EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Josh Freeman is out of the messy situation in Tampa Bay and happy to land in Minnesota, where Adrian Peterson and the Vikings offense eagerly await.
“I don’t think there’s a quarterback in the game of football that doesn’t think they’d be a good fit for this offense,” Freeman said on Monday night after passing a physical and signing his one-year deal.
Just when he will take over as the starting quarterback is still unclear.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said that struggling third-year quarterback Christian Ponder will start on Sunday against Carolina if his injured ribs will allow it. If he is still too sore coming off two weeks of rest, backup Matt Cassel will get the nod.
Beyond Sunday’s game against Carolina, well, there’s no guarantee for anyone.
The Vikings (1-3) signed the 25-year-old Freeman four days after he was cut by Tampa Bay in a long, drawn-out split between a franchise and a player that was once viewed as a cornerstone.
“Right when I heard I got cut, it was kind of, ‘I want to get back in there right away,'” Freeman said. “In all honesty, from the standpoint of a career move, something that I really liked about the Vikings is they’ve got a guy. They’ve got a situation where I can come in and learn the system.
“If they call for me and need me to play, that’s one thing. But it’s an opportunity to kind of pump the brakes. It’s been pretty crazy the past few weeks and just really get back to the reason we’re all here and that’s playing football.”
Bucs coach Greg Schiano benched Freeman after he struggled in the first three games and a back-and-forth followed that included the NFLPA looking into whether the Bucs leaked information about Freeman being in the league’s substance abuse program.
“What happened down in Tampa is none of my business at all,” Vikings GM Rick Spielman said.
Freeman wasn’t interested in revisiting any of that on Monday night, preferring to look forward to his new team.
“My main focus was where can I go to really better myself,” he said. “I wanted a good environment and I got that in Minnesota.”
Frazier and Spielman were vague when talking about Freeman’s immediate future and Ponder’s status. Both said Ponder has “a bright future” with the team, but it’s hard to see how that is possible now.
Keeping Cassel in the lineup on Sunday would hardly be a controversial or deceptive decision. The 31-year-old gave a sputtering offense a spark with two touchdowns and 248 yards passing without a turnover in the win in London over Pittsburgh on Sept. 29 and there will be little patience from the home crowd for Ponder.
Ponder, whose record as a starter is 12-17, expressed defiance toward the doubt about his status.
“In my eyes, I’m getting prepared to play. As long as I play well, then I’m the one on the field,” he said.
Even Frazier acknowledged, though, the question about whether Ponder will play another game for the Vikings. He has one year remaining on his contract, calling for a base salary for 2014 of a little more than $1.76 million.
“On the surface, he’d question that. He’s human. I’m sure he has at times, but he just has to continue to work and work as hard as he can,” Frazier said. “And I think things will work out fine for Christian in the long term.”
Ponder was the 12th overall pick in the quarterback-deep 2011 draft, chosen ahead of Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick after Brett Favre retired for good and Tarvaris Jackson was let go.
Since handing Ponder the job six games into his rookie year, to replace an ineffective Donovan McNabb, the Vikings have given the Florida State grad every opportunity to develop into a franchise cornerstone.
“I think Christian still has a bright future here with our football team. It may not look like that on the surface, but Christian’s a professional,” Frazier said. “He’s going to work as hard as he can every day to prepare, get back on the field and help our team win.”
Frazier spoke with Cassel and Ponder in the morning and said neither player expressed concern to him about Freeman’s arrival.
“One thing you can expect in the NFL: expect the unexpected,” Cassel said. “Because every week it changes. You never know what’s going to happen. I learned that over time. This is my ninth year now.”
This was the only definitive word from Frazier: there’s not enough time for Freeman to learn the offense and play against the Panthers.
The Vikings didn’t just sign him for depth, though. They’re trying to save the season after losing their first three games, and they also need someone to count on for the future.
Though Freeman agreed to a prorated $3 million deal for only the rest of the year, these next three months will be a feeling out process for both sides in advance of the free agent market.
“He’s a big quarterback with a strong arm that can do a lot of good things at all levels of the field,” Spielman said.
Ponder said he felt “very little pain, if any” while throwing in practice. He also said he’s not sure what to think about this latest bold move by Spielman.
“We’ll see what happens. It’s their decision, not my decision,” Ponder said. “Obviously I can control how I play.”
He produced some solid performances during a 10-6 season in 2012 that put the Vikings in the playoffs, but there were just as many ugly ones.
While the Vikings lost their first three games, Ponder had seven turnovers and a paltry 65.9 passer rating. That’s ahead of only three players with enough qualifying attempts: Eli Manning, Freeman and Blaine Gabbert.
The decision on the starter won’t come until later in the week once Ponder’s health is evaluated, Frazier said. The decision to bring in Freeman, though, was a signal of wavered faith in Ponder, even if he has more chances to play this year.
Freeman has struggled mightily at times, too, but his best games and seasons have been better than Ponder’s so far.
“You’re always trying to find guys who you think can help your team win, and we think he’s one of those guys,” Frazier said.
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