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.