Updated: December 16th, 2013 5:45pm
Zulgad: Should Matt Cassel decide to stay with the Vikings next year?

Zulgad: Should Matt Cassel decide to stay with the Vikings next year?

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by Judd Zulgad

Matt Cassel's performance in the Minnesota Vikings victory Sunday over the Philadelphia Eagles has resulted in talk about whether the veteran quarterback might be the team's choice to start next season.

The current line of thinking is that the Vikings could draft a quarterback with their first pick and then allow him to learn behind Cassel.

As convenient as this might sound, there are a few flaws with this scenario.

One, nobody has any idea who is going to be the Vikings' coach or offensive coordinator next season. It might be Leslie Frazier but if reports that the Vikings already have reached out to Penn State coach Bill O'Brien are accurate, then it seems likely the team is prepared to make a change.

Odds are the coach is going to pick the quarterback and there is a chance the new hire won't want to stick with Cassel.

Two, if the Vikings do draft a quarterback in the first round, that guy could be the starter from day one. Gone are the days when rookie QBs were forced to wait their turn. Taking a quarterback in the first round signifies a major investment and often the desire is to get an immediate return on said investment.

Three, and maybe most importantly, there is no guarantee that Cassel will be back in 2014. That, by the way, will be his call.

After spending four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Cassel signed a two-year, $7.4 million contract with the Vikings last March. The deal included a first-year roster bonus of $2 million and a base salary of $1.65 million this season.

Cassel, 31, is due to make $3.7 million in 2014. There is one catch in the agreement: Cassel can void the second year of the contract up to five days after the Super Bowl, which is scheduled to be played Feb. 2.

So would Cassel be tempted to put himself back on the open market? There is a chance that could happen and his desire to explore his options elsewhere might have grown from seeing the dysfunctional situation that goes along with being a Vikings quarterback.

Cassel, who played in only nine games for the 2-14 Chiefs last season and started eight of them, said he fully understood that he would be Christian Ponder's backup when he signed with Minnesota.

Cassel is a smart guy and had no reason to come out and say he wanted the starting job. But as he examined his available options around the NFL last spring, Cassel certainly realized that there was the potential he could either beat out Ponder, or more likely, wait for Ponder to struggle or get hurt and then take over.

That is exactly what happened early in the season when Ponder was sidelined by a rib injury with the Vikings sitting at 0-3. Cassel's first start came in London against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He completed 16 of 25 passes for 248 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, finishing with an outstanding 123.4 passer rating, in a 34-27 victory. The day was not only a success for Cassel and his teammates, but the veteran displayed an ability to play his position with a level of competence that Ponder has never displayed on a consistent basis.

The Vikings then had their bye week.

It was during this time that Cassel had to begin to wonder if he had made the right decision by coming to Minnesota. On the Sunday before the team returned to work, the Vikings agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with Josh Freeman.

Freeman had been let go by Tampa Bay and was a guy Vikings general manager Rick Spielman was especially high on before the Buccaneers made him the 17th overall pick of the 2009 draft.

The Vikings played host to Carolina in their first game back from the bye and gave maybe their worst effort of the season. The Panthers, who were 1-3, cruised to a 35-10 victory at the Metrodome.

Cassel was given the start and went 32 of 44 for 241 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He had a less-than-spectacular 74.1 passer rating. On a day in which the Vikings got blown out by a Carolina team that would go on an eight-game winning streak, Cassel somehow ended up taking the blame.

The following Monday, Freeman got his one and only start as a Viking and gave a feeble effort in an embarrassing 23-7 loss to the New York Giants. Ponder was then returned to the starting role for the next six weeks as Frazier repeatedly said Ponder gave his team the best chance to win.

The only question was whether Cassel rolled his eyes like Vikings fans did every time Frazier uttered that phrase.

Cassel did replace an injured Ponder in a Nov. 7 win against Washington, and then was called upon in a loss at Seattle in the following game when Ponder was lifted in the fourth quarter after his turnovers directly led to 17 points for the Seahawks.

Somehow Ponder still retained the job for a 26-26 tie at Green Bay and then made one more start against the Bears in the Metrodome.

Ponder suffered a concussion late in the second quarter and was replaced by Cassel with the Vikings leading, 7-6.

Ponder had done little against the Bears, completing three of eight passes for 40 yards.

Cassel was far better, going 20 of 33 for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a 23-20 victory. Once again, he also displayed the poise in the pocket that Ponder so often lacks.

Maybe most notable was that veteran receiver Greg Jennings, whose presence on the team was often a rumor with Ponder starting, caught a team-leading seven passes for 78 yards with a touchdown. In the first half, with Ponder at quarterback, Jennings had one reception for 2 yards.

Jennings' production with Cassel throwing him passes continued in last week's wild 29-26 loss at Baltimore. Jennings had five receptions for 53 yards, and then Sunday he had a career-high 11 catches for 163 yards with a 57-yard touchdown.

Cassel completed 26 of 35 passes for 382 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a 116.6 passer rating in a 48-30 rout over the Eagles.

There is no longer talk about Ponder giving the Vikings the best chance to win, and suddenly the offseason signing of Jennings can be looked at in an entirely different light.

But this could be very short term, at least when it comes to Cassel.

The Vikings are likely going to be unwilling to make Cassel any promises and there is a chance he would be willing to gamble on the fact he can earn $3-plus million elsewhere given his production of late. He's not exactly breaking the bank, considering Freeman is being given $2 million to do nothing.

Even if Frazier is gone, there is the possibility Cassel won't trust the Vikings' decision-making will be any better in 2014 than it was in 2013 when it comes to the quarterback situation. After all, Spielman is going nowhere.

Either way, it's going to be Cassel's call whether he returns to Minnesota for another season. He would be wise to give it plenty of thought.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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