The Christian Ponder era in Minnesota comes to an end, likely with little fanfare, next weekend.
The Vikings’ 2011 first-round pick, barring an injury to starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, will only set foot on the field at TCF Bank Stadium in pregame warmups and maybe during the postgame handshakes on Dec. 28.
He will walk into the locker room, remove his No. 7 jersey one last time, maybe share a few laughs with teammates. He then will head home with his wife and newborn daughter to begin contemplating his next move.
“I’m excited about the opportunities, but it’s sad to leave a place where I made a lot of friends and have been comfortable with my surroundings,” Ponder said. “This is where I’ve called home the past four years. But I am looking forward to a fresh start and hopefully rejuvenating my career.”
Ponder says he is thankful for his time with the Vikings, that in his four years in Minnesota he grew as both a person and a player.
But while he has matured as a man since first walking in the door at Winter Park as a wide-eyed 22-year-old, he was unable to develop into the franchise quarterback the Vikings believed he could become when they selected him 12th overall in 2011.
The Vikings effectively gave up on Ponder last offseason, moving on to their next quarterback of the future by using a first-round pick on Teddy Bridgewater. And they re-signed veteran quarterback Matt Cassel to lead the huddle until they were certain that the rookie was ready, in part because they feel now that they went to Ponder too soon in 2011.
Being diplomatic, Ponder wouldn’t rule out a return to the Vikings if that was the best opportunity. But he is rightfully resigned to playing elsewhere next season.
After all, Bridgewater has impressed since taking over for the injured Cassel in Week 3 and the Vikings will build around him this offseason.
And while Cassel is slated to make $4.75 million in the final season of his two-year contract, which would make him one of the NFL’s highest-paid backups, the Vikings can afford that luxury given that Bridgewater is on a team-friendly rookie contract.
Ponder is the odd man out, but he “absolutely” believes he is still capable of being a quality starter in the league.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner thinks so, too.
“I think he’s got all of the things you need physically. I think he was thrown in this situation in terms of being the guy, and sometimes guys it takes a little longer to grow into it,” Turner said, mentioning Rich Gannon, the former Vikings quarterback who blossomed into an MVP passer late in his career.
“I’m saying that he’s too talented to say that he can’t be a starting guy.”
Ponder missed an opportunity to make an impression to future employers in Week 5, when a sprained ankle for Bridgewater forced the Vikings to start Ponder against the Packers on a short week. Ponder threw two interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown, as the Vikings got steamrollered by the Packers, 42-10.
“They got up big early and having two interceptions on back-to-back drives in the second quarter, it’s frustrating,” Ponder said. “I wish I could have played better. It was very disappointing.”
That has been Ponder’s only action during the regular season, but he feels he has learned a lot about offensive schemes and quarterback play from Turner.
And instead of sulking because of his situation, he brought a good attitude into the meeting room with Cassel and Bridgewater, whom he said “could have come in with this big ego” but has been “very humble.”
“As a competitor, you want to be the guy that’s out there,” Ponder said. “I obviously have a lot of playing experience here, and I came in last year and felt like this was my team. Things change so quickly in the NFL. They obviously have a great player in Teddy right now, and he’s only going to continue to get better. He deserves to be out there.”
Ponder sheepishly joked about how he carried himself when he was a hot-shot first-round pick out of Florida State, who happened to also look the part of a franchise QB with his leading-man looks.
“I remember coming in, the first thing I bought was a Porsche really got into thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a first-round pick,’ ” Ponder said. “I still worked hard but I was just caught up in that lifestyle. … My humility wasn’t at a place where it should have been. I feel like now, especially getting married and having a child and going through my experiences, I’ve grown up a lot these past few years.”
A night to remember
Ponder survived that three-win season and was steady as Adrian Peterson carried the team into the playoffs in 2012. While critics said that all he did that season was hand the ball to his record-setting running back, Ponder threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns in the season finale as the Vikings beat the Packers to make the postseason.
A week later, he could not play in the playoff loss because of an injury. And within a year, he would lose his job to Cassel. But celebrating with his teammates that December night after the Vikings made the playoffs was the highlight of an NFL career he hopes is far from over.
“I just remember that night being so fun and going out there and enjoying it,” Ponder said. “Anytime you make the playoffs in this league, it’s hard to do. It’s hard to win 10 games. It was a fun season, so I enjoyed it. I’ve had a lot of fun moments, fun games, and I’ll always remember my time here.”