MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings had just lost for the fourth time in five games this season, suffering their most lopsided Metrodome defeat in nearly three years. The reactions from veterans in the locker room ranged from Chad Greenway's frustration over where the season is headed (the linebacker compared it to the start of the team's 3-13 2011 campaign), to Adrian Peterson's resolve to get things turned around.
But tight end Kyle Rudolph's comment might have done the best job of summarizing the mess the Vikings find themselves in with a 1-4 record.
The Vikings began the week signing former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. They ended it with a 35-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers in which Matt Cassel -- who had taken the starting job from Christian Ponder two weeks earlier -- passed for 241 yards but threw a pair of interceptions. Asked if he felt another quarterback shake-up was necessary, Rudolph said, "I don’t see why. I think Josh needs to take some time to get comfortable here, learn the offense.
"That’s coach Frazier, that’s [offensive coordinator] Bill [Musgrave]'s decision. That’s not ours and we feel like every goal that we set in August is still attainable. Last year we started out hot. We were 4-2, and we were 6-6 after 12 games. In my opinion, if we can get to 6-6, we’ll be sitting where we were last year."
This year's team would have to win five of its next seven games to reach 6-6, and then go on a four-game run. The Vikings are 1-4 in a muddled NFC, but now are the only team in the NFC North with a losing record. They are 0-2 in the division, 0-3 in the conference. If they were to make a playoff run, it would require a long stretch of solid football the Vikings seem incapable of producing.
There is also one other big difference here: The Vikings were in their second year evaluating Ponder as their starting quarterback. They were behind him for all 16 games, even through a woeful eight-game stretch during the middle of the season. This year's team has used two starting quarterbacks in five games, and could put a third on the field next Monday night against the New York Giants. The Vikings now have 11 games left to evaluate two quarterbacks who might not be on their roster next season (Freeman and Cassel, who can opt out of his two-year deal), and a third (Ponder) whose contract contains an option for the 2015 season.
If finding a workable solution at quarterback was among the more prominent goals of the Vikings' 2013 season, there now can be little doubt it is the most important. And that might mean selling a vision for the future to some players whose focus has been on the present.
In a perfect world, the Vikings would get good enough quarterback play to win games and ride behind whomever is playing well. That's essentially the message they've given Ponder; the quarterback said on Sunday afternoon that Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman have told him "it's up to whoever is playing" to seize the job. Spielman is a big believer in competition, and it's possible an open audition for the job could help the Vikings in the present while clarifying their future.
But what happens if the team starts Freeman against the Giants -- with an abridged version of their offense -- and he struggles? Can the Vikings keep holding a casting call at quarterback at 1-5? If their playoff hopes are flickering now, a loss next week effectively would extinguish them while moving the Vikings closer to the top of a draft that's projected to be deep on quarterbacks. At that point, it would be paramount for them to figure out whether they have a bona fide starter on their roster, or whether they need to start building behind another rookie. They might need to hand the reins to Freeman for a long stretch of games, no matter the results, or give Ponder one more chance to re-assert himself. A week-to-week plan at the position, though, wouldn't make sense if the Vikings aren't playing for high stakes on a week-to-week basis.
At this point, the team's highest stakes in 2013 might already revolve around the quarterback position. They haven't had the same quarterback lead them in passing for more than two consecutive seasons since Daunte Culpepper from 2000-04, and before that, no quarterback had done it for four straight seasons since Tommy Kramer from 1979-82. This has been a team devoid of franchise-type quarterback play for decades, and the Vikings are in that position at a time where having an answer at the position never has been more important.
If the Vikings devote the rest of their season to evaluating Freeman, or giving Ponder one last shot, regardless of the results, that might not be the worst use of their time. They badly need a sense of direction at the position that lasts longer than a few weeks at a time, and even if that means sticking with one quarterback through a handful of losses, the Vikings will at least have enough information to make some big decisions.
That could provide more value than anything else in a season that doesn't seem like it's going to amount to a postseason run.