Frazier discusses naming Freeman Minnesota’s starting quarterback
Wide receiver Greg Jennings played with two starting quarterbacks in 106 games with the Green Bay Packers. Monday night, he’ll make it three starting quarterbacks in a four-game stretch with the Minnesota Vikings when Josh Freeman makes his Minnesota debut against the winless Giants at MetLife Stadium.
That’s right. Another week, another shift at quarterback for the team that just three weeks ago was still calling Christian Ponder its quarterback of the future.
That’s no longer the case. On Wednesday, the Vikings made the quarterback change they hope will last not only for this season but well beyond.
With the Vikings 1-4 and coming off a humiliating 35-10 loss in Matt Cassel’s second start in place of Ponder, coach Leslie Frazier took a leap of faith, hoping it’s not a premature plunge. Nine days after he signed with the Vikings, seven days after he met most of his teammates and the same day he took his first practice reps with the first-team offense, Freeman was tabbed to lead the Vikings. Monday will be his 60th NFL start, the first 59 having come with the Buccaneers, who drafted him 17th overall in 2009.
Frazier claims the decision was “cemented” when Freeman took charge of a post-practice scrimmage with young backup players a week ago. It also helped that this was the inevitable conclusion once the Vikings paid $3 million for one season to sign Freeman after he was cut by the Bucs. When Cassel threw two interceptions and failed to move the Vikings in the blowout loss to the Panthers, promoting Freeman was the no-brainer.
“The way he functioned that day in practice, it was far different than what I expected, than what any of our coaches expected,” Frazier said. “From the moment he stepped in the building, he wanted to learn. And the way he handled himself in that practice, it changed my mindset about the possibilities. We had a timeframe in mind originally but watching what he did from the day he arrived, that cemented it for me that sooner was a possibility.”
Freeman passed for 4,000 yards a year ago, but had struggled with the Bucs this season. He ranks 34th in passer rating (59.3) while having completed just 45.7 percent of his passes.
Freeman, however, has the big arm and the downfield passing ability that the Vikings are counting on to complement their run-oriented offense built around reigning league MVP Adrian Peterson. Freeman also believes his learning curve in what’s essentially a West Coast-type of scheme won’t be too steep.
“I have a pretty good grasp of the offense,” he said. “I’ve got three years of college and kind of a mixture the first few years in the NFL with this exact offense so it’s coming along pretty quickly. At the end of the day, football is football.”
Frazier also named Ponder as Freeman’s backup. Cassel, 1-1 as a starter with the Vikings, will be the No. 3 quarterback.
Ponder’s future with the team is uncertain. Frazier said he couldn’t envision a scenario in which Ponder isn’t on the roster the remainder of the season. But it’s General Manager Rick Spielman who makes all personnel decisions. If any team steps up with an offer for Ponder, Spielman would listen.
As for Ponder, the 12th overall pick in 2011, his tune about a trade has changed the past week. A week ago, he said a trade would be “difficult to deal with.” Wednesday, he was asked again whether he’d welcome a trade before the Oct. 29 deadline.
“I don’t know,” said Ponder, who lost his job this year because of a fractured rib, but didn’t get it back when he came out of the bye week healthy enough to play. “I have to figure out what’s best for me and for this team. I don’t know if that’s staying here or going somewhere else.”
As for Frazier, he hasn’t ruled out having to go back to Ponder at some point. But he’s clearly intending that this be the last quarterback change he has to make for this year and for possibly as long as he’s coach of the Vikings. After all, Freeman, at 25, is the same age as Ponder.
“We’re hoping Josh is going to have a great game on Monday night,” Frazier said. “That’s how we’re looking at it. We’re not looking at the glass being half-empty. We expect him to play well, and our team to play well.”
23rd regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 13-9. Vikings are 8-3 on the road in the regular season, but 0-3 in three post-season games against the Giants in New York. The most recent was a 41-0 loss in the 2000 NFC Championship game. The teams last met at Ford Field in Detroit after the Metrodome roof collapsed during a snow storm the night before a game was scheduled to be played there in 2010. The Giants won that game, 21-3.
n Several Vikings players were being asked Wednesday if they’ve ever played with three different quarterbacks in one season, a number the Vikings will reach on Monday night when Josh Freeman makes his Vikings debut. Fullback Jerome Felton just laughed and said, well, yeah.
Felton was on the 2008 Lions team that started three quarterbacks - Dan Orlovsky (0-7), Daunte Culpepper (0-5) and Jon Kitna (0-4) - during the only 0-16 season in league history.
“We had like five of them (play) that year,” Felton said. “There was Orlovsky, Culpepper, Kitna, Drew Stanton and one other one I forget (Drew Henson).
“That was a rough year because guys were getting hurt and we were signing quarterbacks off the street who had been out of the game. This situation here is kind of unique with Josh becoming available. So I definitely wouldn’t compare this to that situation in Detroit. That was worse. Trust me. Definitely worse.”
n No disrespect to Freeman, but Vikings leading receiver Jerome Simpson admitted he’s not sure what to expect when the Vikings get to Monday night’s game in New York.
Asked to describe Freeman’s strengths and how they’ll help the Vikings offense, Simpson didn’t try to make anything up.
“That’s something you’re going to have to ask me later in the week because right now we’re just trying to get on the same page,” Simpson said. “That’s something I can’t really make a comment on right now because I really don’t know too much about him.”
The hesitancy is justified. After all, Freeman was named the starter on Wednesday, which was nine days after he signed with the team, seven days after he met most of his teammates and the same day he took his first practice reps with the first-team offense.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2 — Number of starting quarterbacks receiver Greg Jennings played with in seven seasons with the Packers.
n 3 — Number of starting quarterbacks Jennings will have played with when he takes the field Monday night for his sixth game with the Vikings.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I don’t know. I have to figure out what’s best for me and everything and for this team. I don’t know if that’s staying here and going somewhere.” — Demoted former starting QB Christian Ponder, changing his tune from the previous week when asked if he’d welcome a trade before the Oct. 29 deadline.
Strategy and personnel
n LS Cullen Loeffler, the second-longest tenured player on the team, will make his 145th appearance, breaking Mike Morris’ team record for a long snapper. Loeffler has snapped on 10 of the 11 longest field goals in Vikings history.
n TE Kyle Rudolph established career highs for catches (nine) and yards receiving (97) in Sunday’s loss to the Panthers. He also caught a 23-yard touchdown pass in the closing minute of a 25-point loss.
n NT Letroy Guion hasn’t progressed into the kind of run-stuffer the Vikings thought he might become when they moved him over from backup under tackle before last season. He has only seven tackles in a role that sees him rotate with multiple backups and situational rushers.
n RB Toby Gerhart has only two carries for 11 yards through five games. Gerhart, who could start for a number of teams, is a free agent at the end of the year.
n S Robert Blanton, a second-year player, has been slow in progressing to a point where he can be considered a candidate to start on defense. But he is becoming a leader on special teams. He has a team-high 10 total tackles, six more than the next highest total. He also has six solo tackles, two more than the next highest total.
n FS Harrison Smith (turf toe) was injured in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to Carolina. He didn’t practice on Wednesday and has been in a walking boot since after the game. If he’s unable to play, it’s a huge blow to the secondary. He’s the best defensive back and would be replaced by a special teamer, Andrew Sendejo.
n CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle) sprained his ankle against the Panthers. He left the game, returned and then left for good when the game got out of hand. He participated in Wednesday’s practice, a short, light practice because the team doesn’t play again until Monday. If he can’t play, it takes the team’s best corner off the field. Punt returner Marcus Sherels, who holds his own considering he doesn’t have the skills of top NFL corner, would have to play in the slot in the nickel defense.
n OLB Desmond Bishop (knee) tore an anterior cruciate ligament and is out for the season. Bishop, the former Packer, had finally worked his way into the starting lineup after signing in late summer. With him out, the Vikings will return to Marvin Mitchell, a career backup before this season, while also trying to get rookie Gerald Hodges up to speed.
GAME PLAN: With quarterback Josh Freeman making his Vikings debut two weeks after signing with the team, the Vikings want to control the game and the clock by running Adrian Peterson and taking the occasional deep shot down the field. Freeman’s strong arm was brought in for that specific reason.
Control the line of scrimmage, get the safeties to drift into the box and then, bam, throw the deep ball. That’s Freeman’s strength and a weakness of Christian Ponder and to a lesser extent Matt Cassel. Defensively, the Vikings want to keep piling on the turnover-prone Giants, who are last in turnover ratio at minus-16. The Vikings have 12 takeaways, while the Giants have turned the ball over 23 times, including 15 interceptions thrown by Eli Manning.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Vikings CBs Chris Cook, who has yet to intercept a pass in 26 NFL games, and Josh Robinson, who has struggled mightily trying to replace Antoine Winfield this season, vs. Giants WRs Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, who have a combined 60 catches for 983 yards and four touchdowns this season. Giants quarterback Eli Manning has thrown a league-high 15 interceptions, but he’ll be throwing at cornerbacks who have a grand total of zero interceptions. The Vikings have seven picks, four by linebackers, two by safety Harrison Smith, who might not play because of turf toe, and one by defensive tackle Kevin Williams.
Vikings offensive line, which has been a major factor in the team ranking 22nd in sacks allowed per pass play, vs. Giants defensive line, which is mostly responsible for New York ranking dead last in sacks per pass play — The Giants have only five sacks, four by defensive linemen. The Vikings have given up 14 sacks. Not all of the sacks are the line’s fault, but LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco and RT Phil Loadholt are not playing nearly as well as one would expect from a unit that has now had the same five starters the past 22 games.