Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder had options for his bye week free time.
Option A: Bounce between Charlottesville, Va., and Palo Alto, Calif., spending time with his striking girlfriend, ESPN's Samantha Steele, who was working the Virginia-North Carolina and Stanford-Oregon games.
Option B: Return to Sutton Bay in South Dakota to hunt pheasant with teammates John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph, Chad Greenway and Cullen Loeffler. (Make a note that Ponder returned from that same hunting expedition in 2011 with about as many recoil bruises as he netted birds killed.)
So where would you have gone?
"That hunting trip didn't go so well for me last time," Ponder said. "I embarrassed myself."
The prospect of quality time with the gal had to be enticing also, right?
"That, too," Ponder said with a grin. "I had better options."
Score one for a young quarterback learning to make smarter decisions.
Hey, good judgment will be imperative over these next six weeks as the Vikings try to stay afloat in the NFC playoff race.
Today, Ponder returns to Soldier Field where he's shouldering exponentially more pressure than he had on the Vikings' last trip there. That came Oct. 16, 2011, when Donovan McNabb threw his last NFL pass and Ponder threw his first.
On that night Ponder was an eager rookie, giddy to make his debut even as the Vikings' season was imploding around him. Twenty starts later, he's now the sometimes promising, sometimes erratic quarterback who has the Twin Cities mixed up.
Doubting detractors see his inconsistency and fear he's Tarvaris Jackson 2.0 -- mobile and humble but ultimately too skittish to be anything more than a serviceable quarterback.
The Ponder believers? They're more willing to endure the performance dips with trust that this kid's intelligence, athleticism and natural leadership ability will all catalyze his ascension.
The most influential spokesmen for the pro-Ponder party are Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier, both of whom publicly voiced unwavering support for Ponder during the bye week.
Spielman operates under "a three-year rule" when compiling a full evaluation of young players. So that in itself provides Ponder peace of mind that he'll be given time to continue growing.
Frazier, meanwhile, has made sure to treat the quarterback's occasional struggles with constant encouragement.
So when outside concern spiked recently after Ponder endured a brutal three-game slump, the head coach offered reminders of the conversations they had the day after the 2011 draft.
Frazier told Ponder then he'd be the quarterback who would bring Minnesota a championship.
"That hasn't changed," Frazier promised Ponder. "Your mind can't ever get off of that. ... Don't let anybody outside ever tell you anything different."
That Frazier-Ponder bond will be important. For one, both realize their long-term futures are closely intertwined. But their rapport has also proven galvanizing.
"To hear Coach Frazier tell me I have nothing to worry about makes a big difference," Ponder said. "Our talks have been all about having fun with this. Going out and slinging it without worrying about making mistakes. It's important to have the confidence that the organization has your back.
"But I also know in the back of my mind there's a big need for me to perform well."
So now comes everything the Vikings and their fans could ask for. A proving ground. Six games with playoff implications. Four on the road -- starting Sunday against one of the league's most imposing defenses.
There's a lot on the line for the Vikings' young quarterback. But Ponder also realizes he can only prove himself by finding ways to excel under such intense pressure.
"Pressure isn't always a bad thing," he said. "This is the part of things that's enjoyable. Having meaningful games in November and December, having a chance to make a run at the playoffs, playing a bunch of really good teams. This is an opportunity to prove how good you really are. There's no reason to be overwhelmed by that."
Dan Wiederer • firstname.lastname@example.org