Vikings’ curious handling of Freeman leaves QB trio — and fans — in limbo
With the Minnesota Vikings officially eliminated from the playoff chase at 3-9-1, the handling of No. 3 quarterback Josh Freeman becomes even more awkward for coach Leslie Frazier and aggravating for the team’s fans over the final three weeks of the season.
When Freeman was signed Oct. 6 and hurried into the starting lineup 14 days later against the host New York Giants on Monday Night Football, it was assumed that he and the 1-4 Vikings would have 11 weeks to get to know each other on the field in live game action to determine whether a long-term relationship would be beneficial to both sides.
At 25, the same age as the struggling Christian Ponder, Freeman was believed to be the player the Vikings were targeting as the potential young franchise quarterback that Ponder has so clearly shown he’s not.
Boy, were those assumptions wrong.
For the eighth consecutive game since Freeman made his one and only appearance as a Viking, Frazier announced that someone else will start at quarterback when the Vikings play the Eagles at Mall of America Field on Sunday. Matt Cassel, whom Frazier had ruled out of the starting quarterback competition just weeks ago, will get his second consecutive start and fourth overall on the season.
And Cassel is unlikely to have running back Adrian Peterson, who suffered a mid-foot sprain in last week’s 29-26 loss at Baltimore. Meanwhile, Peterson’s backup, Toby Gerhart, also looks doubtful after straining a hamstring during his 41-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run at Baltimore.
If neither back can play, No. 3 running back Matt Asiata, who has three career carries, would start. Practice squad back Joe Banyard probably would be promoted as well.
Obviously, neither Asiata nor Banyard nor anyone else who carries the ball on Sunday would be nearly as good as Peterson or Gerhart. So, obviously, more pressure will fall on Cassel’s shoulders.
“I just feel Matt did some good things in that (Ravens) ballgame on Sunday, and we’re going to give him an opportunity for back-to-back starts,” Frazier said. “He’s done a good job in earning that opportunity, so I look forward to watching him play.”
In some regards, Freeman brought this on himself by looking worse than anyone imagined he would against the Giants. Even for someone who had only four practices with the first team, Freeman’s inaccuracy was alarming. He completed just 20 of 53 passes (37.7 percent) with an interception as the Vikings failed to score an offensive point in a 23-7 loss.
Freeman reported concussion-like symptoms two days after that game and hasn’t played a down since. We’ll never know if the Vikings were prepared to give Freeman a second shot had he not suffered a concussion, but the fact they left him in the Giants game suggests they were going to show some patience with him.
But since that Giants game, Ponder started the next six games before a concussion in the Bears game gave Cassel the start at Baltimore last week. As he has done throughout his brief career, Ponder showed just enough glimpses of competence to continue a roller-coaster season until suffering the concussion.
The Vikings never considered Freeman for the Baltimore start because Cassel had led them from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 23-20 overtime win over the Bears.
Although Cassel didn’t win the Baltimore game, he did play well in a fourth quarter that saw an NFL-record six lead changes, including five in the final 2:05. He threw a pair of touchdown passes while not turning the ball over.
The offense has better rhythm with fewer turnovers when Cassel is in the game. He has thrown seven touchdowns and four interceptions while topping 240 yards passing four times. Neither Ponder nor Freeman has reached that total once this season.
Ponder clearly isn’t the quarterback of the future. Otherwise, the Vikings never would have signed Freeman after he was released by the Buccaneers. Cassel, 31, could serve as a bridge to the future if the Vikings end up drafting a quarterback next year. However, Cassel has an opt-out clause in his contract and might look elsewhere considering the inconsistency with which the team has dealt with him this year.
Freeman, meanwhile, is a free agent after the season. He has been paid $2 million to play one game, so Frazier was asked if he feels like the team is wasting the next three games if it doesn’t use them to make a more educated evaluation on Freeman’s potential as a franchise quarterback.
“That’s a good question, but we made the decision that we’re going to give Matt this opportunity,” Frazier said. “Hopefully, things will work out. But Josh, he’s working hard. He’s doing everything he needs to do.”
Asked how Freeman is handling the situation, Frazier said, “He’s a guy who is accustomed to being the guy. So this is different for him. But he’s handled it extremely well. But it’s a challenge, for sure. He’s always been the guy in his career in the NFL.”
A big part of the problem, of course, is Frazier’s contract expires after the 2014 season. So he has essentially been trying to save his job, not conduct a quarterback tryout camp for the 2014 season. When the team didn’t give Frazier a multi-year contract extension after last year’s 10-win playoff season, it essentially forced Frazier into a “prove-it-again-or-else” mentality.
So Frazier initially went along with the plan to start Freeman, hoping that his big arm would complement Adrian Peterson’s power running. But once Freeman showed how overwhelmed he was by learning a new system on the fly during the middle of a season, Frazier had to go back to the quarterbacks who at least understood the offense and knew what the plays are called.
And, ultimately, everyone will lose. Frazier probably will be fired and Freeman will move on having never been given an ample opportunity to have shown whether he could have become a good fit in Minnesota.
SERIES HISTORY: 22nd regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 12-9. The Vikings are 6-3 at home against the Eagles, but are 2-2 at the Metrodome during regular-season meetings. The teams have met three times in the post-season, with the Eagles winning all three games. The Eagles won two divisional matchups in Philadelphia, 31-16 in 1980 and 27-14 in 2004. They also were the No. 6 seed when they upset the No. 3 seed Vikings 26-14 in a wild-card game at the Metrodome during the 2008 season.
With NFL kickers in the process of knocking down records left and right — or right down the middle, actually — Vikings kicker Blair Walsh and coach Leslie Frazier were asked if they think the league would ever pass a rule narrowing the goal posts.
“If the percentages stay the way they are, I would not be surprised at all to see the league narrow the goal posts,” Frazier said. “It seems like they don’t want the game to get too easy. And that’s the trend for these young kickers.”
Thirteen of the top 14 most accurate kickers in NFL history are active. Walsh (90.8 percent) is No. 2 behind Baltimore’s Justin Tucker (92.2). Jan Stenerud, the only pure kicker in the Hall of Fame, ranks 112th (66.8). Stenerud made 17 of 64 50-plus yarders in 263 games over 19 seasons. Walsh has made 12 of 14 in 28 games over less than two seasons.
Also, this year, kickers are on pace to break the record for combined accuracy in a single season while also breaking — for the third straight year — the record for most successful 50-yarders. The accuracy record is 84.5 percent in 2008. This year, kickers are making field goals at an 85.6 percent clip. And, oh yeah, Denver’s Matt Prater made a 64-yarder on Sunday, breaking the mark of 63 yards that had been tied only three times since Tom Dempsey set it 43 years ago.
But Walsh still doesn’t think narrowing the goal posts will ever happen. Too radical, he says. And he might be right since goal posts have been 18 feet, 6 inches wide since the league was founded in 1920.
“Narrowing the goal posts would not be the smart thing to do and I don’t think they’ll do it,” Walsh said. “Quarterbacks are throwing for more yards than they ever have. Are we going to start letting the defense use 12 or 13 players to stop them?”
Yeah, but the NFL considers passing exciting and chip shot field goals boring.
“Well, if they’re smaller, they’re smaller for everybody,” Walsh said. “We practice with narrower goal posts. So I do think it would be a mistake, but, hey, as long as the middle is still there, you can hit it.”
n Adrian Peterson made headlines Sunday when he called Ravens fans the worst in the league because they were throwing snowballs at the Vikings on the sideline throughout the fourth quarter.
Frazier said Monday that the snowball attack will be something he discusses with the team’s security personnel as well as the league.
“I didn’t talk about it after the game, but I did see snowballs coming,” Frazier said. “There were so many other things, obviously, going on in my mind at that time.”
Asked if he witnessed anyone being hit or if he had just caught glimpses of snowballs from the corners of his eyes, Frazier laughed.
“I felt a snowball on my back, too,” he said. “And I felt it, too. It was not specific for anyone, just anybody wearing purple. It’s not what the league wants, not anybody. Nobody wants that.”
BY THE NUMBERS: 2 — Number of games left at the Metrodome before it’s torn down to make room for a new stadium that will open in 2016. The Vikings are 166-92 (.643) and have never been shut out at the Metrodome since it opened in 1982. Even during this 3-9-1 season, they are 2-3 at home.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “This is a first. The best way to describe it is, I don’t know what happened.” — Vikings DE Jared Allen, trying to sum up a loss to Baltimore that included an NFL-record six fourth-quarter lead changes, including five in the final 2 minutes, 5 seconds.
Strategy and personnel
n RB Adrian Peterson (foot) suffered a mid-foot sprain in his right foot when it was rolled up on a tackle in the second quarter on Sunday. X-rays, an MRI and a CT scan were negative, but he will not practice until Friday, if at all. The team will err on the side of caution, Frazier said. There is no ligament tear and the dreaded Lisfranc injury has been ruled out.
n RB Toby Gerhart (hamstring), who replaced Peterson early in the second quarter on Sunday and gave the Vikings a brief lead in the closing minutes with a 41-yard touchdown burst up the middle, suffered a hamstring injury late in the game. He isn’t expected to practice until Friday, if at all. With Peterson unlikely to play on Sunday and Gerhart fighting a hamstring injury, the running back duties against the Eagles could fall to No. 3 running back Matt Asiata. Asiata has three career carries for nine yards.
n TE John Carlson (concussion) still has not passed the league-mandated concussion protocol for returning. It’s his second concussion in two years with the Vikings and at least the third of his NFL career. With Kyle Rudolph placed on injured reserve, the pass-catching tight end role could fall to former practice squad player Chase Ford or blocking tight end Rhett Ellison.
n CB Josh Robinson, the second-year pro who had struggled in trying to replace the departed Antoine Winfield, missed his third straight game and could miss the rest of the season because of a fractured sternum. The Vikings are still holding out hope that he will return, but he won’t practice this week. Robinson had gotten better of late, but still has a long way to go. Rookie first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes replaced Rhodes and has improved dramatically late in the season. But he also suffered an ankle injury on Sunday in Baltimore.
n CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle) suffered his injury in the second half at Baltimore and remains day-to-day. He has struggled against nagging injuries all season and was on crutches after the game. If Robinson is unable to return, the Vikings will have to start punt returner Marcus Sherels, who is a scrapper but often gets overmatched physically.
n S Harrison Smith (turf toe) hasn’t played since the fifth game and is on injured reserve with designation to return. He’s eligible to return this week and appears to be ahead of schedule. But whether the Viking risk playing their best defensive back in three meaningless games remains to be seen.
n RG Brandon Fusco (knee) left Sunday’s game midway through the second quarter and did not return. He remains day-to-day. Joe Berger, a quality veteran interior backup, stepped in and played well for the most part. But his 15-yard penalty for a peel-back block also negated Cordarrelle Patterson’s 18-yard run down to the Ravens’ 2-yard line.
n WR Joe Webb started at quarterback in the December 2010 meeting with the Eagles in Philadelphia. With the Vikings out of playoff contention and forced to stay in Philadelphia for a game that was postponed from a Sunday to Tuesday, Webb was outstanding. A full-time backup quarterback at the time, Webb went 17-for-26 for 195 yards and ran six times for 31 yards and a touchdown in the upset win over a playoff-bound Eagles team. Webb is now the team’s No. 5 receiver and a key special teamer.
n QB Matt Cassel has faced the Eagles only one time in his career. With the Chiefs in Week 2 of the 2009 season, he completed 14 of 18 passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-14 loss.
n WR/KR Cordarrelle Patterson had a team season-high 141 yards receiving against the Ravens. The 141 yards receiving are the most by a Vikings rookie receiver since Randy Moss had 163 against the Cowboys in 1998. Meanwhile, Patterson’s 1,199 kickoff return yards are a league-high this season and rank third all-time among Vikings rookies. He needs 147 kickoff return yards to break the Vikings single-season record of 1,345 set by George “Buster” Rhymes in 1985.
n CB Xavier Rhodes, who had four more passes defensed at Baltimore, has 23 on the season. That shatters the team rookie record of 19 set by Orlando Thomas in 1995.
GAME PLAN: With Adrian Peterson all but certain not to play because of a sprained right foot, and his backup, Toby Gerhart, battling a hamstring injury, the Vikings will expand their creativity with rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. Already a threat to score on returns, receptions and carries, Patterson could see more carries out of the backfield. His lone carry from the tailback position resulted in a 33-yard touchdown against the Bears. Also look for fullback Jerome Felton to see some carries for the first time as a Viking. No. 3 running back Matt Asiata could be the workhorse, however. The former fullback might be the perfect battering ram in a game that means very little for a team that’s mathematically eliminated.
Defensively, the Vikings probably won’t be able to play as much press man coverage as they have in recent weeks. That change has resulted in the emergence of rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes as a future star. But Rhodes has a badly sprained ankle and may not play. His spot likely would fall to small punt returner Marcus Sherels, who is a scrapper but does not hold up well in man coverages. Expect the Vikings to go back and lean more heavily on their Cover 2 umbrella schemes to try and contain Nick Foles and that up-tempo passing attack.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Vikings MLB Audie Cole vs. Eagles RB LeSean McCoy. Cole has come a long way since he was released for one day, Nov. 7, to make room for a third offensive tackle in the short-week matchup against the Redskins. In his second game back, he was given his NFL starting debut because Erin Henderson was out for personal reasons. Cole responded with a team season-high 18 tackles and a sack in the tie with the Packers. In the two games since then, he has had back-to-back games with 12 tackles. He also has cost Henderson his job in the middle permanently and possibly his roster spot at the end of the season.
Cole will need help stopping McCoy, the NFL’s rushing leader with 1,305 yards. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams and nose tackles Letroy Guion and Fred Evans cannot afford to be out of their gaps. McCoy, a sturdy and shifty 5-11, 208-pounder, is coming off a franchise-record 217 yards in a 34-20 win over the Lions that was played in eight inches of snow. McCoy also leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,744), so Cole or strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway could spend a number of plays trying to cover McCoy out of the backfield.
Vikings KR-WR Cordarrelle Patterson vs. Eagles K Alex Henery and CB Brandon Boykin. Patterson is a multi-threat rookie who has scored on kickoff returns (2), receptions (2) and rushes (1). He leads the NFL with a 33.3-yard kick return average that includes an NFL-record 109-yard return. Henery and the Eagles kick coverage unit ranks 27th in the league (27.2). Offensively, Patterson could be used quite a bit more this week considering Peterson and Gerhart are likely to be sidelined.
So Patterson could see a few snaps at tailback, a position from which he scored on a 33-yard run in his only his only backfield carry of the season. It will take every Eagles defender to contain Patterson, but Boykin could figure prominently. An inside nickel coverage guy, Boykin could see plenty of opportunities as the Vikings like to use Patterson on bubble screens and end-around runs. Boykin leads the Eagles and is fifth in the league with four interceptions.