The fractured rib that will keep Christian Ponder glued to the sideline this week has granted backup Matt Cassel a golden opportunity to steal away the starting quarterback job for the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings official Twitter account announced the temporary quarterback change Friday morning.
On Thursday, we examined how Ponder could eventually lose his starting gig by continuing his maddening inconsistency. Cassel will now have an opening to take it for himself.
If Cassel takes care of the football and the Vikings are able to secure their first win of the 2013 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, going back to Ponder following the bye will become a hard sell for head coach Leslie Frazier.
The Vikings are currently calling Cassel's start a result of a medical situation, and head coach Leslie Frazier said he "doesn't foresee" a quarterback controversy, per the Vikings official site.
Comments made by Ponder on Friday back up that sentiment, as he told Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the location of his fractured rib would have made playing through the injury a dangerous endeavor.
"The biggest risk was a health issue, the placement of the rib near my heart," Ponder said. "So we made the decision based on what's best for me and my health and what's best for my team. It stinks."
Ponder will hate the decision even more if Cassel plays well against the Steelers. Call it the Brian Hoyer dilemma, which the Vikings unfortunately know all about.
Just last week, Hoyer took over for an injured Brandon Weeden and led the winless Cleveland Browns to a come-from-behind win over the Vikings. Hoyer threw three interceptions and finished with a sub-70.0 passer rating, but he also tossed three touchdowns, including the game-winner to Jordan Cameron with under a minute remaining.
Just like that, Hoyer won himself another start in Cleveland—and the possibility of nailing down the starting job for the rest of the season.
Cassel has a similar opportunity across the pond in London.
To convince the Vikings to sit Ponder, who should be healthy after next week's bye, Cassel will first need to show he's a different quarterback than the one who stunk up the joint over his last two seasons in Kansas City.
Over his final 17 starts with the Chiefs, Cassel completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw 16 touchdowns to 21 interceptions. As a result, Kansas City went just 5-12 in games he started since 2011, including 1-9 over his last 10.
Cassel's passer rating since Week 1 of the 2011 season is just 71.6, which ranks 46th among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. If you bump up the minimum attempts to 300, only John Skelton (63.2), Blaine Gabbert (68.3) and Brandon Weeden (71.1) have been worse the last two seasons in terms of passer rating.
Cassel's propensity for turnovers was a primary reason for his exit from Kansas City, which eventually brought in the safe-handed Alex Smith to run Andy Reid's offense.
Among quarterbacks with more than 300 attempts but less than 600, Cassel's 21 interceptions since 2011 rank second behind only Skelton (23). His interception percentage during that span is 3.8.
The Chiefs officially released Cassel in March. He quickly went on to sign a two-year deal worth $7.4 million ($3.7 million guaranteed) with the Vikings, but he knows he'll need to protect the football much better on Sunday than he has in the past.
"I've got to take care of the ball, we've got to take care of the ball, and we've got to execute," Cassel said, via the Vikings official site. "And whoever does that and plays good situational football will win this game on Sunday."
Taking care of the football is of vital importance to the 0-3 Vikings, who have 10 turnovers on the young season. Only the sloppy New York Giants (13) have more.
Ponder, who is struggling to start his pivotal third season as the Vikings starter, has been a big reason for the turnover spike. His five interceptions are third in the NFL behind Eli Manning (eight) and Geno Smith (six), and his seven total turnovers (including two lost fumbles) are second to only Manning.
Protecting the football Sunday could go a long way in both beating the giveaway-happy Steelers (nine turnovers in 2013) and convincing the Vikings staff that Cassel is the best fit for the current Minnesota offense.
Frazier has emphasized how important it is to cut down on turnovers moving forward.
"You can't turn the ball over at the rate we are turning it over and expect to win," Frazier said, via Andrew Krammer of ESPN 1500. "Unless, and I have said this before, you are so superior than your opponent, and we are not."
If Cassel can reverse the Vikings' turnover trend—something he's trying to do on an individual level, too—and Minnesota can win its first game Sunday in London, the end of the Christian Ponder era may be near.
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