Well folks, it seems that the recent voluntary mini-camp organized by rookie quarterback, Christian Ponder, has created quite a fire storm among the members of this site. Some have expressed their opinions that Ponder over stepped his bounds in trying to put the thing together, then embarassed the veterans who failed to appear by making clumsy excuses for them. The majority of the comments I have read, however, were more favorable, with many stating their appreciation for Ponder stepping forward and taking on a leadership role, as difficult as that may have been under the circumstances of the lockout. Many have also stated their dismay and frustration with the Viking veterans who, after initially indicating their intention to attend the workouts, failed to show. I fell into that later category, and questioned why the veterans weren't willing to gather and work together in the same manner as the Saints, Patriots, Colts, Packers and Rams were doing. When I read KJSegall's article, "The Viking Veterans Are So Good, They Don't Need To Practice", however, I gave it more thought, and I am no longer troubled by the way this played out. In that article, KJ mentions that Ponder has tried to cover for the no-shows by saying the whole thing was merely the result of his own "bad planning". Reading that was a deja vu moment for me --- I had seen Ponder do this sort of thing before.
Early in his career at Florida State, Christian Ponder was largely overlooked by the FSU coaching staff. He was considered by Bobby Bowden and most of the coaches to be a third string player, and it was expected that he would remain at that level. It was new offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting, Jimbo Fisher, who saw something special in Ponder and began lobbying Bowden for playing time for him. Bowden gave in, and Ponder starting getting some game time towards the end of the 2008 season. He played well in those games, and by the start of the next season, he had assumed the position of FSU's starting quarterback.
Florida State's first game of the 2009 season was against the rival Miami Hurricanes. The game received much attention because both programs appeared to be on the verge of regaining their former national prominence. It was Ponder's first game on the national stage, and he put on quite a performance, leading multiple, well orchestrated scoring drives. As with most games in this series, the score see-sawed back and forth, as FSU's defense (which ultimately ended the year ranked among the worst in the country) gave up quick strike touchdowns to the Canes. Miami scored a late touchdown, and took the lead 38 to 34. With minutes left in the game, Ponder led the Seminoles down the field into scoring position. With time expiring, he hit a receiver in the end zone for what should have been the winning touchdown, only to have the ball dropped for an incompletion.
In the post-game interviews, Ponder showed no anger or frustration over the dropped ball. It would have been understandable if, given the fact that he had had such an up-hill struggle to become the starter, he had said something to protect his own image like "Well, I did my best in this game, and we would have won if that last pass would have been caught", but he did no such thing. He avoided any questions about the incompletion, and instead took the responsibility for the loss upon himself, making statements like "I need to do more", and "I need to do a better job of putting this team in a position to win". I believe Ponder knew that as the leader of that team, he could not, and would not, allow that receiver to become the fall guy for the loss. Allowing the wrath of the disappointed Noles fans to become focused on the receiver would accomplish nothing, might possibly destroy the confidence of one of the members of his receiving corps., and would only damage the team's unity. Ponder took the high road, and was willing to shoulder the blame in order allow the team to move forward in a positive manner.
Now, it's two years later, and there is another situation in which some may perceive of Ponder's teammates as having let him down. But I think that perception may be more the result of our emotions, as fans, getting the better of what we know to be the facts and what we logically understand about them. First, and foremost, these workouts were purely voluntary. No one had to be there, and they only came about because Ponder was trying to do the best he could to get the team moving towards a successful new season. Cynics may scoff that he was looking out for his own interests in trying to improve himself and learn the playbook, work on passing drills, etc., and to some extent, they would be right. In a team game, however, the interests of the each player merges with those of the rest of the team and become one. If Ponder, Joe Webb, Rhett Bomar, Greg Camarillo, and the others who did attend, were there trying to hone their skills and become the best player at their position on the Vikings, I scarcely think anyone should fault them for that. As for the players who did not show, I think that there are ample reasons for why they would decline to participate.
If the 2010 season brought shock and dismay to the Viking faithful, think what a hellish experience it must have been to be inside that locker room. Every week of the season saw the Viking players beset with one crisis or another, and in some weeks, there were two or three catastrophies boiling over simultaneously. And it didn't let up. It just continued until the roof fell in (literally) and they were kicked out into the snow like homeless orphans (again, literally). Given that background, is it any wonder some of the Viking veterans might lack enthusiasm for a new season? Add to that the fact that the players are now engaged in an increasingly bitter labor dispute, and they have even less reason to be willing to go out and push themselves to get into playing shape for a season that might not happen.
Another issue that has been commented upon is that the players are not protected if they suffer a major injury while participating in a voluntary event like the workouts at IMG. I don't buy that theory as a reason for the non-attendances. There is insurance that is available for such things, and in fact, ESPN reported that Drew Brees personally paid for that type of coverage for the Saints' workouts. Be that as it may, one would have to admit that it would be adding insult to injury to be a veteran player and have to dig into your own pocket to pay for insurance coverage so you could workout in order to provide the owners and the NFL with the best possible product if, and when, they decide to allow you to return to work. I believe that it is these types of resentments that caused the veterans to effectively say as a group, "Sorry Christian, no offense, but we'll just sit this one out." Ponder is a smart kid. I'm sure he is well aware of all of these sentiments, and has no problem with anyone doing what they feel is best for themself. I certainly don't think that he is going to bear any grudges, or turn up an opportunity to throw to an open Percy Harvin or Sidny Rice or shun any of his teammates because they didn't come to Florida to workout with him. Ponder will always put the best interests of the Minnesota Vikings first and foremost.
I would be willing to bet that in the end, Christian Ponder will ignore any negatives about the mini-camp, and instead will focus on the good things that came out of it. He, Webb, Bomar and the rest bonded together and began to develop team chemistry. The quarterbacks now say they know half of the new offense and its terminology, another good thing. Perhaps more importantly, they all appeared in the videos to be enjoying each other's company, and I believe them when this inexperienced group of quarterbacks say that they will have one another's backs during the season.
The last thing that we, as Vikings fans, should be doing is creating a schism between these players where none really exists. I have seen absolutely nothing to indicate that Ponder has any problem with who did, or did not, attend the workouts. I would hate for any of the veterans to hear rumors based upon comments on websites such as this one, that there are hard feelings on anyone's part, or that anyone is accusing them of being slackers, because that simply is not the case. Look, in 2009, Christian Ponder stood up and was willing to take the flack in order to protect one of his receivers and the unity of the Florida State football team. Now, in 2011, he's again stepping forward trying to deflect any criticisms that might be thrown at some guys whom he invited to a workout camp, who had absolutely no obligation to be there, and in fact, had plenty of justification for not going. Whether you like him or not, Ponder is a natural leader, with a pretty good internal compass. I think we should all just trust his instincts on this matter.