It's the first week of June, and since I haven't poked the proverbial bear in a while, I'm going to take the opportunity to do so with this post.
Yep, it's time to talk about the Minnesota Vikings quarterback situation. In this case, however, Joe Webb is nowhere in sight. This makes me (and, no doubt, the rest of the admin staff) pretty happy. Less kicking and screaming that way, it appears.
No, according to the folks at ESPN, our own Christian Ponder is one of twelve NFL quarterbacks that will be "facing a referendum" this coming season, which I think is something that all of us already knew. They have the twelve signal callers grouped into three different categories. There's the "big money club," with quarterbacks that are already well paid seeing if they'll continue to be that after this season. There's the "fit" club, which consists of quarterbacks that are going to new teams and/or new "systems." And then there's the group that Ponder is a part of, along with Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker and Oakland Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn. . .the "upside" club.
Sounds pretty good already. At least they admit he has upside. . .getting that admission is like pulling teeth in most places. So what do they have to say about him?
On one hand, you can see Ponder as a young, improving QB for a franchise that made big strides in 2012 -- he ranked a respectable No. 17 in QBR. On the other hand, you can see Ponder as a liability, a QB who hasn't yet been a threat to defenses with his arm even as he was surrounded by good blocking while playing against defenses mostly terrified of the guy he was handing the ball off to. In either case, Ponder enters a season in which a step forward in performance will be seen as vindication of his No. 12 overall draft spot in 2011, or an indictment of it.
Again, not much that we don't already know. While the past couple of seasons have gone by with the ability to use the excuse that Ponder is still young or that his wide receiver corps was one step down from "atrocious," this year the excuses have pretty much been eliminated.
Gone are the days where the offensive line was considered a liability. Center John Sullivan is, quite frankly, the best in the league at his position, and there are few tackle tandems better than the pairing of Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt. Sure, the guards are a bit suspect, but maybe one of the two rookies the Vikings have brought in (Jeff Baca or Travis Bond) can do something to remedy that. Overall, however, the Vikings' offensive line is on the verge of being an upper echelon unit, if they aren't already there.
Likewise, the receiving corps. . .while still not great. . .doesn't appear to be nearly the liability that it was the past two seasons. Yes, Percy Harvin is gone, but while newly-acquired Greg Jennings might not be as flashy as Harvin, Harvin isn't remotely in Jennings' class when it comes to running routes and being where he's supposed to be. Rest assured, if the play design says that Jennings is supposed to be at X spot on 3rd and 7, that's exactly where he's going to be. A fully healthy Jerome Simpson, a developing Jarius Wright, and the dynamic rookie Cordarrelle Patterson appear to have this group significantly ahead of where they were last year at this time.
Also, Adrian Peterson. Seriously, what else do I have to say there?
So now, it all rests on Ponder's shoulders. With Matt Cassel sitting behind him this year and leading a team coming off of a playoff season in 2012, Ponder has to realize that coach Leslie Frazier's leash is going to be significantly shorter with him than it was last season, when Ponder played virtually every snap despite a horrible stretch in the middle of the season. Can he answer the challenge?
Well, he certainly can if his final game of the year was any indication. Specifically, the final quarter.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Vikings held a 27-24 lead, and the Packers had the ball at midfield. After a nice stand by the Minnesota defense, the Packer settled for a 40-yard Mason Crosby field goal to tie the score at 27. The Vikings took over at their own 27-yard line, and what was the first play out of the chute on the ensuing drive?
Ponder. Jarius Wright. 65 yards. Longest pass play of the Vikings' season at a spot where they needed it most. He followed that up a few plays later by threading the needle to Michael Jenkins for a 3-yard touchdown to put the Vikings back in the lead, 34-27.
The Packers once again moved down the field and tied the game at 34 on a touchdown pass from Rodgers to Jordy Nelson. The Vikings got the ball back with 2:54 on the clock, and at the two-minute warning faced a 3rd and 11 from their own 27. Biggest play of Ponder's NFL career, and quite possibly of his football life to that point. So, what happened?
Ponder. Jenkins. 25 yards and a first down. And I don't want to hear how Green Bay only rushed three. . .that's Dom Capers' damn fault, not Christian Ponder's. Ponder read the play perfectly, executed a perfect pump fake to freeze the cornerback and allow Jenkins to find the soft spot behind him in the zone and catch a perfectly thrown ball for the huge gain.
Keep that in mind, folks. . .the Vikings' single-biggest play of the entire 2012 season came not from Adrian Peterson, but from Christian Ponder and Michael Jenkins. Because, let's face it. . .since we all know Vikings' history, if the Vikings don't get that first down, they punt the ball away, Green Bay goes down and scores, and the season comes to an end. We've all seen it before.
In the fourth quarter of the biggest game of the year, Christian Ponder led this team to victory. He wasn't carried there by the NFL MVP. . .he did a pretty significant amount of heavy lifting in that final game, and that final quarter, as well.
That's why I think Christian Ponder is going to pass his "referendum" this year with flying colors. He has the ability, he has a greater assortment of weapons around him, and he has the experience. And he knows that if he doesn't get the job done in 2013, there's a pretty good chance that he won't get the opportunity in 2014. Honestly, more and more of the reason that I pull for Ponder is the overwhelming number of people. . .both in the Vikings' own fan base and outside of it. . .that are just waiting for Ponder to fail. Or, even dumber still, have deemed that he already has.
Yes, Christian Ponder isn't throwing for 5,000 yards or 40 touchdowns or whatever else. And in an offense centered around the NFL's best player in Adrian Peterson, he's not going to. But, like it or not, he has shown the ability to make the plays when necessary, and he showed that in the biggest game the Vikings have played since the 2009 NFC Championship Game.
It's all up to Christian Ponder to prove that he belongs in 2013. Personally, I think that by the time this season is finished, there will be exactly zero quarterback debate in Minnesota going into 2014.