Extra Points: Freeman is prudent gamble for Spielman, Vikings

(SportsNetwork.com) - It's a simple notion rooted in common sense -- you can't solve a problem until you admit you have one.

For Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, the ability to admit his dilemma only surfaced when a quarterback with real first-round talent, Josh Freeman, fell in his lap on Sunday night.

Former Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick often calls "need" the worst talent evaluator in football. Spielman certainly proved that back on April 28, 2011 when he set his team back years by throwing out his back reaching for Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the draft.

Remember, Spielman is same guy who gave up a second-round pick for A.J. Feeley while in Miami so the resume as a talent evaluator at the game's most important position was already in doubt when he developed tunnel vision with the intention of finding a long-term answer in Minnesota after stop-gaps Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb.

The three signal callers with legitimate No. 1 grades that year -- Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker -- were long gone by the time it was Spielman's turn and Ponder was the best bet left on the Vikings' board.

So, Spielman made the foolhardy decision to pass on real talents like Nick Fairley, Robert Quinn, Mike Pouncey, Ryan Kerrigan and Nate Solder -- the five players who went directly after Ponder -- and selected the Florida State product.

Pointing out that Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick were there for the taking in the second round, a place most scouts had Ponder earmarked for, is probably piling on a bit.

Ponder does have the requisite athleticism to be a star in the NFL and he looks like a million bucks tossing it in shorts, but his accuracy downfield is dismal and his pocket awareness even worse.

Perhaps his greatest flaw, though, is self-confidence or lack thereof. Ponder is a shrinking violet on the field, so much so that Adrian Peterson and Greg Jennings both raved about Matt Cassel's presence in the huddle when the journeyman replaced an injured Ponder in London back on Sept. 29 and led the previously winless Vikings to a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Those on the outside, looking in at Minnesota marveled at just how far the franchise has gone to protect Ponder and his fragile psyche despite diminishing returns. The Vikings have tried to coach him up, treated him like a proven starter and coddled him at every turn, even trading away a big-time playmaker -- Percy Harvin -- for not toeing the company line and getting behind Ponder.

Heck, the Vikings still refuse to admit he's a bust now after the team signed his successor.

"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," head coach Leslie Frazier said after the team inked Freeman.

When listening to NFL management, though, it's a prudent idea to always take their words with a grain of salt and judge the actions instead. Spielman -- and by proxy Frazier -- are obviously loathe to admit a mistake, but by bringing in Freeman, it's a clear indication the intervention finally worked and the team has resolved himself to what the rest of us already knew -- Ponder simply can't play.

His teammates know that better than anyone else and Frazier could no longer sell a bill of goods to the reigning MVP Peterson or a Super Bowl winner like Jennings or a four-time All-Pro like Jared Allen, classy players who do everything in their power to prepare but are put behind the 8-ball week in and week out because the QB can't carry his own water.

At some point, Spielman was going to have to check his ego at the door and that realization seemed to hit him across the pond after Cassel took the reigns and looked like a more than competent option.

In fact, Cassel is the real loser here, not Ponder. The ex-starter in Kansas City was going to get the ball moving forward and barring injury or a complete meltdown, Ponder's tender ribs were going to be used as an excuse to pull the plug on the Florida State product.

Freeman's ugly breakup with Greg Schiano in Tampa and the fact he wanted to play in Minnesota, though, gave Spielman an opportunity to acquire a possible long-term answer.

Frazier has already said Freeman would not play Sunday against Carolina but will be able to compete for the No. 1 job after learning the team's offensive scheme. Keep in mind, backups usually get no more than 10 percent of the repetitions at practice during the regular season, so this is Freeman's job when he is deemed ready.

"At the end of the day, you've got to follow your heart," Freeman told reporters in a conference call after passing his physical on Monday. "I'm not saying I was promised anything. I was not. All I was promised was an opportunity to be part of a first-class organization and be put into a role where I could nurture myself as a player."

This is far from a slam dunk. Freeman needs to prove the challenges to his work ethic as well as his leadership skills in Tampa were truly the manifestations of a deranged coach on a power trip.

Schiano reportedly ordered Freeman away from the sidelines and ordered him to watch a game from a suite after he was benched. Then, leaks -- presumably from the Bucs -- confirmed that Freeman was in the NFL's drug treatment program, prompting an investigation by the NFL Players Association since such matters are supposed to be confidential. There were also reports that Freeman was fined at least five times for missing meetings, skipping a team photo and conducting an unauthorized interview.

"Obviously, he didn't feel that I was the guy he wanted leading his team," Freeman said. "I had a lot of great memories. Lots of good times with the fellas. Times change, things progress and I'm just fired up to be here in Minnesota."

Despite any flaws, Freeman has already excelled at the NFL level. In 2010, he threw 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Last year, he tossed for 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns. That's a ceiling Ponder can't even see, never mind reach.

"I know he is a big quarterback with a strong arm that can do a lot of good things at all levels of the field," Spielman said.

And Freeman wanted in for the same reason Cassel does. They are salivating over what Ponder could never take advantage of, the constant eight-man boxes used to stop Peterson.

"My main focus was where can I go to that I can better myself the most and that's going to allow me to learn and just work?" Freeman said. "I wanted a good environment. That's something I know that I get with Minnesota."

And what do the Vikings get?

The ultimate low-risk, high-reward signing, one that could save Spielman's job.

"I don't know what happened down in Tampa," the embattled GM said. "It's none of my business at all. All I know is that Josh Freeman's a Minnesota Viking and we're looking forward to moving on."


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THE GAMES (All Times Eastern) - WEEK 6

New York Giants (0-5) at Chicago (3-2), Thursday, 8:25 p.m.

LINE: Bears by 7 1/2

THE SKINNY: The Bears offense is hardly dynamic but Jay Cutler is completing a career-best 65.7 percent of his passes this season and the Giants are allowing a league-worst 36.4 points per contest, surrendering at least 31 in all five games to match the NFL record set by the 1954 Chicago Cardinals.

The Bears should get back on track here after dropping two straight and the G- Men are likely to set a new ignominious mark.

PREDICTION: Bears 31, Giants 23

Green Bay (2-2) at Baltimore (3-2), Sunday, 1 p.m.

LINE: Packers by 3

THE SKINNY: The reigning Super Bowl champion Ravens, who are tied atop the AFC North with Cleveland and Cincinnati, have won 13 consecutive at home against NFC foes and are a gaudy 35-7 as the host under head coach John Harbaugh. Meanwhile, QB Joe Flacco is 10-0 in the Charm City against NFC teams and has 16 TDs versus just three picks in those games.

The Packers, meanwhile, got back into the NFC North race with a 22-9 victory over a Detroit team minus Calvin Johnson and also have some numbers trending their way. Superstar QB Aaron Rodgers has won eight of his past 11 starts against AFC teams and has a 106 passer rating with 29 TD passes in those contests. Rookie running back Eddie Lacy seems to have cured Green Bay's running woes and is coming off a career-high 99-yard effort last week, while big-play WR James Jones has six TD receptions in his last five versus AFC competition.

PREDICTION: Ravens 23, Packers 20

Cincinnati (3-2) at Buffalo (2-3), Sunday, 1 p.m.

LINE: Bengals by 7

THE SKINNY: With rookie QB EJ Manuel gone for at least a few weeks with a sprained right knee ligament, the Bills with turn to Thad Lewis, who was elevated from the team's practice squad earlier this week. Lewis, a 25-year- old Duke product with one previous NFL start under his belt, jumped rookie Jeff Tuel on the depth chart after Tuel struggled as Manuel's replacement in a 37-24 loss to Cleveland in Week 5.

"Thad gives us the best chance," Bills coach Doug Marrone said earlier this week. "We're going to give him an opportunity to see what he has."

The Bengals, who are tied atop the AFC North with both Baltimore and the Browns, are looking for more consistency from QB Andy Dalton, especially on the road. Cincinnati has a very impactful front seven on defense and when Dalton plays well, the Bengals are tough to beat. Cincy is 10-1 when its third- year signal caller records a passer rating of 100 or above.

PREDICTION: Bengals 21, Bills 10

Detroit (3-2) at Cleveland (3-2), Sunday, 1 p.m.

LINE: Lions by 2 1/2

THE SKINNY: Three weeks after trading Trent Richardson and "giving up" on their season, the Browns are tied for first place in the AFC North. But the guy who helped get them there, suburban Cleveland native Brian Hoyer, is gone for the rest of the season after tearing his ACL early in the Browns' 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills last Thursday night.

That means previously deposed QB Brandon Weeden, who initially entered to a chorus of boos after replacing Hoyer before finishing 13-of-24 for 197 yards and a touchdown, will return as the team's starter as the Browns search for a fourth consecutive win for the first time since 2009. Big-play WR Josh Gordon has really opened up the offense during Cleveland's current run, hauling in 18 receptions for 303 yards (16.8 avg.) and two TDs.

The Lions, meanwhile, lost their 23rd straight game in Wisconsin last week, a 22-9 setback to the Green Bay Packers. Detroit's high-powered offense was lost without All-World receiver Calvin Johnson, who sat out due to knee pain. QB Matthew Stafford did throw for 262 yards and now has 14,331 for his career, the most in NFL history through 50 games. The key here is whether or not Johnson suits up and opens up the Detroit offense.

PREDICTION: Lions 28, Browns 17

St. Louis (2-3) at Houston (2-3), Sunday, 1 p.m.

LINE: Texans by 7

THE SKINNY: Things have come off the rails for Matt Schaub in Houston. The embattled Texans' QB has thrown a pick-six in an NFL record four consecutive games and seems to have lost all of his confidence. Making matters even worse is the fact that a few disgruntled and obviously unhinged fans confronted Schaub at his home earlier this week, prompting him to alert NFL security.

Meanwhile, one of Schaub's favorite targets, tight end Owen Daniels was placed on injured reserve with the designation for return due to a broken leg, meaning the Pro Bowler will miss at least the next eight weeks.

St. Louis, however, may not have the firepower offensively to take advantage of Houston's current woes. Rams signal caller Sam Bradford has been very shaky, at least when he's not playing the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars, and the team's running game has been virtually non-existent.

PREDICTION: Texans 20, Rams 17

Oakland (2-3) at Kansas City (5-0), Sunday, 1 p.m.

LINE: Chiefs by 9

THE SKINNY: The unbeaten Chiefs are the first team in NFL history to start 5-0 after losing 14-or-more games in previous season and will be aiming to go 6-0 for the first since they opened the 2003 campaign at 9-0. Taking care of the football has been Kansas City's formula for success and the Chiefs have an NFC best plus-10 turnover ratio.

"This team is very blessed," star running back Jamaal Charles said. "Nobody expected us to be 5-0."

Nobody expected the Raiders to have two wins by this point, either, but Oakland has been far more competitive than most thought thanks to duel-threat QB Terrelle Pryor, who has completed 37-of-51 passes (72.5 percent) for 502 yards with 3 TDs and no INTs in his past two games. Pryor also ranks third among all NFL QBs with 229 rush yards despite missing a game due to a concussion.

PREDICTION: Chiefs 24, Raiders 13

Carolina (1-3) at Minnesota (1-3), Sunday, 1 p.m.

LINE: Vikings by 2 1/2

THE SKINNY: It was a productive bye week for Minnesota as the team signed Freeman to a one-year contract on Monday. Freeman won't start right away, but he should open up the offense for the Vikings in due time. Cassel figures to get the start against the Panthers and hopes to play a clean game as well as take advantage of all the extra attention Peterson gets at the line of scrimmage.

The Panthers need to find a way to jump start their own anemic offense and the Minnesota defense, which is allowing 430.8 yards per game, could be a tonic for that. Things didn't get any easier for Carolina, however, when starting left guard Amini Silatolu suffered a torn ACL in the team's 22-6 Week 5 loss at Arizona.

PREDICTION: Vikings 24, Panthers 17

Pittsburgh (0-4) at New York Jets (3-2), Sunday, 1 p.m.

LINE: Jets by 2 1/2

THE SKINNY: Pittsburgh is 16-4 all-time against the Jets, but this isn't your dad's Steelers team or even your older brother's. The Steelers are 0-4 for the first time since 1968 and that's "B.N." in Pittsburgh parlance -- Before Noll as in Chuck Noll, the legendary Hall of Fame coach who led the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins.

New York is one of the surprise teams in the NFL behind rookie QB Geno Smith, who completed 80 percent of his passes (16-of-20) with three TDs in a last- second win at Atlanta on "Monday Night Football." Smith is 2-0 as a starter at home and passed for career-best 331 yards in his last affair in North Jersey, a triumph over Buffalo.

PREDICTION: Steelers 21, Jets 17

Philadelphia (2-3) at Tampa Bay (0-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.

LINE: Pick 'em

THE SKINNY: Philadelphia's explosive offense will likely be run by second-year QB Nick Foles in Tampa as veteran Michael Vick rests a hamstring injury. The Eagles are the first team in NFL history with 1,300 net passing yards (1,341) and 900 rushing yards (933) yards through five games. The defense leaves a lot to be desired, however, and gives up nearly as much yardage -- 434 ypg.

The Buccaneers are a mess under Schiano and will try to put the Freeman era behind them. Rookie Mike Glennon will make his second career start against the Birds and lean heavily on RB Doug Martin, who rushed for 128 yards and a TD against the Eagles last season.

PREDICTION: Eagles 23, Bucs 20

Jacksonville (0-5) at Denver (5-0), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

LINE: Broncos by 26 1/2

THE SKINNY: This game features the biggest betting line in the history of the modern NFL with the unbeaten Broncos a nearly four-touchdown favorite over the hapless Jags. Denver has won 16 consecutive regular-season games, the longest- active streak in the NFL, and scored 230 points in 2013, the most by team in NFL history through five games. Peyton Manning is at the epicenter of that and has 20 TD passes, the most ever in the first five games of a season.

Jacksonville's best hope is that the Broncos overlook this game with an eye on their Week 7 matchup with Andrew Luck and Indianapolis. The Jags will go back to veteran Chad Henne at QB after the disappointing Blaine Gabbert's latest injury, a hamstring issue. The Jags also will be without rookie left tackle Luke Joeckel, who suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the team's loss to St. Louis in Week 5.

PREDICTION: Broncos 42, Jags 14

Tennessee (3-2) at Seattle (4-1), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

LINE: Seahawks by 13 1/2

THE SKINNY: It's a good bet the Seahawks bounce back from their first loss of the season because Seattle has yet to lose in the Pacific Northwest since Russell Wilson took over as the team's signal caller. Wilson is 10-0 as a starter at home, completing 128-of-204 passes for 1,848 yards with 22 TDs and only four interceptions, good for a 119.9 passer rating.

The Titans, who have won seven of their past 10 on the road against NFC squads, are without injured starter Jake Locker and must rely on veteran backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.

PREDICTION: Seahawks 31, Titans 17

New Orleans (5-0) at New England (4-1), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

LINE: Patriots by 2 1/2

THE SKINNY: The Saints are the lone unbeaten in the NFC after taking care of Chicago, 26-18, in the Second City a week ago as Drew Brees extended his NFL- record streak to 11 consecutive games with at least 25 completions. Since joining New Orleans in 2006, the superlative Brees leads the NFL with 35,293 passing yards and 256 TDs. He is also 3-0 in his career versus the Patriots, completing 47-of-65 passes for 723 yards with eight TDs with nary an interception for a mind-numbing 148.3 passer rating in those contests.

Brees' favorite target these days, tight end Jimmy Graham, has four consecutive 100-yard receiving games, the longest such streak by a tight end in NFL history.

"Obviously, Jimmy alone is a great player," Brees said. "I think Jimmy would be the first to tell you that having Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and all these other young wide receivers means teams have a lot of other guys to worry about, too. There are a lot of guys who will make plays. So we can beat you a lot of ways."

New England suffered its first loss of the season in Cincinnati in Week 5. But the Patriots hope that returning home will put the team back on the winning track. New England has won 32 of its past 35 regular-season home games, outscoring opponents 1,129-611 during that span for an average margin of victory of 14.8 points per game.

"We just have to keep working," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "We need to move on to New Orleans. That's what we have in front of us now."

PREDICTION: Patriots 26, Saints 24

Arizona (3-2) at San Francisco (3-2), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

LINE: 49ers by 11

THE SKINNY: The Cardinals and 49ers both enter Week 6 deadlocked for second place in the NFC West, one game behind Seattle. Each team recorded victories in Week 5 and have won two games in a row.

Arizona, which leads the NFC in rushing defense (79 yards per game), has not allowed a point in the second half in each of its past two games, outscoring opponents 32-0 after intermission in those contests. The Cardinals had seven sacks and three interceptions against Carolina last weekend as linebackers Daryl Washington, back from suspension, and Karlos Dansby each had two sacks and an interception.

The 49ers are coming off a dominating 34-3 win over Houston. In that one, San Francisco got a 64-yard touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick to Vernon Davis, rushed for two touchdowns (Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon) and got an interception return for a touchdown by Tramaine Brock, a performance that reignited some of the haughtiness the City by the Bay.

"We're the 49ers," Gore said. "When we're on, we can do whatever we want to do."

PREDICTION: 49ers 23, Cardinals 14

Washington (1-3) at Dallas (2-3), Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

LINE: Cowboys by 5 1/2

THE SKINNY: Fresh off a heart-stopping 51-48 setback to high-powered Denver, the Cowboys will renew one of the game's great rivalries when they host RG3 and a Redskins team coming off its bye week.

Tony Romo passed for a franchise-record 506 yards in the track meet against the Broncos and became only the fifth player in NFL history with at least 500 yards and five touchdown passes in a game. Three Cowboys had at least 120 receiving yards and a touchdown -- rookie Terrance Williams (four catches, 151 yards, one touchdown), Dez Bryant (six catches, 141 yards, two touchdowns) and Jason Witten (seven catches, 121 yards, one touchdown), a feat accomplished only one other time by the 1961 Houston Oilers.

"I thought we showed that we were mentally tough and handled the success and adversity during the game," said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. "There are a lot of good things that happened in that game for our team. We didn't do enough to win the game and we have to learn from it."

Last year at Dallas, Griffin, a Texas native, passed for 304 yards and four touchdowns as he led the Redskins to victory. In the Week 17 meeting which clinched the NFC East for Washington, Alfred Morris rushed for a career-high 200 yards and three touchdowns.

"We've got a lot to play for," said 'Skins cornerback DeAngelo Hall. "We've got a chance to seize the opportunity on Sunday night."

PREDICTION: Redskins 24, Cowboys 21

Indianapolis (4-1) at San Diego (2-3), Monday, 8:40 p.m.

LINE: Colts by 1 1/2

THE SKINNY: It was just the latest fourth-quarter comeback for Colts QB Andrew Luck when Indianapolis got the best of previously unbeaten Seattle in Week 5. Luck is now 15-6 as an NFL starter with an amazing nine late-game rallies, the most by any signal caller in his first 21 games since the 1970 merger.

San Diego, on the other hand, is coming off a bad loss in Oakland and will hang its hat on Philip Rivers, who is 4-1 against the Colts in his career.

PREDICTION: Colts 30, Chargers 27