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Vikings’ quarterback merry-go-round becomes new therapy ritual

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis sacking Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel during Sunday's game.

There’s consolation today for the gloomy Minnesota Viking legions in the wake of the team’s 35-10 debacle in losing to Carolina at the Metrodome Sunday. The crowd’s behavior was more chivalrous — maybe just narrowly — than it was in Houston Sunday. There, hordes in the Texans’ crowd applauded raucously and vindictively as their seriously injured quarterback, veteran Matt Schaub, was hauled from the field in the Texans’ loss to St. Louis.

This is life in the National Football League. The Vikings’ Matt Cassel was spared this unseemly exit, probably because most of the team played substantially worse than he did.

The Viking defense spent much of the afternoon in a trance and the offensive line couldn’t find a clue to springing Adrian Peterson. Maybe it was because Cassel was still standing at the finish that he wasn’t booed off the field. Plus, in Minnesota, the fans have a little more taste. They don’t send hanging posses to rub out their  quarterbacks. They just look for new ones. They do this  every week.

Like watching snow melt

This year the Vikings’ quarterback carousel has become a new therapy ritual for Minnesotans, like watching the snow melt on Lake Minnetonka each spring. It convinces them that all is normal, if not well. For one thing, Cassel wasn’t irredeemably awful, just  mediocre and misfiring enough to lose badly. He  threw a touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph, completed 32 of 44 attempts for 248 yards and escaped with only two interceptions in this, the Vikings’ fourth loss in five games, giving them solitary possession of last place in the National Football League’s North division.

Unhappily two of those interceptions produced touchdowns for Carolina. All of which seemed to anoint the third Vikings’ quarterback in uniform on Sunday, Josh Freeman, as the next newest nominee to save the Vikings’ season — or at least to rescue it from the burlesque that was their performance Sunday. The ineptitude went far beyond the quarterback. It engulfed the entire team. The coach, Leslie Frazier, donned the goat’s horns himself. He could have coached better, he said. True. Owner Zygi Wilf could have owned a little better, or at least stopped treating the tax-paying public like morons in the field of economics in the financing his new stadium.

Eventually it’s going to happen, that is Freeman as the quarterback, not necessarily saving the season. Freeman comes in virtually anointed for the job.

The Vikings general manager, Rick Spielman — with the approval of the Vikings owners but with no shouts of joy from the coach — imported Freeman from Florida as the presumptive heir to the job being vacated by Christian Ponder. The Vikings’ record now stands at one victory, four defeats and a game  coming up next Monday night in New York against the New York Giants. These are the same Giants who haven’t been able to beat ANYBODY in six games.

Josh was plainly in view Sunday, walking the sidelines on the Vikings bench, being involved, the picture of good will and good tidings, learning,  getting acquainted, doing a little commiserating with Cassel, smiling benevolently quite often. And looking like a guy who very much expects to be playing quarterback for the Vikings in New York despite his unfamiliarity with the job.

Frazier is now in the worst possible bind. He was willing to run the season with the endlessly developing Ponder or the seasoned fill-in, Cassel. But Frazier doesn’t sign the checks and his  own job is in no way secure — even through the end of the season — for all of that euphoria of a December playoff a year  ago, and for all of his strong character and decent values.

Plus, what can one more quarterback do to wreck a season that already has made a roaring start toward  oblivion? After the game, Frazier was asked who would be the quarterback against the Giants. He said he regretted the loss to Carolina — a team until now considered one of the nonentities of the NFL. He said he was disappointed by the defeat but was not yet prepared to name the Vikings’ starting quarterback against the Giants. It might depend, he hinted, on how much of the offense Freeman has absorbed by then.

But the assumption is that the week ahead will give Freeman, who was not universally loved in Florida, enough time to work himself into the Vikings playbook, to run the offense and to bring some splash and added scoring power to it. His potential is clearly graded higher than Ponder’s or than the veteran backup quarterback, Cassel.

It was Cassel who was rushed into service the last two weeks because Ponder seemed to be battling himself, worried about interceptions, scrambling  at improbable times and nothing close to the quarterback who lifted the Vikings into the NFL playoffs in the  last month of the season a year ago. His rib injury forced him out of the lineup, although  even before then serious thought had to given to replacing him.

Peterson subplot

But Sunday’s was a game played with the sorrowful subplot of Adrian Peterson’s burden in the death in South Dakota of his 2-year-old son, believed to have been abused by the boyfriend of the child’s mother.

Peterson played the bulk of the game as his way, he said, of dealing with the hurt, as he had done in previous tragedy in the player’s family. He was replaced during parts of the second half by Toby Gerhart. But during his action his effort was essential Adrian in how he waged the game, and in the fervor of his running style. But not in the statistics of it. He carried 10 times for 62 yards and caught three passes for 21 yards. Clearly the Carolina defense was stacked to stop him and it played with no special terror of the Vikings’ passing game. Cassel could not offer enough threat through the air to take pressure off Peterson and the running game, and Carolina methodically took charge of the action.

After the game, Peterson spoke gratefully of the support he had received from his teammates and from the football family of the NFL and especially from the Vikings’ fans and from his teammates.

Yet for all of the good will directed at Peterson all around, including that of his opponents on the Carolina team, it was a wrenching afternoon for Vikings onlookers. Carolina wasn’t expected to be  competitive. It is not going to the Super Bowl or anywhere close.

But Cam Newton, the Carolina quarterback who came out of college as a swashbuckler who would make us forget some of the Hall of Famers, looked the part at times on Sunday afternoon. Newton threw touchdown passes of two yards to Steve Smith and then for 10 yards on one of those quirky shovel passes to Mike Tolbert to give Carolina a 14-0 lead before Minnesota’s Blair Walsh kicked a field goal from 22 yards out to reduce that to 14-3 at halftime. Newton and Brandon LaFell hooked up on a 79-yard touchdown pass to run the Carolina lead to 21-3 in the third quarter, and it was  getting to be slightly absurd near the end of the quarter when Newton ran in from the Vikings’ 7 and Tolbert  punched in another touchdown from a yard out.

They were beginning to file out of the stadium in droves when Cassel finally connected with Rudolph on a 23-yard touchdown pass, Rudolph’s ninth catch of the day. But this for a half-dozen reasons was Carolina’s day: They came with better balance in their offence, a quarterback chesty with a confidence that swelled as they got deeper into the game, and with a more balanced running game. It was also a better Carolina team than its prior record suggested. It was a better team than the Vikings in the give and take on the line of scrimmage. It protected the quarterback, squelched the Vikings’ rush and pretty much dominated the action.

So the Vikings now head for New York in a battle between one team that hasn’t won a game and the other that seems to have forgotten  how to do it.

It all happens for the country to watch on Monday Night Football.

In the language of the Monday night panelists, “Come On, Man!” On the TV show’s panel of experts there happens to be a guy, a Viking alum, Cris Carter, now in the Hall of Fame, who could probably still make the team.

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