Looking more like a guy gunning for Adrian Peterson's job than Donovan McNabb's, Christian Ponder ran wild for three first downs and 30 yards before getting off the first pass attempt in his Mall of America Field starting debut Thursday night.
The rookie left Houston tacklers whiffing and strewn about the fake grass as he made like a modern-day Fran Tarkenton in a 28-0 victory that wrapped up the Vikings' preseason at 2-2. Based on body language, the Texans had no idea the passer had feet that fast.
"Yeah, I think people see I'm white and they think I'm slow," Ponder said. "I think definitely one of my positives is my feet and buying extra time and getting outside the pocket when things break down."
Ponder looked unsure in the pocket and shaky throwing the ball early on. But he eventually calmed down enough to help himself in his battle with Joe Webb for the No. 2 job behind McNabb.
"He had total command of our offense," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He made plays with his legs as well as his arm. I think we have some hope in Christian."
Ponder's highlight was an eight-play, 86-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. He he ran once for 15 yards and completed four of four passes for 33 yards to three different targets, including an 11-yarder to Jaymar Johnson on third-and-9 and a 5-yarder over the middle for the first touchdown to his friend and fellow rookie, Kyle Rudolph.
"[Rudolph] was my second progression [option]," Ponder said. "I think a corner was on him, but he boxed him out and I threw it low. It was pretty cool that he was my first touchdown pass."
That gave the Vikings a 7-0 lead at the 6-minute, 29-second mark of the second quarter. Ponder would tack on another touchdown drive in the third quarter -- going 2-for-3, including an 18-yard pass on third-and-6 -- before being relieved by Joe Webb at the 8:02 mark of the third quarter.
Ponder completed 10 of 17 passes for 83 yards, no turnovers and a 91.1 passer rating. He also ran eight times for 61 yards (7.6).
Webb directed two touchdown drives by completing five of six passes for 43 yards, no turnovers and a 96.5 passer rating. He ran only once for 12 yards.
Caleb King, who joined the Vikings two weeks ago, made his preseason debut and ran 19 times for 62 yards and two touchdowns. He isn't expected to make the team, but he is a candidate for the practice squad.
The Texans rested their starters. The Vikings played only three starters.
Right guard Anthony Herrera started his second game after coming off major knee surgery nine months ago. Nose tackle Remi Ayodele started because his conditioning isn't where it should be heading into next week's season opener at San Diego. And in the final competition for the starting strong safety position, Tyrell Johnson started and Jamarca Sanford relieved him.
Sanford appeared to be ahead of Johnson heading into the game, although defensive coordinator Fred Pagac said it was too close to call. Johnson didn't help himself when an overthrown pass by Matt Leinart bounced off his hands for an incompletion in the first quarter.
Frazier officially named Herrera his starting right guard Thursday, but he said the coaches will will be discussing all the other personnel moves Friday. The team needs to cut 27 players to reach 53 by 5 p.m. Saturday.
Ponder definitely helped his chances to win the No. 2 job. But if he's going to play the way he did on Thursday night, the Vikings have to be concerned about his health if he gets into a game.
"You don't want him out there running too much, but you got to let him play," Frazier said. "He has the athletic ability to make plays outside the pocket. You don't want to take that away from him, but in our league when your quarterback is on the run, it does make you hold your breath sometimes."
Especially when he dives headfirst rather than slides.
"Yeah," Frazier said. "He's going to have to learn how to slide."
With Ponder on the field, the Vikings were 3-for-7 on third down. Ponder converted one of the third downs with his legs and two with his arm. The last conversion via the pass set up Alexander Robinson's 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Say one thing about the kid: He's fearless.
Less than four minutes into his starting debut, he had run for 10 yards on second-and-6, 11 yards on second-and-9 and 9 yards on third-and-3.
"We were teasing him on the sideline," Frazier said. "He showed shades of Adrian out there a few times."
Mark Craig • firstname.lastname@example.org