Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel – Comparing and Contrasting the 2013 Season

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The folks over at Pro Football Focus have boiled down their data from the 2013 season and have shared some interesting insights into Ponder and Cassel’s performances last year.

I don't mean to dig up the Ponder horse here so we can beat it again, but Pro Football Focus released a very interesting article yesterday that boils down a lot of their game data about Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel.  So naturally I felt compelled to share it all with you and offer my take on it.  The article explains the difference between their grading system, and the typical "QB Rating" statistic that many fans are familiar with.  In a nutshell, PFF attempts to grade quarterbacks on their abilities as quarterbacks, and not necessarily on the measurable results of given plays, because it's sometimes difficult to give a quarterback 100% of the credit for a passing play.  So they are instead grading each and every play, and making a judgment call based on the information at hand.  It's not perfect, but it's about as good as anyone on the outside can do.  Ultimately, the article shared their grades for each quarterback, given certain game situations.  It's a fascinating read, but here are some of the more interesting nuggets from the original article.

Christian Ponder's Tendencies

  • Third-highest percentage of drop-backs from under center at 39.5%.
  • Used play action 33% of the time, second-highest in the league.
  • Threw 3.6% of passes beyond 40 yards, highest percentage in the league.
  • 24.1% of drop-backs last at least 3.6 seconds, seventh-highest in the league.
  • Threw 55.6% of passes outside the numbers, second-highest percentage in the league.
  • 10.8% of targets were quick outs, second-highest in the league.
  • Only 5.8% of targets were out routes, lowest percentage in the league.
  • 9.9% of targets were WR/TE screens, fifth-highest in the league.
  • Only 1.8% of targets were RB screens, fourth-lowest in the league.

Matt Cassel's Tendencies

  • Sixth-highest percentage of drop-backs from under center at 36.7%.
  • Used play action 26.3% of the time, eighth-highest in the league.
  • 38.4% of drop-backs came against base defenses (league average: 28.6%).
  • 10.3% of targets were WR/TE screens, fourth-highest in the league
  • Only 1.7% of targets were RB screens, third-lowest in the league.
  • 9.0% of targets were post routes, fifth-highest in the league.

There are some similarities here that speak largely to the offensive playbook.  Musgrave wanted a quarterback who took the majority of snaps from behind center, and who utilized the play-action passing game to fool defenses with Adrian Peterson in the backfield.  Ponder stuck to this gameplan just a little bit more than Cassel.  Despite having an incredible athlete like Peterson in the backfield, Musgrave hardly ever used him in the "RB Screen" play, which other teams apparently did at a much higher rate than the Vikings.  For anyone that watched Vikings games last year, it shouldn't be surprising that they both threw the WR/TE screen pass with extreme regularity, 4th and 5th highest percentage of throws in the league.  These are all by-products of the Bill Musgrave offense and don't really speak to Ponder and Cassel's strengths, weaknesses or personal tendencies specifically.

As for more specific differences in tendency, Cassel threw the post route very frequently compared to the rest of the league, and he faced base defenses more often than an average NFL quarterback.  Christian Ponder threw more quick outs and passes outside the numbers that attacked the sideline than many QBs, and had a higher percentage of passes thrown 40 or more yards than any other QB in the NFL.  He also held onto the ball a lot longer than other NFL quarterbacks.

According to PFF's grading system though, despite having these tendencies (many of which were by-product's of Bill Musgrave's scheme), their strengths and weaknesses didn't exactly line up with the goals of he offense.  Here are Christian Ponder's strengths and weaknesses as graded by PFF:

Positives

  • Graded well on 3rd-and-Long at +2.5.
  • Graded at +1.3 with a 135.4 passer rating on throws in the 21-to-30-yard range and graded at +2.2 on passes in 31-to-40-yard range.
  • Threw best to the right, outside the numbers at +1.0
  • Posted a positive grade when pressured from a blitz (+1.9).
  • Graded at +4.0 on passes lasting 2.6-3.0 seconds.
  • Best routes were out routes (+1.9) and post routes (+1.1).

So here, Ponder appeared to do well on passes outside the numbers (which he threw a lot).  His best routes were out routes and post routes, of which he tended to throw a lot too.  So, it's not all bad with Ponder, as some parts of the Musgrave offense played to his strengths.

Negatives

  • Struggled on first down (-5.8) and 3rd-and-10+ (-2.8).
  • Graded at -5.9 on passes in 1-to-10-yard range and -6.0 on passes in the 11-to-20-yard range.
  • Posted poor grades on passes to the left (-4.6) and middle (-3.0).
  • Graded at only -6.2 in a clean pocket, including an odd split that saw him post a -4.7 grade when blitzes did NOT lead to pressure.
  • Graded at -2.2 on 7-to-8-yard drop-backs and -3.1 on drop-backs of 9 or more yards.
  • Posted negative grades on passes lasting two seconds or less (-5.1) and 2.1-to-2.5 seconds (-3.3).
  • Struggled when throwing to slot wide receivers (-3.9).
  • Graded at -2.4 on comeback routes and -1.3 on corner routes.

Here is where it all falls apart for Ponder though.  He struggled with the shorter passes, like quick outs and WR/TE screens: quick passes in the 1-20 yard range, which were some of the most common passes in the offense.  As his positives show, he did better with more typical passes in terms of duration: 2.6-3.0 seconds, although he more often held onto the ball longer than that.  You can also see that he reacted poorly to blitzes, and graded poorly on various drop-back style passes: exactly the kind of "under center" style of play that Bill Musgrave's offense required.  He was also generally bad on first down, which if my memory serves, set the offense back on second down, and then he struggled on 3rd and 10, where he needed to make up for the poor 1st down play.  In the end Ponder had some strengths for Musgrave's offense, but also had some pretty severe weaknesses that he wasn't able to overcome.  In my opinion he wasn't really a great fit for Musgrave's offense.  Now, compare this to Matt Cassel:

Positives

  • Graded at +4.3 on second downs including +3.3 on 2nd-and-Long.
  • Best range was 11-to-20-yard range that saw him grade at +2.4.
  • Graded at +1.8 on passes outside the numbers to the left.
  • Graded at +2.6 against the blitz, including +2.5 when it was picked up.
  • Threw well to the slot (+1.3) and to tight ends (+2.7).
  • Showed well in in routes (+1.6) and corner routes (+2.3).

Cassel shows positive play in nearly the exact opposite categories as Ponder.  He's great in the mid-range, 11-20 yards, and great on 2nd downs and against the blitz.  He also throws well to a variety of receiving options: slot, tight ends, in routes and corner routes.  That said, it's not like he was perfect for Musgrave's offense either as he had some pretty major negatives:

Negatives

  • Struggled on third downs (-7.6) including -3.0 on 3rd-and-10+ and -3.5 on 3rd-and-Short.
  • Graded at -5.1 on passes in the 1-to-10-yard range.
  • Struggled on throws in between the numbers (-4.0).
  • Graded at -7.9 against a traditional rush.
  • Posted -2.9 grade on passes in the 3.1-to-3.5-second range.
  • Graded at -1.6 on passes to outside wide receivers (by alignment).
  • Worst routes were slants (-0.8) and post routes (-2.5).

Like Ponder, Cassel was poor on third down and struggled on short throws, especially slants, in the 1-10 yard range.  Cassel had his own problems though, like struggling with the post route, one of his most commonly thrown routes.  He also graded poorly against a traditional rush, and on throws in the middle of the field between the numbers.  So, he wasn't a great fit for what Musgrave was trying to accomplish either.  He struggled with the kind of short, middle-of-the-field West Coast style passing that was required.

It's too bad that Musgrave's offense didn't better utilize the strengths of Ponder or Cassel (who could though, since both were very different types of quarterbacks?), and instead kept forcing them into throws and routes that were not their strengths.  When I think about how the Vikings found themselves with Ponder, Cassel and Musgrave together in 2013, it's like a series of unfortunate events that stems all the way back to the 2010 season.  Let's see if I can piece it together:

1. Chilly is fired over the Randy Moss situation.

2. Leslie Frazier is named interim head coach, because he is well-liked by the players and had been in control of a very strong defense for a few years prior.

3. In the 2011 offseason, the Vikings decide (maybe poorly) to name Frazier head coach without doing a full coaching search.  We had no real general manager at this time, so amidst the chaos surrounding a total lack of accountability at the top, Frazier gets his shot.

4. Unfortunately he was given a very weak contract, and a descending team, and couldn't attract any high profile coordinators.  Hence: enter Bill Musgrave, the least worst option.

5. With the "Triangle of Authority" in place instead of a real general manager, the Vikings reach for Christian Ponder in the draft.

6. Fans begin to wonder after the 2012 season, if Ponder may not be the answer at QB, and the Vikes begin to panic by signing the best of a weak free agent class at quarterback: Matt Cassel.

7. The rest is history.

All of those unfortunate events, really, can be traced back to the poor decision to give Brad Childress full control of the roster and not hire a real general manager back in 2006.  Ultimately, that paved the way for the shit-storm that we've had to endure for the past 4 years.  I'm hopeful that with a real general manager now being held accountable, and Mike Zimmer's motivational coaching style, and Norv Turner's Air Coryell system fitting Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater, we will see much better things from our quarterbacks.  Only time will tell of course, but it sure seems like we've got a better situation now than we did back in 2011.

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