Another Vikings’ season is about to get underway and we have yet another quarterback battle on our hands. The Vikings haven’t had an unquestioned starter going into training camp since Tarvaris Jackson in 2007. Sure, Brett Favre in 2009 gave a lot of fans reason for hope, but he didn’t un-retire (again) until after training camp started. The next season, many Vikings fans wondered whether Favre would retire for good after a disappointing end to the season. Let’s never forget how wrong we were when we thought Donovan McNabb was going to bring us back to the playoffs and teach rookie Christian Ponder what it takes to be an NFL quarterback. McNabb threw more bounce passes that season than Ricky Rubio has during his pro career. However, there are no statistics to support this claim.
There is more optimism this year than in years past. Christian Ponder is still around, and while he is easy to throw under the bus, he still has some NFL quality skills that led him to become the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. He will be one of the best third string quarterbacks in the league and could be trade bait should a team suffer an injury or two during the rest of training camp.
Matt Cassel has been a quality, if not consistent, player during his time in the NFL. He was a good signing last offseason as an insurance policy should Ponder flounder. Cassel came off the bench, put up some points, pulled out a few wins, and made the offense respectable. Some blame Cassel for ruining the Vikings’ chances in the “Tank for Teddy” sweepstakes.
Teddy Bridgewater is the next “quarterback of the future” as the Vikings snapped him up with the last pick of the first round in this year’s draft. Tank for Teddy indeed. He was hyped as a #1 overall pick for most of the college season and up until his pro day. His pro day did not go as expected and he fell far in the first round. Far enough for Rick Speilman to give his old friends in Seattle a call. All three of these guys have qualities to be excited about and some that we might sweep under the rug and hope nobody notices.
Now, I’m not an NFL scout, I don’t make the player ratings for the Madden NFL video game franchise, but I have watched a lot of football, and I’ve seen a lot of good quarterback play over the years, and my fair share of less than stellar play. I do remember Spergon Wynn, after all (anybody else?). I’ve taken the liberty of dividing up some traits that I feel make a successful QB in the NFL and how I feel each player stacks up against the others.
Here’s my take on the Minnesota Vikings quarterback battle:
Arm Strength – The glamour trait of an NFL QB. Guys like Matt Stafford, Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco have made a nice living with their great arm strength. Bridgewater has the strongest arm of our group, but he doesn’t have elite strength like the guys mentioned above. I’d grade his strength as a B+. Cassel would rank as a B and Ponder is at a C. Cassel has a willingness to go deep and is less likely to under throw his receivers. Ponder might have learned a bit too much from McNabb.
Pocket Presence – The ability to hold up under pressure and make good decisions and throws is the true hallmark of a good quarterback. Guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are legendary for their ability to stick in the pocket and throw accurate passes to the correct receiver. Matt Cassel isn’t a mobile quarterback. He knows when he’s going to get hit and can’t do much about it besides step up and make a throw. I’d rank him at a B. He can be a bit skittish when he’s been harrassed all day. Ponder gets another C and Bridgewater gets an Incomplete. Bridgewater had good pocket presence in college, but he hasn’t had Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers coming straight at him all day, either.
Throwing Accuracy – A receiver can’t catch the ball if it isn’t within his reach. On the same note, a quarterback has to throw it out of reach of the defender. There’s a thin line between a TD and an interception in the NFL, just ask Michael Crabtree. Drew Brees is one of the most accurate passers (65.9% career) in NFL history. Even if his arm strength leaves something to be desired, he’s been wildly successful over his career. Statistically speaking, Christian Ponder is a very accurate QB and his 60.2% career average is a full 1.2 points higher than Matt Cassel’s average over his career. The difference between Ponder’s throws and Cassel’s is that Ponder loves to throw the three yard out to the sidelines, while Cassel tends to throw further down the field. Ponder’s passes are much safer than Cassel’s and he only has 1.2 points to show for it. I’d grade Cassel as a B in accuracy, and Ponder grades as a C+. Bridgewater’s college average was 68.4% over three seasons. His final season at Louisville he completed a mind boggling 71.0% of the 427 passes he threw. I’d give him an A grade; however, he hasn’t played against an NFL defense yet.
Scrambling Ability – Everybody loves it when their quarterback eludes pressure and bolts 30 yards down the field for a big first down. Russel Wilson and Colin Kaepernick have been the best scramblers in the league for the last few years. Getting outside of the pocket can put extra strain on defensive backs, giving receivers another chance at getting open. This is where Christian Ponder shines. It’s not unheard of for him to run for 20 yards with a trail of linebackers following him. He’s more athletic than he’s given credit for. Bridgewater has young legs but he’s not a scrambler. He’s more in the mold of Matt Cassel. Ponder gets a B+ while Cassel and Bridgewater each get a C.
Field Vision – Reading a defense before the play can mean the difference between a sack and a 45 yard catch and run. Cassel has shown an ability to exploit mismatches, whereas Ponder has shown an ability to run the play he’s been given. Sometimes it seems as though Ponder knew where he’s going to throw before the ball is snapped, before he can read that the defense is in zone coverage and only showing man coverage. For whatever reason, Ponder sometimes seems surprised at the speed of the game and makes terrible choices (stay away from Charles Woodson, always). Cassel is a bit better, but has been known to cause fans to forcefully facepalm. Cassel gets a C+, Ponder gets a C, Bridgewater gets an Incomplete, only because the safeties playing in Seattle are not the safeties playing at Missouri State.
Release – If a QB can’t get the ball off quickly, he is at risk for being sacked and stripped of the ball. These don’t always mean turnovers, but they almost always lead to negative yards and a loss of a down. It is incredibly rare for a QB to lose the ball and the offense still advances. Bridgewater has the quickest release of the three. Ponder’s release is average. Cassel’s is a bit longer because he tends to chuck the ball down field a bit more often than Ponder. Bridgewater gets a B+, Ponder gets a B-, and Cassel gets a C.
Play Action – When you have the best running back in the game, you had better be able to pull off a good play action. A good play-fake can force a linebacker or safety to bite on a potential run play, taking themselves out of position to make a play on the deep route that their receiver is likely running. Ponder’s play action is weak, not that he goes deep often enough to take advantage of it. Cassel’s is significantly better and he is courageous enough to throw it deep, should somebody on defense fall for it. Teddy had a serviceable play action that helped him throw quite a few touchdowns in college. He never had a guy as dominant and feared as Adrian Peterson in his backfield, though. That fact alone should help him. Cassel gets a B, Bridgewater gets a B, and Ponder gets a D.
Leadership – How can a player expect to lead his team to a Superbowl if he can’t lead his teammates on the field? Many talk about Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson as among the worst QBs to win a Superbowl, but they were leaders. They didn’t have the gaudy stats, but they kept their team together when times got tough. Sure, Ray Lewis and Derrick Brooks might have helped, but that’s not my point. These guys kept their cool when their backs were against the wall.
Ponder has proven inconsistent in his leadership and I think his confidence is too damaged for him to be the unquestioned leader of this team. He has shown flashes of putting the team on his shoulders (2013 vs GB), but too many times the team has had to step up to cover his mistakes. Cassel is a veteran, but he can be skittish on the field. In a game full of alpha males, fear reeks worse than a lineman’s jock after the game. That leads players to doubt the abilities of their leaders. Teddy seemed to show no fear during his college career going against the big dogs and leading his team to a pair of bowl game victories against the Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators.
Bridgewater gets an Incomplete, Cassel gets a C, and Ponder gets a C-.
Now that my meaningless grades have been handed out, here’s a look at these guys individually:
Matt Cassel – He’s the most experienced guy in the group. He’s also the most proven. He has good instincts and a good sense of timing with his receivers. He’s not going to dominate the game, but he will get the ball to the guys who will dominate the game. I look for him to start the season as the starter, even though Teddy is quickly gaining ground in training camp, and could eventually surpass Cassel for the starting job.
Teddy Bridgewater – A leader in college, quick release, strong arm and extremely accurate. He has the tools to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. He looks better on paper than either Cassel or Ponder, but there are still some question marks. Will he fold under pressure? Is he brittle? Are his small hands a problem (Daunte Culpepper, anyone)? He is quickly taking reps away from Cassel in camp. The two are now splitting first team reps and I’m sure Teddy will get his fair share of time with the first team this preseason. With as many incomplete grades as I’ve given him, he still seems like the best option to help this team win now and in the future.
Christian Ponder – He’s athletic and that’s about as good as it gets for him these days. He still has potential, but it is clear to me that the Vikings are moving on from Ponder. He’s a good enough guy and I hope that he becomes a successful quarterback in this league, I just don’t see it happening. He’s just not starter material. He never developed into the smart game manager that Spielman hoped for when he drafted Ponder #12 overall. He will likely start the season as the third string, emergency quarterback.
Each season brings hope for every NFL franchise and this season is no different. Can new offensive coordinator Norv Turner find the right guy to lead the Vikings back to the playoffs in 2014? Will Christian Ponder regain his golden boy aura of past or will Teddy Bridgewater bring a purple rain of touchdowns upon the NFL? Will Matt Cassel continue his winning ways with the Vikings? Let me know what you folks think in the comments below.