WASHINGTON - Last Christmas Eve near the nation's capital, Christian Ponder dropped back to pass and went down in a crowd, the last blow coming from Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher. Ponder's neck and head twisted to the right as his body fell to the left.
A concussion. One play later, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback, in his ninth NFL start, was gone from the game.
Last week, only a few yards away from that same spot, another rookie quarterback took a shot to the head. Robert Griffin III, in his fifth pro start, was trying to make too much out of a third-down scramble when he was rattled by Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Griffin's day was over, and fans collectively held their breath as he lay face down on the turf for those few seconds.
Ponder feels he's learned from the experience. Here's hoping Griffin does, too.
"This game is a lot different than college, and the hits hurt a lot worse." Ponder said. "Obviously, I have to keep doing a better job of protecting myself. I think I'm getting smarter about it and learning the proper way to do it."
Ponder and the Vikings return Sunday as Minnesota (4-1) visits the Redskins for the third straight year. In 2010, midseason replacement Leslie Frazier claimed his first NFL coaching victory. In 2011, the Vikings won again, despite the double whammy of injuries to Adrian Peterson (torn ACL in his left knee) and Ponder on back-to-back plays.
Those Vikings team weren't very good. This one is, at least so far. Ponder is completing 69 percent of his passes. Peterson rehabbed amazingly fast. Frazier has a team that can run well and stop the run even better.
The Redskins (2-3), meanwhile, still haven't turned the corner. They've lost eight straight at home. They can't defend the pass. Their only wins this season came against teams whose records are a combined 2-7. This year is all about Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
This week, in particular, has been all about his head.
Griffin passed the NFL-mandated post-concussion battery of tests early in the week and was back on the practice field Wednesday. Barring a setback, he is expected to play Sunday, a little bit older and wiser.
"Like coach said, it is a learning experience for me," Griffin said. "You appreciate things a lot more after something happens that can — not scare you — but definitely make you aware of things. My brain, my head, my future outside of football, my life is more important than trying to get that touchdown on third-and-4 on the goal line.
"I just have to know when to run out of bounds and just know that what happens to me affects a lot of people. You just have to take that approach to it and know if I can run out of bounds, run out of bounds. If I can slide, just slide. But if you feel like you can make the play, go make that play. Things like that hit don't happen all the time and they haven't happened all the time for me. I'll be smart about it."
He's already trying. During Wednesday's workout, he ended one play by running out of bounds and imitating a slide. His teammates cheered.
While Griffin is learning to slide, Ponder has been learning to dive. During training camp, at the urging of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, Ponder started going head-first at the end of some scrambles rather than the traditional feet-first approach. Musgrave is convinced that sliding exposes the quarterback to a greater risk of injury than diving, even if it looks and feels a bit counterintuitive.
"You kind of have a feel for it. It all comes back to timing," Ponder said during camp. "You've got to have enough room where you can get down safely. You don't want to get too close to those guys. Otherwise they are going to hit you."
Ponder hasn't given up the slide. He went feet-first last week on a play against the Tennessee Titans, but he started too late and took a hit. Officials initially threw a flag on the defender but then picked it up.
"I know that I have a target on my back and I'm going to take as many licks as possible, but I'm not too worried about it," Ponder said. "I think you almost try to give them your back more so than your helmet. I don't know. I'm sure I'll get popped pretty good at one point."
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