Seven hundred and 13 days ago, Christian Ponder was an exciting prospect when he stepped into the Vikings huddle at Bank of America Stadium with 9 minutes, 53 seconds left in a tied ballgame with the Panthers.
Having nearly upset the defending Super Bowl champion Packers in his first NFL start the week before, Ponder, the 12th overall draft pick just six months earlier, was now taking on Cam Newton, the No. 1 pick that year.
The Vikings had the ball at their 15-yard line following Newton’s second consecutive three-and-out. After two Adrian Peterson runs gained 3 yards, Ponder faced down a corner blitz with an 11-yard dart to Percy Harvin on third-and-7.
Ponder would throw four more passes on the drive. He would complete four more passes. He would go 5-for-5 to four receivers for 63 yards and three first downs on what would become a 13-play, 72-yard winning march. When Ryan Longwell kicked the go-ahead field goal with 2:47 left, Ponder was no longer a prospect. He was the man for a franchise that was begging for a young franchise quarterback.
“He just plays with a lot of calm confidence,” coach Leslie Frazier said that day. “It’s uncanny.”
Ponder, now 713 days older, was asked about that game this week. The Vikings and the Panthers meet Sunday for the first time since that game. Only this time, the game is at Mall of America Field and Ponder’s future with the Vikings appears to be almost as far behind him as Donovan McNabb’s was 713 days ago.
“I guess you could say the circumstances this time are a little different,” said Ponder, forcing a smile born from the disappointment he has experienced the past two weeks. “You can say some of the dynamics around here have changed with Josh [Freeman] being brought in and everything.”
For the first time since he backed up McNabb at Chicago in Week 6 of the 2011 season, Ponder will be a healthy scratch on Sunday. The rib he fractured against the Browns on Sept. 29 has healed, but former backup Matt Cassel has kept the starting job at least temporarily because of his rhythmic, turnover-free performance in a 34-27 win over the Steelers in London two weeks ago.
Frazier admitted the difficulties and long-term ramifications of changing quarterbacks, but the higher priority is avoiding a 1-4 start for the second time in three seasons. The Panthers also are 1-3 and trying to avoid a third 1-4 start in Newton’s three seasons there.
What happens at quarterback next week won’t begin to unfold until Monday morning, Frazier said. The team will start off by evaluating Cassel’s performance. If he comes up short, the Vikings will use at least part of the week to determine whether Freeman, the former Buccaneers first-round pick who was signed on Monday, has learned enough of the offense to start the following Monday night on the road against the Giants.
As for Ponder, well, he is now Door No. 3 in the Vikings’ selection order. He said he doesn’t want to be traded and the Vikings wouldn’t get much in return, but no one has ruled it out as the Oct. 29 deadline nears.
Revisiting draft day 2011
The 2011 NFL draft opened with six quarterbacks taken in the first 36 picks. After Newton, Tennessee took Jake Locker at No. 8, Jacksonville traded up six spots to grab Blaine Gabbert at No. 10 and the Vikings picked Ponder at No. 12. Twenty-two picks passed before Cincinnati and San Francisco took Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick at Nos. 35 and 36, respectively.
Like a lot of teams, the Vikings saw potential in some of the quarterbacks and holes in all of them. Even Newton, the slam-dunk No. 1 selection, was a one-year major college starter with character concerns.
For Locker, the issue was accuracy. For Gabbert, it was his touch passes and leadership skills. For Ponder, it was durability and arm strength. For Dalton, it was size (6-2, 215 pounds) and arm strength. For Kaepernick, he, like Newton, was difficult to project because he was a read-option, spread-offense quarterback entering the NFL a year before teams started proving that traditional college style of offense could work in the NFL.
The Vikings liked Newton, Locker and Ponder, although it’s still unclear outside of the organization whether they would have taken Locker had he been on the board. They weren’t interested in Gabbert and, like the rest of the league at the time, they didn’t consider Dalton and Kaepernick as candidates for the top half of the first round.
“I don’t know what other teams thought or what other teams’ evaluations were,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. “But we felt very strongly when we did draft Christian. And he’s shown signs of [being worth] that. We’ll see how all this unfolds as we go forward.”
None of the four quarterbacks taken in the first round in 2011 is free from criticism. Ironically, Ponder is the only one to have helped his team to a playoff berth.
Ponder, 12-17 with a 59.2 completion percentage and a 75.8 passer rating, helped the Vikings reach 10 wins and a wild-card playoff berth a year ago. But the Vikings’ actions this week speak for themselves about the team’s frustration level with Ponder’s inconsistency.
Gabbert, 5-22 with a 53.3 completion percentage and a 66.4 passer rating, will miss his third game of the season because of injury when the Jaguars face the Broncos on Sunday. Gabbert is completing 49 percent of his passes with a touchdown and seven picks for the winless Jaguars.
Locker, 7-8 with a 57.0 completion percentage and an 83.0 passer rating, sat as a rookie, went 4-7 in 2012 and was completing 62 percent of his passes with six touchdowns, no interceptions and a 3-1 record when he suffered a hip injury this season.
Then there’s Newton, whose record-breaking individual numbers have not equated to team success. The physically gifted 6-5, 248-pounder enters Sunday’s game as the only player in NFL history with at least 8,000 yards passing (8,805), 40 passing touchdowns (46), 1,000 rushing yards (1,570) and 20 rushing touchdowns (23). But his record as a starter is 14-21.
Is Cam The Man?
For all the excitement Newton generates, Carolina fans still aren’t sold that he is their quarterback of the future. This has been a particularly rough week with Newton coming off a 22-6 loss to Arizona in a game that saw him turn the ball over four times and get sacked seven times while posting a 47.8 passer rating.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera defends Newton, saying he is progressing at a rate that’s commensurate with having been a read-option college quarterback. He also mentions Newton’s numerous NFL records, including the first 4,000-yard passing season for a rookie and the highest two-year passing total (7,920).
“It’s not like Cam hasn’t had success,” Rivera said. “For whatever reason, nobody wants to talk about it, but [his first two years were] better than the first two years that any quarterback has had.”
It doesn’t help Newton that the teams that took quarterbacks in the second round have fared much better. Dalton is 22-15 in the regular season and has led the Bengals to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in a non-strike season. Kaepernick took Alex Smith’s job a year ago, got super hot and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
“I haven’t been [to the playoffs], so obviously it’s irking me that the Panthers haven’t been there,” Newton said. “But when I see those other guys, I don’t hate on them off the mere fact that they [made it to the playoffs]. It just makes me want to work harder and push a little bit more to get my team there.”
Newton was asked what he would do if the Panthers signed another first-round pick the way the Vikings did.
“I don’t know, man,” he said. “It hasn’t happened and I haven’t been put in that situation, and hopefully I don’t.”
It also doesn’t help the quarterback class of 2011 that the quarterback class of 2012 was an instant success. Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick, broke Newton’s rookie passing record while also leading the Colts from a 2-14 season to an 11-5 mark and a stunning playoff berth. Robert Griffin III, the second overall pick, executed the read-option expertly while leading the Redskins from 5-11 to 10-6 and a division title. And Russell Wilson, a third-round pick, led Seattle from 7-9 to 11-5 and a playoff berth.
“There is a lot of pressure on quarterbacks to win right away,” Ponder said. “But you see the quarterbacks that come in and do it. So it’s doable, it’s possible.
“The NFL is a business. And the business is winning. If you’re not winning, like any other business, it’s time to figure something else out. I understand that.”
Unfortunately for Ponder, he had that reinforced the hard way this week.