EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Matt Cassel stepped on the platform, grasped the podium with both hands, looked around and grinned.
“It’s nice being up here. I’ve never been up here before. It’s a pretty nice setup,” Cassel said as he surveyed the makeshift interview area the Minnesota Vikings have set up next to their indoor practice field.
That’s about as close as Cassel, ever polished and professional, has come to complaining about his limited turns on the team’s quarterback carousel this season. This week, though, he’s first in line, and he had the smile to show for it.
“It will be great, just because you start to build that rapport with the receivers and get some more tasks on hand with those guys,” Cassel said of receiving advance notice that he’ll run the first team offense during practice. “Anytime you can get more reps it will prepare you for the game plan.”
With Christian Ponder not yet cleared to participate after suffering a concussion, coach Leslie Frazier said Cassel “more than likely” will start Sunday at Baltimore. During the rest of the coach’s news conference he spoke more in absolutes that the job is Cassel’s for the week and Josh Freeman will be his backup. Ponder was still experiencing symptoms Wednesday from the hit to the head last week against Chicago.
“It’d probably be tough,” Frazier said of Ponder recovering in time. “If he were able to practice tomorrow, maybe. But we’re not planning on it.”
Cassel passed for 243 yards in half a game to help the Vikings beat the Bears in overtime. He has finished all three of Minnesota’s wins this year, starting with the Sept. 29 game against Pittsburgh. His only struggle was Oct. 13 against Carolina, debatably the worst overall performance by the Vikings in a season with multiple stinkers. That was the last time Cassel started, despite several lackluster performances by Ponder and one truly poor start by Freeman.
“Seeing his comfort level with where we are, and having a comfort level with him as well,” Frazier said of Cassel. “But his work on Sunday has a lot to do with it. He did an outstanding job.”
Cassel signed a two-year contract with the Vikings, but he can opt out before next season and become a free agent. No matter who gets these finals few starts, and how he fares, the quarterback position will still be up in the air next spring and atop the to-do list for the draft. But Cassel didn’t want to discuss the situation beyond the Ravens.
“It’s a one-week season for me,” he said. “That’s how you always have to approach it. If you start looking ahead, looking for the future, the what-ifs and putting added pressure on yourself, it’s as difficult as it can possibly be.”
Indeed, Cassel’s respectful demeanor and refusal to criticize the coaches for any frustration he might harbor has served him well here.
“All I know throughout my career is to put my head down and work,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to better and that’s the only way you’re going to put yourself in position to be successful on Sundays.”
Frazier dodged a question about whether Cassel could keep the job for the rest of the year.
“If he performs we’ll sit down and talk about it Monday after the ballgame and make a determination from there,” Frazier said.
On defense, the Vikings will again start Audie Cole, the 2012 seventh-round draft pick who was released in a roster-depth decision for one game and inserted as the starter at middle linebacker when Erin Henderson found off-the-field trouble.
Cole will get his third straight start, and after two weeks of being held out of action Henderson will replace Marvin Mitchell as the starter at the weak side spot, his original position until the Vikings moved him to the middle this spring. Henderson said he told Cole via text message two weeks ago he was rooting for him to succeed.
“I’ve enjoyed him since the first day he came in here. I’m still pulling for him. Anything I can do to help him I’m here for him, and I think he understands that and I look forward to seeing what he does for the rest of it,” Henderson said.
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