EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota’s quarterback this weekend will be Matt Cassel or Christian Ponder, not Josh Freeman.
If Ponder has healed from his broken rib, coach Leslie Frazier said, he will return as the starter. If Ponder is still hurt, Cassel will keep the job.
Beyond Sunday’s game against Carolina, well, there’s no guarantee for anyone.
The Vikings were finalizing Freeman’s contract Monday, four days after the 25-year-old was cut by Tampa Bay. He didn’t make it in time for practice but was scheduled to arrive later, and Freeman and general manager Rick Spielman were scheduled to address reporters in an evening conference call.
This was the only definitive word from Frazier: there’s not enough time for Freeman to learn the offense and play against the Panthers. The Vikings didn’t just sign him for depth, though. They’re trying to save the season after losing their first three games, and they also need someone to count on for the future.
Though Freeman agreed to a prorated $3 million deal for only the rest of the year, these next three months will be a feeling out process for both sides in advance of the free agent market.
Ponder said he felt “very little pain, if any” while throwing in practice. He also said he’s not sure what to think about this latest bold move by Spielman.
“We’ll see what happens. It’s their decision, not my decision,” Ponder said. “Obviously I can control how I play.”
Frazier said several times Ponder is still the starter if he’s healthy, but a rib is a dangerous body part to expose to injury. Keeping Cassel in the lineup on Sunday would hardly be a controversial or deceptive decision. The 31-year-old gave a sputtering offense a spark with two touchdowns and 248 yards passing without a turnover in the win in London over Pittsburgh on Sept. 29.
Ponder, whose record as a starter is 12-17, expressed defiance toward the doubt about his status.
“In my eyes, I’m getting prepared to play. As long as I play well, then I’m the one on the field,” he said.
Even Frazier acknowledged, though, the question about whether Ponder will play another game for the Vikings. He has one year remaining on his contract, calling for a base salary for 2014 of a little more than $1.76 million.
“On the surface, he’d question that. He’s human. I’m sure he has at times, but he just has to continue to work and work as hard as he can,” Frazier said. “And I think things will work out fine for Christian in the long term.”
Ponder was the 12th overall pick in the quarterback-deep 2011 draft, chosen ahead of Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick after Brett Favre retired for good and Tarvaris Jackson was let go. Since handing Ponder the job six games into his rookie year, to replace an ineffective Donovan McNabb, the Vikings have given the Florida State grad every opportunity to develop into a franchise cornerstone.
He produced some solid performances during a 10-6 season in 2012 that put the Vikings in the playoffs, but there were just as many ugly ones. While the Vikings lost their first three games, Ponder had seven turnovers and a paltry 65.9 passer rating. That’s ahead of only three players with enough qualifying attempts: Eli Manning, Freeman and Blaine Gabbert.
“I think Christian still has a bright future here with our football team. It may not look like that on the surface, but Christian’s a professional,” Frazier said. “He’s going to work as hard as he can every day to prepare, get back on the field and help our team win.”
Frazier spoke with Cassel and Ponder in the morning and said neither player expressed concern to him about Freeman’s arrival.
“One thing you can expect in the NFL: expect the unexpected,” Cassel said. “Because every week it changes. You never know what’s going to happen. I learned that over time. This is my ninth year now.”
The decision on the starter won’t come until later in the week once Ponder’s health is evaluated, Frazier said. The decision to bring in Freeman, though, was a signal of wavered faith in Ponder, even if he has more chances to play this year. Freeman has struggled mightily at times, too, but his best games and seasons have been better than Ponder’s so far.
“You’re always trying to find guys who you think can help your team win, and we think he’s one of those guys,” Frazier said.