Matt Cassel is the Vikings' Present

Should Matt Cassel start this season, or is his career history?

I was at a bar in Minneapolis, Minnesota (where I live) during the 2014 NFL Draft this past May, live tweeting the results and doing instant analysis of picks and team fit. The tension in the air leading up to the start of the draft was palpable; the throngs of purple and gold that I was amidst were practically begging the television to allow the Minnesota Vikings to select Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M phenom, at eighth overall. If he went to Cleveland fourth, they prayed the Vikes would take Teddy Bridgewater, the laser-accurate, polished passer out of Louisville.

Then a series of selections sent this crowd into the most roller coaster set of emotions I’ve ever seen, from hope to joy to confusion to elation to anger in about 15 minutes. After the dust cleared, both Manziel and Bridgewater remained on the board and fell out of the top 10 in the draft.

We know how the story goes. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman worked some of his trademark draft day magic and obtained the Seattle Seahawks 32nd overall selection in the draft, in order to select Teddy Bridgewater with the final pick of Day 1 of the NFL Draft. Instantly, Teddy became a darling here, and all thoughts of incumbents Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel disappeared from Minnesotans’ thoughts.

But they shouldn’t. While Teddy may be the quarterback of tomorrow, Cassel must be the quarterback of today, and I’ll show you why.

Heir to the Throne

Let’s take a little look at how Matt Cassel got to the North Star State, and why he's the perfect candidate to put the Vikings in contention in a loaded NFC North division this year. We’ll do this through our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). Net Expected Points is a measure of how many points a singular player advances his team on any given play towards scoring on a drive.

In his first meaningful season, when Cassel stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in 2008, he became the heir ascendant to one of the best offenses in memorable history. The year prior the Patriots had set offensive record after offensive record, as Brady himself posted the single-best NEP mark for a quarterback ever (until Peyton Manning shattered it this past year). If Cassel had failed with the weapons at his disposal, that would’ve been pretty damning to him. Yet he put up an 80.71 Pass NEP, good for ninth in the NFL that season. His passing efficiency – measured by our Passing NEP per drop back metric – was also top-notch, as he ranked ninth in the league in this category as well.

The next year, on the heels of this stellar performance, Cassel was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs and named their starter instantly. Disaster ensued. In his four years with the Chiefs, Cassel only posted a positive Passing NEP mark once (in 2010). His first year away from the Patriots, his ranks in Passing NEP and Passing NEP per drop back plummeted from 9th and 9th to 29th and 24th, respectively. The table below shows his marks as a starter from 2008 to 2012, and they tell a grim tale.

YearPass NEPRankPass NEP per DropbackRank

After one uptick in 2010 to give his team hope in him, Cassel’s play dropped again immensely to nearly unstartable. It’s saying something to play so poorly that your home crowd, one of the most supportive in the league, cheers when you get concussed. That may say more about Arrowhead fans, but I digress. The fact of the matter is, Cassel had a brilliant draft pedigree, had learned from one of the best quarterbacks and coaches in the game, and grew up in a perfect system. He fell to shambles.

Or did he?

King of the Cassel

Cassel’s career was broken when he arrived in Minnesota as the third-string quarterback behind a lackluster Christian Ponder in the 2013 off-season. However, Ponder went out with injury early in 2013, and Cassel got the first call. While he was no elite passer like his breakout 2008, he performed admirably in a seven-start season, and posted his first positive NEP marks since 2010. He had a natural connection with slot receiver and veteran Greg Jennings that led to the latter posting an average of 80 yards per game over the last five games of the season, and two total touchdowns.

What turned him around?

What if Cassel is exactly that which he has been accused of being: a ‘system quarterback’? What if he does need quality support from his team and scheme, and can’t “raise the talent in the room” like an elite passer does? If we look not only at Cassel’s passing numbers, but also the Adjusted Team NEP (NEP achieved by an entire offense, adjusted for the strength of the defenses faced) over his career, a much different tale comes to light. The table below depicts Cassel’s ranks in Passing NEP and Pass NEP per drop back, as well as his teams’ Adjusted Rushing NEP rank.

YearPass NEP RankPass NEP per Dropback RankAdj. Rush NEP Rank

The exact correlation factors between Passing NEP rank to Adjusted Rushing NEP rank, and Passing NEP per drop back rank to Adjusted Rushing NEP rank are: 0.60 and 0.64, respectively (a .40 or higher correlation indicates a strong, and likely causal, relationship between two variables). It becomes very clear that the better that Cassel’s entire offense plays, the better he plays. Obviously his Passing NEP and the teams’ are directly linked, but the data shows fairly conclusively that his Passing NEP – and therefore his passing performance – is helped immensely by a strong running game.

Vi-King in the North

You will never confuse Matthew Brennan Cassel for an elite NFL quarterback. He very clearly does not function well when outside of a strong structure or without valuable support from his offensive companions. In Minnesota, however, Cassel has found a strong offensive line to protect him, better and more experienced receiving threats to pass to, and – perhaps most importantly – an elite run game to fall back on and supplement.

Cassel will likely not win games with his arm, but he will be the consummate game manager while he allows Adrian Peterson to rumble on through defenses and carry the Vikings on his back. The value of the second-best run game in 2013 by our metrics will be immeasurable to Cassel over a full sixteen games this season.

Let Bridgewater sit, and have offensive guru Norv Turner groom him for greatness down the road. Cassel is an NFL-caliber quarterback who just needs a little help. He should find that in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. With these factors in place, Cassel was a top ten quarterback in Pass NEP twice in his career; in a Turner-structured offense with the greatest active tailback keeping defenses off of him, I expect Cassel to be a quality starter in the league yet again.