For a 2012 playoff team with heightened expectations, pulling a former first-round pick and designated franchise quarterback for Cassel would be nothing short of a give-up decision.
However, ESPN's Adam Schefter has apparently heard differently. According to Schefter, the Vikings "wouldn't hesitate to go with Matt Cassel" if Ponder struggled next season. In fact, Schefter has heard from people around that league who consider Cassel "underrated," and that the former Kansas City Chiefs starter would "fare well" with the Vikings.
Cassel's numbers from the last two seasons seem contradictory to Schefter's findings.
Since 2011, only John Skelton (63.2) and Blaine Gabbert (70.2) have worse passer ratings than Cassel's 71.6 (minimum 300 attempts). Understand that the likes of Rex Grossman (72.4), Mark Sanchez (73.0) and Chad Henne (74.0) have each fared better Cassel over that time span, while Ponder has also been considerably more efficient at 77.1.
Last season, Ponder's passer rating was a modest 81.2, or roughly 15 points better than Cassel, who compiled a league-worst rating of 66.7. Hurting the former Chiefs quarterback was a league-high interception rate of 4.3 percent, while also finishing as one of four quarterbacks with at least twice as many interceptions (12) as touchdown passes (six).
Thanks to all the turnovers and a yards per attempt average of 6.5 (27th among qualified quarterbacks), Cassel limped to a 1-7 record—a finish that was trumped by only Gabbert (1-9) and tied by Brady Quinn.
Another troubling statistic for Cassel and his ability as a quarterback was his struggle as a play-action passer.
Despite possessing electric running back Jamaal Charles and the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing attack, Cassel was actually a worse quarterback when using play action.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Cassel completed 51.2 percent of his passes with three interceptions and a 60.1 passer rating when using play action last season. Without it, Cassel completed nearly 60 percent of his passes, threw five touchdowns and had a passer rating of 67.8.
These are not the kind of numbers you would expect from a quarterback playing in a run-heavy and run-efficient offense. It's especially troubling for Cassel's chances to turn things around with the Vikings, who predicate everything they do on offense off the work of all-world running back Adrian Peterson and a dominant running game.
Overall, Charles and the Chiefs were good enough running the football last season to believe that Cassel won't be significantly better using play-action in the Vikings offense.
The recent statistics from Cassel should paint a relatively clear picture: While Ponder hasn't been great in two years in Minnesota, he's still a considerably better, younger and more promising option than a fading former starter who is still riding the coattails of one good season with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
The only scenario where it would make sense to pull Ponder for Cassel is one where the Vikings struggle mightily, especially on offense, and fall out of the playoff race completely. At that point, Minnesota could effectively give up on Ponder and the 2013 season, use Cassel as the bridge to 2014 and then find a new quarterback next offseason.
Ponder gave enough reason in 2012—especially early and late in the season—to believe such a scenario won't unfold.
Most forget that Ponder skated through the first quarter of last season, tossing four touchdowns against zero interceptions (he was the last starter to throw an interception in the NFL) and leading the Vikings to a 3-1 start. His shining performance came against the San Francisco 49ers, who Ponder beat up for three total touchdowns in a Vikings upset win.
He then struggled through a stretch from Week 7 to 13 in which he cracked a passer rating of 75.0 just once, but rebounded in three must-win games with three straight performances over 80.0. In Week 17, Ponder tossed three scores and had a 120.1 passer rating in a playoff-clinching win over the Green Bay Packers.
A deep muscle bruise in his right arm held him out of the rubber match with the Packers in the NFC Wild Card round, a game the Vikings lost in large part because of awful quarterback play from backup Joe Webb. Who knows how that game could have gone if Ponder had been healthy and in the lineup.
The Vikings should now have reason to believe that Ponder will take a step forward in his third season, especially after they added more offensive weapons.
Will Matt Cassel start a game for the Minnesota Vikings during the 2013 season?
Greg Jennings is a veteran receiver who is gifted running routes and getting vertical against press coverage. He's also played with quarterbacks Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, which should help push along Ponder's progression.
Losing versatile weapon Percy Harvin hurts, but first-rounder Cordarelle Patterson enters the NFL as one of college's most talented athletes. Along with Jennings, Patterson can help fill Harvin's production losses.
Of course, Peterson returns another year removed from ACL surgery, and 6'6" Kyle Rudolph is developing into one of the tougher matchups at tight end. Add in a solid offensive line and the Vikings should have ample talent around Ponder.
It would now seem unlikely that Ponder will regress so severely that the Vikings would be willing to completely give up on both him and a season jam-packed with expectations.
For Cassel, that means a season of sitting on the bench and mentoring a young quarterback who needs the full support of his franchise behind him for 16 games.
Only a scenario in which Ponder endures an injury or plays as poorly as Cassel has over the last two seasons should the Vikings new backup be elevated to starter.
Instead of pulling the plug on Ponder "without hesitation" or going with the "underrated" guy, the Vikings should exercise patience and trust with their quarterback situation in 2013.