It's a bit crass to suggest that the Minnesota Vikings can come away from this season with many positives given that they remain the odd team out in an NFC North division that is still up for grabs entering Week 16.
However, after having gone through a quarterback carousel including Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, and Matt Cassel, a keeper may have emerged.
Cassel, now somewhat of a journeyman in the NFL, has experienced moderate success in the offense particularly when compared to the rest of the quarterback crew.
Cassel's career, like Minnesota's season, has been rife with ups and downs.
The New England Patriots invested only a seventh-round selection (230th overall) to obtain Cassel from the University of Southern California where he spent his playing days as a second-stringer behind two Heisman Trophy winners: Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. He then went on to play a backup role again behind two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady.
Brady's ACL and MCL tear in Week 1 of the 2008 season jettisoned Cassel into a starting role, a role with which he was unfamiliar since high school.
Expectations were high for the Patriots after Tom Brady's 2007 campaign in which he tallied 259.40 Passing Net Expected Points (PNEP) and a 16-0 regular season record. Brady not only recorded a PNEP 23.92 points better than the second-best PNEP season recorded since 2000 (Drew Brees's 235.48 in 2011), but also remains the only quarterback with two seasons above the 200-point mark. (Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning are the only other quarterbacks to reach this mark.)
Amidst these high expectations, Cassel (nearly) delivered. Posting a 80.71 PNEP in 2008 (ninth-best on the season) and leading the Patriots to an 11-5 season, Cassel missed the playoffs. This marked the first season since the 1990 expansion to 12 playoff teams that a team won 11 games and failed to reach the playoffs.
The Patriots used a franchise tag on Cassel after the season, and he was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs where he would ultimately underwhelm.
Kansas City Cassel
Cassel inked a six-year deal with the Chiefs, including $28 million in guaranteed money, but would fail to live up to the expectations of being a franchise quarterback, finishing only 19-28 over four seasons and throwing only 59 touchdowns to 44 interceptions.
Unsurprisingly, his PNEP statistics were paltry when compared to his 2008 season in New England.
Cassel's 2010 campaign in Kansas City was anomalous, but earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl, again replacing an injured Brady. Plagued by injuries, Cassel appeared in only 18 games over the 2011 and 2012 seasons. He was released by the Chiefs in March 2013 and signed with the Vikings on the same day.
Cassel's Impact This Season
As is typical for Cassel, he acquired a backup role on his new team behind Christian Ponder, Minnesota's first-round pick in 2011, but received a chance to start after the first-stringer got injured.
After Ponder suffered a rib injury, Cassel drew the start in Week 4 this season. After the team's bye week, Cassel got the nod again for Week 6 against the Carolina Panthers, but was unable to maintain the position and relinquished it to newcomer Josh Freeman for Week 7. Cassel received another chance when Ponder left the Week 13 game against the Chicago Bears due to a concussion. Cassel led the Vikings to an overtime victory.
Retaining the starting role, Cassel lost in Week 14 on a last-second field goal from the Baltimore Ravens kicker, Justin Tucker. This past weekend, Week 15, Cassel and the Vikings scored 48 points en route to upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles.
Cassel, though only 2-2 as a starter on the year, has ostensibly outplayed both Ponder (2-6-1 on the season) and Freeman (0-1), and has formed a bond with wide receiver Greg Jennings. Through Week 15, 44 of Jennings's 94 targets (46.8%) on the season have come from Cassel. Cassel has targeted Jennings at least 10 times in three of his four starts, and seven times in the second half when he replaced Ponder in Week 13.
Additionally, 418 of Jennings's 733 receiving yards (57.0%), including a 163-yard game this past week, came on passes from Cassel. All four of Jennings's touchdowns were Cassel connections as well.
Rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, whom the Vikings invested a first-round pick, achieved his first 100-yard game in the NFL in Week 14 when Cassel connected with him for 141 yards and a touchdown. The 79-yard touchdown came entirely from Patterson's explosiveness after catching a short screen pass, but Patterson caught another touchdown in Week 15, his third on the year and second from Cassel.
Ponder's success, or at least success relative to the other Vikings starters, has made a marked impact on the team's offensive success in terms of PNEP. PNEP is measured after each game, compiles over the season, and can be adjusted for strength of opponents.
|Week||Starter||Adjusted PNEP||Adjusted PNEP/Pass|
Freeman's abysmal game against the New York Giants in Week 7 in addition to Ponder's lack of success undid Cassel's moderate productivity in Week 4 and Week 6 for the Vikes, but Cassel's play in Weeks 13 (in which he played the second half against the Bears), 14, and 15 has leveled out the Vikings's Adjusted PNEP this year. Through Week 15, the Vikings rank 22nd in Adjusted PNEP, but they were 26th through Week 12 before Cassel returned to the field. That four-ranking jump, which seems insignificant, is quite big when you consider it's a cumulative statistic.
Cassel, by far, is the most successful quarterback the Vikings have rostered this season, and is the only one to find success in utilizing the team's most dynamic receiving targets: Jennings and Patterson.
*Freeman started Weeks 1-3 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Vikings have already named Cassel their starter for the remainder of the season. Cassel has a player option to remain with the team next year, but the Vikings have Ponder, a first-rounder, under contract through next season. The final two weeks of the season will determine Cassel's fate, but either way, Cassel has re-emerged as a capable NFL quarterback - at least more so than the other options available in Minnesota.