EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- With the Minnesota Vikings officially eliminated from the playoff chase at 3-9-1, the handling of No. 3 quarterback Josh Freeman becomes even more awkward for coach Leslie Frazier and aggravating for the team's fans over the final three weeks of the season.
When Freeman was signed Oct. 6 and hurried into the starting lineup 14 days later against the host New York Giants on Monday Night Football, it was assumed that he and the 1-4 Vikings would have 11 weeks to get to know each other on the field in live game action to determine whether a long-term relationship would be beneficial to both sides.
At 25, the same age as the struggling Christian Ponder, Freeman was believed to be the player the Vikings were targeting as the potential young franchise quarterback that Ponder has so clearly shown he's not.
Boy, were those assumptions wrong.
For the eighth consecutive game since Freeman made his one and only appearance as a Viking, Frazier announced that someone else will start at quarterback when the Vikings play the Eagles at Mall of America Field on Sunday. Matt Cassel, whom Frazier had ruled out of the starting quarterback competition just weeks ago, will get his second consecutive start and fourth overall on the season.
And Cassel is unlikely to have running back Adrian Peterson, who suffered a mid-foot sprain in last week's 29-26 loss at Baltimore. Meanwhile, Peterson's backup, Toby Gerhart, also looks doubtful after straining a hamstring during his 41-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run at Baltimore.
If neither back can play, No. 3 running back Matt Asiata, who has three career carries, would start. Practice squad back Joe Banyard probably would be promoted as well.
Obviously, neither Asiata nor Banyard nor anyone else who carries the ball on Sunday would be nearly as good as Peterson or Gerhart. So, obviously, more pressure will fall on Cassel's shoulders.
"I just feel Matt did some good things in that (Ravens) ballgame on Sunday, and we're going to give him an opportunity for back-to-back starts," Frazier said. "He's done a good job in earning that opportunity, so I look forward to watching him play."
In some regards, Freeman brought this on himself by looking worse than anyone imagined he would against the Giants. Even for someone who had only four practices with the first team, Freeman's inaccuracy was alarming. He completed just 20 of 53 passes (37.7 percent) with an interception as the Vikings failed to score an offensive point in a 23-7 loss.
Freeman reported concussion-like symptoms two days after that game and hasn't played a down since. We'll never know if the Vikings were prepared to give Freeman a second shot had he not suffered a concussion, but the fact they left him in the Giants game suggests they were going to show some patience with him.
But since that Giants game, Ponder started the next six games before a concussion in the Bears game gave Cassel the start at Baltimore last week. As he has done throughout his brief career, Ponder showed just enough glimpses of competence to continue a roller-coaster season until suffering the concussion.
The Vikings never considered Freeman for the Baltimore start because Cassel had led them from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 23-20 overtime win over the Bears.
Although Cassel didn't win the Baltimore game, he did play well in a fourth quarter that saw an NFL-record six lead changes, including five in the final 2:05. He threw a pair of touchdown passes while not turning the ball over.
The offense has better rhythm with fewer turnovers when Cassel is in the game. He has thrown seven touchdowns and four interceptions while topping 240 yards passing four times. Neither Ponder nor Freeman has reached that total once this season.
Ponder clearly isn't the quarterback of the future. Otherwise, the Vikings never would have signed Freeman after he was released by the Buccaneers. Cassel, 31, could serve as a bridge to the future if the Vikings end up drafting a quarterback next year. However, Cassel has an opt-out clause in his contract and might look elsewhere considering the inconsistency with which the team has dealt with him this year.
Freeman, meanwhile, is a free agent after the season. He has been paid $2 million to play one game, so Frazier was asked if he feels like the team is wasting the next three games if it doesn't use them to make a more educated evaluation on Freeman's potential as a franchise quarterback.
"That's a good question, but we made the decision that we're going to give Matt this opportunity," Frazier said. "Hopefully, things will work out. But Josh, he's working hard. He's doing everything he needs to do."
Asked how Freeman is handling the situation, Frazier said, "He's a guy who is accustomed to being the guy. So this is different for him. But he's handled it extremely well. But it's a challenge, for sure. He's always been the guy in his career in the NFL."
A big part of the problem, of course, is Frazier's contract expires after the 2014 season. So he has essentially been trying to save his job, not conduct a quarterback tryout camp for the 2014 season. When the team didn't give Frazier a multi-year contract extension after last year's 10-win playoff season, it essentially forced Frazier into a "prove-it-again-or-else" mentality.
So Frazier initially went along with the plan to start Freeman, hoping that his big arm would complement Adrian Peterson's power running. But once Freeman showed how overwhelmed he was by learning a new system on the fly during the middle of a season, Frazier had to go back to the quarterbacks who at least understood the offense and knew what the plays are called.
And, ultimately, everyone will lose. Frazier probably will be fired and Freeman will move on having never been given an ample opportunity to have shown whether he could have become a good fit in Minnesota.
SERIES HISTORY: 22nd regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 12-9. The Vikings are 6-3 at home against the Eagles, but are 2-2 at the Metrodome during regular-season meetings. The teams have met three times in the post-season, with the Eagles winning all three games. The Eagles won two divisional matchups in Philadelphia, 31-16 in 1980 and 27-14 in 2004. They also were the No. 6 seed when they upset the No. 3 seed Vikings 26-14 in a wild-card game at the Metrodome during the 2008 season.
--TE John Carlson (concussion) still has not passed the league-mandated concussion protocol for returning. It's his second concussion in two years with the Vikings and at least the third of his NFL career. With Kyle Rudolph placed on injured reserve, the pass-catching tight end role could fall to former practice squad player Chase Ford or blocking tight end Rhett Ellison.
--CB Josh Robinson, the second-year pro who had struggled in trying to replace the departed Antoine Winfield, missed his third straight game and could miss the rest of the season because of a fractured sternum. The Vikings are still holding out hope that he will return, but he won't practice this week. Robinson had gotten better of late, but still has a long way to go. Rookie first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes replaced Rhodes and has improved dramatically late in the season. But he also suffered an ankle injury on Sunday in Baltimore.
--Rhodes (ankle) suffered his injury in the second half at Baltimore and remains day-to-day. He has struggled against nagging injuries all season and was on crutches after the game. If Robinson is unable to return, the Vikings will have to start punt returner Marcus Sherels, who is a scrapper but often gets overmatched physically.
--S Harrison Smith (turf toe) hasn't played since the fifth game and is on injured reserve with designation to return. He's eligible to return this week and appears to be ahead of schedule. But whether the Viking risk playing their best defensive back in three meaningless games remains to be seen.
--RG Brandon Fusco (knee) left Sunday's game midway through the second quarter and did not return. He remains day-to-day. Joe Berger, a quality veteran interior backup, stepped in and played well for the most part. But his 15-yard penalty for a peel-back block also negated Cordarrelle Patterson's 18-yard run down to the Ravens' 2-yard line.