cover the spread.

Arizona (+3) at Tampa Bay

I got this line before Tampa Bay substituted Mike Glennon for Josh Freeman. Glennon is probably the better QB long-term, but I doubt he’s better than Freeman right now.

Detroit (-2.5) vs. Chicago

The Bears are 3-0 and running up the score for the most part. Time to pick against them.

NY Giants (+4) at Kansas City

The Giants just got utterly humiliated in Carolina and have the worst offensive line in the NFL. Now they’re going on the road to face one of the most improved teams/defenses in the league. Time for the Giants to cover the spread.

NY Jets (+3.5) at Tennessee

The Jets are the one team I’ve been right about this season. Everybody thought they would crash and burn but forgot that their defense is still pretty good. The betting public doesn’t believe in the Jets yet but they’re 3-0 against the spread and likely about to be 4-0.

San Diego (+2) vs. Dallas

I can’t bring myself to be counter-intuitive in this game. The Chargers are at home and GETTING points against Dallas? It’s said the Cowboys line is always inflated because of Cowboys fans betting on their team. I’m banking on that being the case.

Philadelphia (+10.5) at Denver

The Broncos have looked completely unstoppable in two home games this season. Philadelphia has one of the worst defenses in the league. Time for Denver’s offense to suddenly run into some speed bumps out of nowhere.

Oakland (+3) vs. Washington

The Redskins aren’t so bad that they would lose to Oakland, right? Time for Washington to hit rock bottom. I’m just full of sunshine today.

New England (+1.5) at Atlanta

Tom Brady is still good but suddenly looks human this year. He’s going into a dome to face the Falcons. But Gronk is back, and that means it’s time to channel 2007 Tom Brady in a 48-21 type win that leaves everybody wondering if Atlanta is a fraud.

Miami (+6.5) at New Orleans

An outdoors team is going into the Saints’ dome and playing a high-octane offense that’s suddenly paired with an above-average defense. It doesn’t make any sense for Miami to cover the spread here. They really should get blown out.

I feel horrible about most of these picks. That’s why I’ll probably end up 9-6 against the spread this week. We’ll see.

Week 3 NFL Rankings

The Thursday night game is underway and already Kansas City is up 10-0… so you’ll have to take my word for it that one of my picks against the spread was Kansas City +3.

TIER 1

1. Denver – great QB, D will be even better when Miller/Bailey return

2. Seattle – have to move them to tier 1 after dismantling San Francisco

TIER 2

3. San Francisco – the Seattle game was closer than the final score would indicate

4. Green Bay – offense is doing just fine despite injuries to the O-line

5. New England – only one more game until Gronk is back

TIER 3

6. Houston – defense is struggling for some reason

TIER 4

7. Cincinnati – suddenly the best team in the AFC North

8. New Orleans – Brees is great but needs to cut down on the awful turnovers

9. Atlanta – good QB, great offense, suspect D

10. St. Louis – would have taken Atlanta to overtime if not for a fluky pick-six

11. Washington – RG3 will improve but defense is a total mess

12. Pittsburgh – defense is too good to be one of the NFL’s worst teams

TIER 5

13. Kansas City – has a sneaky good defense, competent QB helps too

14. Dallas – Romo was lucky to not throw three picks against KC

15. NY Giants – will be competitive when they don’t turn it over 4.5 times per game

16. Arizona – solid team, should not have been the underdog at home vs. Detroit

17. Baltimore – won’t get to play Cleveland’s offense every week

18. Carolina – talented team held back by bad head coach

TIER 6

19. Miami – not buying the hype yet, let’s see how they do against tougher opponent

20. San Diego – offense has come alive but defense remains an issue

21. Detroit – average/good QB, below-average D

22. Tennessee – ceiling is limited with Locker at QB

23. Chicago – 2-0 but both close games at home

24. Minnesota – going nowhere if QB/defense don’t improve

TIER 7

25. Philadelphia – Chip Kelly offense is great but defense remains horrid

26. Buffalo – Manuel has shown enough in first two games to upgrade them

27. Indianapolis – Luck can’t do it all, Richardson won’t help much

28. Tampa Bay – 17 points isn’t enough in today’s NFL

29. NY Jets – Smith isn’t remotely ready to play QB in NFL

30. Cleveland – playing Hoyer and trading Richardson is basically tanking

TIER 8

31. Oakland – defense has been decent enough to move out of tier 9

TIER 9

32. Jacksonville – hopefully we’ll finally see the QB everybody’s been waiting for… Ricky Stanzi

 

My picks against the spread were 7-8-1 last week. They would have been 8-7-1 if I had stuck with my numbers on the Minnesota-Chicago game. It’s too late for that now. Overall I’m at 12-18-2, time to improve:

Kansas City +3 at Philadelphia – Philadelphia’s week 1 win over Washington doesn’t look as good now as it used to

Cincinnati +2 vs. Green Bay – Packers have the better offense but Bengals have the better defense, 50-50 game in Cincinnati

St. Louis +4 at Dallas – I still think the Rams are underrated until proven otherwise

San Diego +3 at Tennessee – Correct line but San Diego as the underdog was cheaper

Minnesota -5.5 vs. Cleveland – Hoyer starting for the Browns at the dome can’t be a good thing

New England -7 vs. Tampa Bay – I can’t believe the Patriots receivers will keep dropping so many passes

Arizona +7.5 at New Orleans – Saints are the better team but Cardinals can keep it close with decent passing game and ballhawk D

Washington -1.5 vs. Detroit – Let’s see the Redskins score points in the first half for a change

Carolina -1.5 vs. NY Giants – Newton should have a resurgence against New York’s mediocre D

Baltimore +2.5 vs. Houston – Texans are good but not good enough for me to believe they should be a favorite at Baltimore

Atlanta +1.5 at Miami – Dolphins aren’t bad but I still have doubts about Tannehill

NY Jets -2.5 vs. Buffalo – If Manuel looks good against the Jets D then Buffalo might be a surprise team this year

San Francisco -10.5 vs. Indianapolis – Struggling dome team goes to San Francisco against angry 49ers. How bad can it be?

Jacksonville +19.5 at Seattle – Jaguars can lose 27-10 and they still cover the spread

Pittsburgh +2.5 vs. Chicago – Let’s see the Steelers break through the 10-point barrier

Oakland +14.5 at Denver – Raiders defense has been decent enough that they can keep this within two touchdowns

Week 2 NFL Team Rankings

Based on my initial impression of each NFL team and the week 1 results, here are my rankings of the 32 teams going into the week 2 games:

TIER 1

1. Denver (1-0) – the best team in the league until proven otherwise

TIER 2

2. Seattle (1-0) – basically tied with San Francisco, great QB and defense

3. San Francisco (1-0) – Kaepernick may be unstoppable, run D is suffocating

4. Green Bay (0-1) – best QB in the league but shaky O-line and mediocre D

5. New England (2-0) – offense should improve dramatically when Gronk returns

TIER 3

6. Washington (0-1) – when RG3 is physically 100 percent, the Redskins will be very good

7. Houston (1-0) – balanced offense and very tough D

8. Pittsburgh (0-1) – not overreacting to one game, giving Steelers benefit of doubt for now

TIER 4

9. New Orleans (1-0) – great QB, if D is for real then they’re a Super Bowl contender

10. Atlanta (0-1) – good QB/defense but not exceptional on either side

11. Cincinnati (0-1) – quality defense and improving QB

12. St. Louis (1-0) – underrated QB/defense = underrated team

TIER 5

13. Kansas City (1-0) – even against Jacksonville, winning 28-2 on the road is a feat

14. Dallas (1-0) – Romo can win games but defense is very shaky

15. NY Giants (0-1) – OK/good everywhere, great nowhere

16. Carolina (0-1) – defense is for real but Newton can’t beat good teams

17. Baltimore (0-1) – losing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed stings

18. Arizona (0-1) – much improved pass offense but if pass D is gone they will fall quickly

TIER 6

19. Detroit (1-0) – looked awesome against Minnesota, decent QB and improving D

20. Chicago (1-0) – defense can create turnovers but I still don’t trust Cutler

21. Miami (1-0) – have playmakers on D but need Tannehill to improve

22. Tennessee (1-0) – surprising performance in Pittsburgh but Locker is still the QB

23. San Diego (0-1) – not terrible anywhere but not great anywhere either

24. Minnesota (0-1) – if Ponder is a turnover machine the Vikings are toast

25. Indianapolis (1-0) – I’m a fan of Luck but barely beating Oakland is not a good sign

TIER 7

26. Philadelphia (1-0) – shockingly good in first half against Washington, again not overreacting to one game

27. Tampa Bay (0-1) – Freeman is unlikely to survive the year as starting QB

28. Cleveland (0-1) – defense is OK but Weeden is not a long-term answer

29. NY Jets (1-1) – Smith is a disaster but pass D will keep them in games

TIER 8

30. Buffalo (0-1) – close game against Patriots doesn’t look as impressive in retrospect

TIER 9

31. Jacksonville (0-1) – deserves to be #32 with Gabbert starting, with Henne they get to be #31

32. Oakland (0-1) – it’s not good when Pryor is forced to throw

 

With that said here are my picks against the spread for week 2… I didn’t publish my week 1 picks but they were 5-10-1 so it’s just as well. My straight-up picks were 13-3 so that’s good.

NY Jets (+12) at New England – I know, the game already happened, but that was my pick. I just admitted to going 5-10-1 last week so cut me some slack.

San Diego (+7.5) at Philadelphia – Not buying the Eagles as a playoff team yet. They’re better than I thought but need to prove it in more than one game.

Baltimore (-6.5) vs. Cleveland – The Ravens are now an average team but that’s good enough to win at home against Cleveland.

Tennessee (+9.5) at Houston – Pretty tough line, I’ll take the points but this could swing either way.

Indianapolis (-3) vs. Miami – Exactly where the line should be. I’ll default to the home team.

Buffalo (+3) vs. Carolina – I like Carolina to win the game but if you’re giving me three points I’ll take Buffalo to cover.

St. Louis (+7) at Atlanta – Rams might be the most underrated team in football right now. They can keep this one close.

Washington (+7.5) at Green Bay – The Redskins should cover if RG3 is back to 100 percent… but I doubt he is.

Kansas City (-3) vs. Dallas – Fair line, time to see what the Chiefs can do against non-Gabbert.

Chicago (-6) vs. Minnesota – Normally I would take the points, but as a Vikings fan I know bad things happen in Chicago.

Tampa Bay (+3) vs. New Orleans – Seems counter-intuitive but it’s almost always a good idea to bet against the dome team going outdoors.

Jacksonville (+6) at Oakland – This line makes no sense. With Henne at QB the Jaguars should be +1.5 at Oakland.

NY Giants (+4.5) vs. Denver – The Giants won’t always be a turnover machine like they were in Dallas. This should be a close one.

Arizona (+1) vs. Detroit – I believe the Rams/Cardinals are badly underrated, time to put that to the test.

San Francisco (+3) at Seattle – Seattle by 3 is a correct line, but when I made the pick San Francisco +3 was cheaper than Seattle -3.

Pittsburgh (+7) at Cincinnati – I’m not ready to bury the Steelers yet, but I might change my mind if the Bengals squash them.