WATFORD, England -- The second-to-last time Matt Cassel started a game for the Kansas City Chiefs, it was a rainy Monday night in November in Pittsburgh. Cassel dropped back from the Chiefs' 19 in overtime, looking for receiver Dwayne Bowe on second-and-6. The Steelers' Lawrence Timmons undercut Cassel's floating pass, returning it to the Chiefs' 5 and setting up a game-winning field goal on the next play.
Cassel was benched at halftime in the Chiefs' next game, effectively ending his time as the starting quarterback there and closing a road that first opened when Bernard Pollard injured Tom Brady's knee in the first game of the 2008 season. Cassel was released by the Chiefs in March, and he signed with the Vikings as a backup quarterback and insurance policy in case anything should happen to Christian Ponder.
The Vikings were among the first teams to show interest in Cassel, and he was on the market for about a day before he agreed to a deal with Minnesota. Cassel had to know that Ponder's tenuous status gave him his best chance to play quickly, even as the Vikings maintained Ponder was their starting quarterback.
Officially, it was an injury to Ponder that put Cassel in line to start Sunday against the Steelers, but it could be Ponder's ineffectiveness that will keep Cassel there.
Ponder, who will miss Sunday's game with a fractured rib, said he expects to return for the Vikings' next game against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 13, and he'll have the benefit of a bye week to heal up. Coach Leslie Frazier said Friday that "I don't foresee a quarterback controversy" going forward, but if Cassel plays well enough to get the Vikings their first win, how could there not be one?
Frazier, in all likelihood, is in a make-or-break year as the Vikings' coach after ownership decided to pick up his 2014 option -- and not offer him a contract extension -- following Minnesota's surprising 10-6 season in 2012. He has stood by Ponder through three games in which the quarterback threw five interceptions to two touchdowns, and the injury offered Frazier a chance to give Cassel a look before the bye week.
It was striking to hear several Vikings receivers -- Greg Jennings among them -- talk about Cassel's commanding presence in the huddle, and if he can stoke a victory Sunday, Frazier would have to give serious thought to sticking with the quarterback who's gotten him a win in a year when he needs a bunch of them.
On the other hand, there's ideology playing in Ponder's favor. The Vikings picked him 12th overall in 2011 -- higher than many people expected him to go, at a point where Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman both had a significant say in personnel decisions. Ponder was the choice of both men, ahead of quarterbacks such as Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, and his playing well would mean Frazier and Spielman were correct on a pick they badly needed to get right.
The Vikings have had an impressive run of first-round picks in recent years -- Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith in 2012, Percy Harvin in 2009, Adrian Peterson in 2007, Chad Greenway in 2006 -- but misses on quarterbacks have organizational consequences. They can set a franchise back years and can cost decision-makers their jobs.
A team that gambled on Ponder has been patient about waiting for a return on its investment, but Cassel could force the Vikings to think about whether patience is still the right course of action, especially with Frazier needing to win now.
If Cassel plays poorly Sunday and the Vikings fall to 0-4, the decision might be an easy one: Give Ponder the rest of the season to settle the question, one way or another, once and for all. At that point, Spielman could refer to his three-year rule on evaluating quarterbacks and cleanly determine whether Ponder gets more time or whether the Vikings should move on.
But if Cassel jolts a staggering passing game and the Vikings head home from London with a win? Then things get interesting. Against the team that helped seal his fate last year, Cassel might give himself another chance.