Sunday, September 21, 2014

Will Vikings Take Path Less Traveled?

In last week's 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots, Minnesota quarterback Matt Cassel threw for 202 yards and a touchdown.  Those results were Ponder-like in Ponder's better games and might have been enough for a victory, but for the fact that the team did not have Adrian Peterson to otherwise carry the load and the additional fact that Cassel contributed four picks to the effort.

We have seen this type of performance from Cassel in the past and we have seen Cassel rebound to the relatively mediocre quarterback that he typically is.  Whether Cassel avoids the picks going forward is not the Vikings' immediate or long-term concern.  Rather, those concerns are whether they have on the roster a quarterback capable of consistently playing above replacement level.

In addition to throwing picks on Sunday, Cassel seemed incapable of the deep pass.  In the few instances in which he attempted to go deep, his passes fluttered short of the target and seemed to be Cassel's best effort.  That's disturbing in a pass-happy league that is becoming more of a vertical game and less of a control and possession game.  Neither Cassel nor Christian Ponder appears capable of providing the deep or even long option.  That leaves only Teddy Bridgewater.

Almost certainly, Bridgewater is not prepared to step in as an NFL starter.  But, if the alternatives show the limited potential that the Vikings' other two quarterbacks heretofore have shown, it behooves the Vikings to determine sooner, rather than later, whether Bridgewater has the ability to start in the NFL.

The Vikings can accomplish a transition to Bridgewater in one of two ways.  One way is to throw Bridgewater into the game as a starter.  That's unlikely to happen over the next several weeks when the Vikings play, in succession, New Orleans, Atlanta, Green Bay, and Detroit--all high-scoring teams against whom the Vikings will need to score to have a chance to win.  And, given that reality, the Vikings would be committing to Cassel for nearly half the season, leaving Bridgewater a brief window to measure Bridgewater.

It is unclear what timeline is required to measure a quarterback's NFL potential in the world of Rick Spielman.  For Ponder, the timeline was ever-shifting, reflecting the GM's hope that his draft-day reach would somehow pan out.  For Josh Freeman, the timeline was one game.  That leaves a whole lot of ground between.

None of this would be all that significant for the Vikings, particularly without the added concern of attempting to win before the Peterson era in Minnesota ended, but for the fact that there happens to be a reasonably promising quarterback on the board in next year's NFL draft, in the form of Marcus Mariota.  Spielman presumably took Bridgewater late in round one, rather than Manziel earlier, in part, at least, to allow himself the opportunity to concede that Bridgewater is not the franchise quarterback, should Bridgewater turn out not to be what Spielman thinks he is.  But taking advantage of that opt-out option is really only possible if Bridgewater plays this year.

The second option for introducing Bridgewater is to incorporate him into the game at various times--certainly if any of the upcoming games become one-sided.  That would make sense not only from a performance review perspective, but also from a PR perspective as it would demonstrate that the team is moving on from the glacially slow assessments that led to numerous suspect decisions over the past four seasons.  And, if Bridgewater performs to the level that Spielman anticipates, the Vikings might find that they can spend a first-round pick on something other than a quarterback.

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