On Sunday morning before the game, Brett Michael Dykes, the erudite football forecaster for the New York Times, prepared the already battered Minnesota Viking audiences for the gloomy news: “[I]f Adrian Peterson can’t play against the Philadelphia Eagles,” he told his international audience, “A Minnesota victory would be the biggest surprise since Gwyneth Paltrow’s head turned out to be the contents of the package Kevin Spacey sent to Brad Pitt at the end of “Seven.”
Don’t look it up. There was a movie named “Seven.” Vintage 1995. But it’s doubtful that Matt Asiata was much shaken when Leslie Frazier started and finished the game with Matt Asiata as Adrian Peterson’s stand-in at the Mall of America. There just wasn’t anybody else available.
But in the stands Sunday, the Viking loyalist thousands were still trying to pronounce Asiata’s name by the time he scored his third touchdown in their 48-30 shocker over the playoff-contending Eagles.
But the improbability of it went far beyond the eerie sight of Asiata running the ball 30 times as a stand-in for injury-perplexed Adrian Peterson. Add the sight of a man named Chase Ford, also elevated from the practice squad, catching a critical pass in the fourth quarter as a stand-in for the Vikings regular tight ends, Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson, both sidelined with injuries.
Consider the bizarre sight of Jared Allen, one of pro football’s all time quarterback sackers, snapping the ball to Viking punter Jeff Locke, because the regular snapper, Cullen Loeffler, was taking X-rays for a possible hand fracture. Consider also a jerry-built cast of defensive backs because of injuries to the starters.
So to be truthful, you could hardly call Asiata a star of the game. The fact that he played the whole game and scored three times was a near miracle in itself. He plugged along with his 51 yards in 30 carries while quarterback Matt Cassel was piling up 370 yards through the air and two touchdowns. Greg Jennings, meanwhile, was scalding the Eagles’ secondary with 11 receptions for 163 yards and a touchdown.
Shift to the defense, where Allen and Brian Robison scrambled the Eagles passing game with two sacks apiece, although quarterback Nick Foles still managed to ring up nearly 400 yards and three touchdown passes. But the retreaded young Viking secondary didn’t break. And while this was happening, the Viking defensive line limited LeSean McCoy, one of Peterson’s rivals among the best running backs in the NFL, to 38 yards in eight carries. That happened because the Eagles decided to feature the passing game against the Vikings’ makeshift secondary, and the strategy boomeranged.
When it was over, Leslie Frazier made no attempt to conceal his pride in the Vikings’ performance. He called his players together to pay his emotional respect for their effort and toughness in the face of a season that went awry. He told them how much he respected their grit in the face of so much adversity in a losing season. He didn’t mention that the coach was on a tightrope and their best player was on the sidelines.
In the run-up to the game, Peterson wanted to play. The medical report wasn’t cheery. For a time, he lobbied the coach. His foot injury and other ailments could survive it, he said. Plus he wanted to pile up more yards in his quest to become the greatest of the greatest.
The temptation must have been strong for Frazier to accept Peterson’s arguments. His job as the Viking coach is in obvious jeopardy. One or two more losses would probably be enough for the Wilf management to discharge him. There was an additional crisis. Peterson’s relief as running back is Toby Gerhart, himself a very professional football player and the obvious stand-in for the future Hall of Famer. But Gerhart had injuries of his own and couldn’t be expected to play.
Frazier knew all that, but in the end, he wasn’t going to play his star if there were any chanceof further injury. The best coaches understand an ethical obligation to their players.
For a time, Peterson seemed willing to risk it. But Frazier’s responsibilities to his players went beyond trying to win football games. He had also to measure the risk to his star player and the player’s future. So in the end, Peterson was not going to play and Asiata got the news not much earlier than the fans.
So, who is Matt Asiata?
He played his college football at Utah and, in the midst of his struggles to make it in the pros, had spent part of his time working in a commercial warehouse. But the Viking organization has stuck with him for better than two years on the practice squad as a tough and capable young guy who someday might come in handy.
Enter Sunday at the Mall of America. And here Matt Cassel stepped into this developing saga with a major-league performance at quarterback, and he is now clearly the quarterback of choice for the final two games of the season, against Cincinnati on the road and the finale against Detroit at home.
So while the Matt Asiata story and his three touchdowns brought a Never-Neverland quality to the game Sunday, ultimately it was Matt Cassel’s performance and a receiving corps headed by ex-Packer Greg Jennings that carried the day, along with the hang-tough defense anchored by Allen, Robison and Chad Greenway.
Jennings and Cassel teamed early on a 57-yard touchdown pass midway in the first period. Alex Henery kicked two field goals for Philadelphia, and Blair Walsh hit one for the Vikings before Asiata scored his first touchdown from a yard out. Henery added his third field goal to trim the Viking lead to 17-9 at the half.
Early in the second half, Cassel scrambled for a touchdown to stretch the Viking lead to 24-9 and Blair Walsh kicked another field goal before Philadelphia rallied on Foles’ 30-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson. He then followed with another scoring pass of 3 yards to Zach Ertz to send the game into the fourth quarter with the Vikings leading 27-22.
It was now a bona fide shootout, and Asiata lengthened the Viking lead to 34-22 with a touchdown from a yard out. The Viking momentum was now full throttle, and the score went to 41- 22 when Cassel threw to Cordarrelle Patterson from 5 yards out. Foles cut it to 41-30 with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jason Avant and a two-point conversion. But the Vikings’ improbable Asiata ran 5 yards for his third touchdown with a little less than two minutes remaining.
When it was over, Leslie Frazier spoke movingly to his football team, of the adversity it has faced but had not quit. He spoke of his pride in the team. “I knew our guys would play hard,” he said, “and they did.”
He was especially impressed by Greg Jennings’ breakout performance. This is the onetime Green Bay star who in his first season with the Vikings seemed to be groping for an identity, more or less waiting to become a star. On Sunday he caught 11 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. His arrival as a big-time force in the Viking passing game coincided with rookie Patterson’s arrival as a multiple threat to score, from any distance on his kickoff returns and now punt returns, and as an added threat in the running game out of the backfield, as well as his deep threat as a receiver.
So what now in the Viking quarterback questions? They may have pretty much disappeared — for this ebbing season at least.
Cassel now is their quarterback of record. He has been there when they have played their best football. And it’s probably not a coincidence. He was successful years ago as a stand-in for New England’s injured Tom Brady. He was a quarterback of mixed performance at Kansas City but now is maturing and clearly the quarterback with whom the Vikings seem most comfortable.
Christian Ponder’s term as the Viking quarterback is probably drawing down. The import oddity, Josh Freeman, has seemingly disappeared as part of the Vikings’ weekly plans. And then there is the college draft next year. Cassel is no longer a youngster, but he has played effectively and is respected by the team. He clearly is in his prime with the Vikings, and there are two more games remaining. The Vikings now stand at 4-9-1, and Cassel has easily been their most productive quarterback and has the players’ confidence.
So it’s unlikely that the Vikings’ last two games are going to be dull, because both Cincinnati and Detroit are in the running for the playoffs.
But then so was Philadelphia.