Cassel finding stride
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Greg Jennings wanted to make sure he knew what he was getting into before he joined the Minnesota Vikings, so he sat down and studied film of Christian Ponder.
Jennings liked the trailer enough to sign up for the entire movie. The ending of this season was spoiled a long time ago, though. Critics have already begun to look ahead to the sequel. Maybe starring Matt Cassel?
“I would love to see Matt back. He’s a great guy. He’s a great leader,” Jennings said.
Jennings doesn’t have to rave about Cassel. He can just point to his production.
“I respect how Greg works. I like his football mind, and we have a lot in common in terms of where we are in life. So there’s a combination of things why we get along so well,” Cassel said.
Jennings has played in 13 games in his first season with the Vikings. He’s been targeted 94 times and has caught 59 passes for 733 yards and four touchdowns, and without Cassel throwing him the ball he’d be barely registering in the box scores.
Cassel has started four games: Sept. 29 against Pittsburgh, Oct. 13 against Carolina, Dec. 8 at Baltimore and last Sunday against Philadelphia. He took over late in the second quarter on Dec. 1 against Chicago. Over those nine halves, Jennings has been targeted 44 times. He has 31 catches for 418 yards and all four of scores this year.
In the remaining 17 halves he’s been on the field, Jennings has been targeted 50 times. He has 28 catches for 315 yards and no touchdowns.
“Some quarterbacks see things differently,” Jennings said. “I’ve never played the positions so I can’t say what one quarterback sees vs. what another quarterback sees. All I know is what I do never changes.’”
Cassel and Jennings were the two most important free agents the Vikings signed this year. They immediately struck a friendship and developed a mutual sense of trust.
“We were kind of on the same level when it comes to what we see and what we’re expecting the defense to do. ... That’s why you see us rhythm up,” Jennings said.
Now that the Vikings have decided neither Ponder nor Josh Freeman is who they want to run their offense for the years to come, Cassel could be back as the starter for 2014 while general manager Rick Spielman pores over the prospects in the draft for the next quarterback of the future.
Cassel has one season left on his contract. Both he and the team can opt out of the final year.
“We’ve got two games to go and when you start worrying about and thinking about that stuff, I think it distracts you,” Cassel said. “For me, there’s going to be a time and a place for me to sit down with my wife, my family and discuss all that stuff. But right now is not that time.”
At 31, with five prior seasons as an NFL starter, Cassel’s experience has stood out. Where he’s made the biggest impact, though, is his willingness to and effectiveness at throwing deep. With Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jerome Simpson, there’s enough here to make this a productive passing team with the right quarterback. Cassel has been able to read defenses and find the open receivers under pressure far more effectively than Ponder did.
“I’d like to say we’re confident in whoever plays quarterback, but we’ve been a lot with Cassel the past couple of weeks and he’s been doing a great job. You have to be very confident in a guy who’s playing at a high level like he is,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said.
Coach Leslie Frazier offered perhaps the most poignant dissection of the difference in confidence and demeanor between Cassel and Ponder, his predecessor.
“Some of your better leaders at that position are guys that are able to just focus on the now and not get caught up in the what-ifs and what could have been,” Frazier said. “He’s one of those guys who can really concentrate on the moment, and that’s not easy to do. There are so many things that can enter in to your play as a quarterback that can create negative thoughts. He’s done a good job of just moving on from some of those moments.”