MINNEAPOLIS -- As fate would have it, nearly every one of the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback switches this season has been precipitated by an injury. They turned from Christian Ponder to Matt Cassel in Week 4 because of concerns over Ponder's fractured rib, sticking with Cassel for another week after he led the Vikings to a win in London. The Vikings also switched from Josh Freeman back to Ponder in October after Freeman sustained a concussion.
Those injuries have come at times when the Vikings might have been considering a switch for performance reasons anyway, and provided political cover for making a move. Now, after Cassel was superb in relief of Ponder again on Sunday, the Vikings might have cause to hop back on the QB carousel.
Ponder had completed just 3-of-8 eight passes for 40 yards before being examined for a concussion in the second quarter on Sunday, and had been sacked twice. The Vikings trailed 20-10 entering the fourth quarter, but Cassel directed two scoring drives to send the game into overtime. He rebounded from an interception that negated another scoring drive when Rhett Ellison couldn't handle a would-be touchdown pass and the ball wound up in Bears linebacker Khaseem Greene's hands. In overtime, Cassel marched the Vikings down the field twice more -- once for a missed field goal after Ellison's facemask penalty negated Blair Walsh's would-be game winner, and another time for the 34-yard kick from Walsh that ended the game.
Cassel finished with 243 yards passing and a touchdown, hitting 20-of-33 passes in relief of Ponder. And while his success might have been due to the fact the Bears hadn't prepared for him, he might have also put himself back in the race to start next Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, especially if Ponder can't play.
Frazier has talked on several occasions this year about not considering Cassel as one of his starting options, preferring to keep him in reserve in case of situations such as Sunday's, and Cassel showed again how much value he has as a veteran backup. But the Vikings also have been hesitant to go back to Freeman after he went 20 of 53 in his one start against the New York Giants, and if Ponder isn't cleared in time to return, Cassel might get his second start of the season.
He certainly could make the case for it. Cassel is the only Vikings quarterback to throw for more than 240 yards in a game this season, and seems to have a better connection with Greg Jennings than any other Vikings quarterback. Jennings has caught all three of his touchdowns this season from Cassel, who has done a better job of hitting the receiver in stride and letting him employ his excellent run-after-the-catch abilities than either Ponder or Freeman.
"When you get opportunities to get the ball and make a defender miss, that's when most of the big yards come," Jennings said. "I can't speak enough to what he did. He approaches every week as though he's the starter, so when it is his opportunity to step up and make plays, he's ready. I can't say enough about him. He's a great guy to have in your back pocket."
Cassel signed with the Vikings the day Jennings was making his free-agent visit; the two talked briefly in March, and have hit it off since. In fact, Cassel spent Saturday with his family at Jennings' daughter's birthday party.
"It's been great for me to be around a guy like that, a guy who continues to motivate himself to get better," Cassel said. "We just have a great relationship."
Depending on how the week shakes out, they might get the chance to continue it. If Ponder is unable to play and the Vikings stick with Cassel, it would speak even more to where Freeman stands in their minds. But as Frazier tries to roust up enough wins to make the case he should keep his job, he might be tempted to stick with Cassel if Ponder can't go -- or even if he can. Cassel reminded the Vikings on Sunday what he can do when given the chance.
"I don't make those decisions," Cassel said. "I might not always agree with it, but at the same time, my job is to go out there and be prepared and be accountable to those guys in that locker room."