The echoing boos from inside the Metrodome last Sunday made it crystal clear who would be playing quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings if those in attendance were making the call.
Christian Ponder would be sitting; Matt Cassel would be playing.
But like a baseball manager watching his struggling starting pitcher, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier has stuck by Ponder through his early struggles. Confidence hasn't waned despite the fact that Minnesota's 0-3 start has all but eliminated the Vikings from serious postseason contention, while also putting Frazier's job past this season in serious jeopardy.
For now, this remains Ponder's mess to clean up.
Ponder "still our starting quarterback," Frazier says.— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingESPN) September 22, 2013
However, a call to the bullpen—where Cassel is warming up and waiting—isn't far down the road, especially if Ponder continues the same "one step forward, two steps back" routine he's put on since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 2011.
"He's got to improve consistency all the time," said Vikings quarterback coach Craig Johnson, via Tom Pelissero of USA Today. "He's put together some good plays, some not so good plays."
The Vikings know this dance. The "Ponder Experience" has been on display in every game this season, with the "not so good plays" directly contributing to Minnesota's surprising 0-3 start.
Let's quickly run down Ponder's maddening inconsistency through three games, which, if continued, will necessitate a switch to Cassel.
Week 1 (34-24 loss to Lions)
The Good: Facing the Detroit Lions in Week 1, Ponder hit on two pretty deep balls—both to Jerome Simpson—that accounted for 91 of his 236 passing yards. Both completions set up eventual touchdowns.
The Not So Good: Ponder also tossed three interceptions, including one that should have resulted in a pick-six (Ndamukong Suh's illegal block wiped out the score) and another that was nothing more than a comical heave while retreating to his left.
His final pick sealed the 34-24 loss.
Overall, the Vikings went 2-for-10 on third downs, as Ponder completed just 4-of-7 attempts for 26 yards on the all-important down. He also took two third-down sacks.
Ponder finished the season opener with a 63.1 passer rating. Only Cleveland's Brandon Weeden (48.4) and Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert (30.8) were worse in Week 1.
Week 2 (31-30 loss to Bears)
The Good: After looking shaky for the majority of the first half in Chicago, Ponder settled down over the final 32 or so minutes. He led the Vikings to four different scoring drives. The offense eventually helped overcome a seven-point first-half deficit, and Minnesota actually held a lead for a significant stretch in the fourth quarter.
The Not So Good: The Vikings lost the game after Ponder and the offense failed to score a second-half touchdown. Minnesota was in the red zone on three straight possessions but were forced to settle for three chip-shot field goals. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler eventually made those shortcomings hurt in the game's final minute.
Ponder also tossed a first-half pick-six on a poorly thrown ball to the outside. Bears cornerback Tim Jennings undercut the route and walked into the end zone for a touchdown that put Chicago up, 21-14.
Week 3 (31-27 loss to Browns)
The Good: Ponder looked gutsy during both of his touchdown runs inside the red zone. Each score tied the game, with his second knotting things up late in the third quarter.
In the passing game, Ponder connected with eight different receivers.
The Not So Good: Ponder had two turnovers—an ugly interception and a lost fumble—that bumped his 2013 giveaway total to seven. Only Eli Manning has more turnovers through the first three weeks.
Ponder also took six sacks, including on Minnesota's final play of the game when trying a Hail Mary to the end zone. The Vikings also went three-and-out on back-to-back possessions late in the fourth quarter. Ponder's failure to connect with Greg Jennings on a critical third down allowed the Browns to have a final drive, which Brian Hoyer took full advantage of.
Ponder's passer rating of 64.4 was 30th best among starters during Week 3.
Ponder is completing just 59 percent of his passes this season, good for 22nd in the NFL, and a 3.1 percent drop from last year. His passer rating is down 15.3 points from 2012 and now rests at 65.9, which ranks 30th among quarterbacks who qualify.
With five interceptions in three games (third most in NFL), Ponder is now on pace to throw nearly 27 this season. He had 25 during his first two seasons combined. He's also taking more sacks and losing fumbles at a higher rate.
Any continuation of these disturbing trends will force Frazier to make a change at quarterback.
Keep in mind, there have been whispers coming out of the Vikings locker room regarding Ponder's hold on the starting job being less than secure.
In June, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on NFL Live that Cassel could "unseat" Ponder as the starter at "some point" in 2013, via Rotoworld. He heard from people around the league who believed Cassel was good enough to challenge Ponder.
Following Minnesota's Week 1 loss, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reported that the leash on Ponder is "much shorter" than most believe, via Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.
"Matt Cassel is in there doing all the right things," Glazer said. "I think fans look at it and think, 'This is Ponder's team.' No, from what I'm hearing inside that locker room, Ponder is on a much shorter leash than anyone has any idea about."
Will Matt Cassel start a game for the Minnesota Vikings in 2013?
There comes a point for every decision-maker—whether its a football coach or baseball manager—when the negative effects of a player's struggles outweigh the positives of sticking with him. A baseball manager might allow a young starting pitcher to work through some crooked numbers in the first few innings, but if the game gets out of control, the call to the pen is the logical next step.
Frazier doesn't appear to be dialing the bullpen phone yet. He's sticking with Ponder as his quarterback, and that's probably the right decision after only three games. Benching a former first-round pick can be viewed as giving up on that player.
However, Ponder's continued inconsistency appears much more than just a passing trend. He simply hasn't developed in the way Minnesota fans had hoped, especially for a QB entering his third NFL season. As a result, the Vikings are now in an 0-3 hole, one that might be too deep to crawl out of.
If Ponder's up-and-down play continues, Cassel will eventually be starting games for the Minnesota Vikings. And it won't take a chorus of boos from inside the Metrodome to make that happen.