In the week that's passed since the Vikings' season-ending Wild Card defeat at Green Bay, a disturbing – but predictable – phenomenon has been on display in the world of social media: the trashing of Christian Ponder's reputation for having the audacity to miss a playoff game due to an injury to his throwing arm.
Actually, the criticism of Ponder started almost immediately after the Vikings announced he would not be active for Saturday's game. His deactivation was a surprising development, no doubt, thanks mostly to Vikings officials and Ponder himself downplaying the seriousness of his triceps injury throughout the week. A few local scribes wondered if Leslie Frazier's leaving the door slightly open to the possibility of Ponder not playing was just a case of Belichickian subterfuge designed to force the Packers to prepare for both Ponder and Joe Webb. But until word of Ponder's truncated pregame warmup trickled out, no one in their right mind thought he would actually miss the game.
Thus, when Webb was named as the starter 90 minutes before the game, Twitter exploded with outrage over Ponder's supposed lack of heart. Just one example: former Wild star Wes Walz expressed his shock at the news and ended his tweet with "#suckitup" in a hashtag. And that was one of the nicer critiques of Ponder's backbone.
Even after the game, when reporters noted that Ponder could barely lift his right arm to put his shirt on and Frazier said Ponder couldn't make the throws necessary to give the Vikings a chance to win the game, the tide of invective was not stemmed. If anything, the tone of the Internet tough guys hardened when gory photos of Ponder's swollen, discolored arm were made public on Monday.
Now, some amount of mudslinging is to be expected on the Internet, where critics can remain anonymous as they tear down the celebrities in their midst. But even on sites that require Facebook logins to post – or on Facebook itself – a shocking number of Vikings "fans" attached their name to commentary that revealed a pretty distorted view of reality, or at least a fundamental misunderstanding of the physical conditions required to play quarterback in an NFL game.
Most of the Ponder criticism can be broken down into five basic (and faulty) arguments.
1. Brett Favre would have sucked it up and played through that injury. Yes, Brett Favre started a remarkable 297 consecutive games and probably played through a number of injuries that would have sidelined any other player. But that's what makes this comparison so specious. Didn't we (and by "we" I mean fans and the media, especially certain members of the national media) just spend the last 20 years gushing about Favre's super-human strength and healing powers? Didn't we inflate the man's image until it was basically accepted that he was a god-like figure walking among us mere mortals? And we expect Christian Ponder – a player that most Vikings fans spent the first three months of the season trying to run out of town based on his dismal performance – to measure up to the Great Favre? (Oh, and not for nothing, but Favre did suffer a similar injury in 2008 with the Jets. He "sucked it up" and played through it, and the Jets lost four of their last five games as Favre threw two touchdown passes and nine interceptions in that stretch. Just sayin'.)
2. RGIII played through a much worse injury on Sunday. He sure did. And how did that turn out? Oh yeah. Not only did the Redskins blow a 14-0 lead after Griffin reinjured his knee in the first quarter and spent the remainder of the game hobbling around the field like the reincarnation of Billy Kilmer, but the rookie quarterback needed reconstructive surgery this week after his ACL and LCL finally gave out in the fourth quarter. The Redskins have a quality backup in Kirk Cousins, who led them to a comeback win over the playoff-bound Ravens and a blowout victory at Cleveland in December, but by the time Mike Shanahan turned the offense over to him, it was too late. So yes, RGIII played through a much worse injury on Sunday, and it cost his team a chance to win a playoff game and jeopardized his 2013 season.
3. Ponder needs to learn how to stay healthy. I'm not sure how one trains one's body to avoid injuries like the one that knocked Ponder out of Saturday's game. He hurt his triceps when Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett crashed into his right arm helmet-first as he was trying to complete a pass. If Ponder had curled up into the fetal position and taken the sack to protect his body, the same Internet tough guys would have called him "soft" and "gutless" and a bunch of other names we can't use on a family website. Injuries are what you call an occupational hazard when you play quarterback in the NFL. Sometimes they're unavoidable, no matter how well you've "learned" how to stay healthy.
4. They could have shot him up with pain-killers and sent him out there. No, they couldn't have. I'm not sure why this point wasn't made more clearly in the postgame breakdowns, but the issue was never Ponder's pain tolerance. It was all about what his body was capable of doing on Saturday afternoon and evening. All the injections in the world wouldn't have reduced the swelling in his arm, which hampered his range of motion and prevented him from getting any power behind his throws. You can't fire an 18-yard sideline route to Jarius Wright when you can't raise your arm above your chin.
5. I would have gone to work with a bruised elbow. This one's my personal favorite. Yes, Internet Tough Guy (or Gal), I'm sure you would have shown up for your job at the law firm or factory or McDonald's with a similar injury. I would have too. Because most of us can figure out a way to do our jobs without having to raise our right arm above our shoulder. An NFL quarterback doesn't have that luxury. It's right there on the NFL quarterback application for employment: 1. Can you raise your throwing arm above your shoulder? If the answer to that question is "no," then you can't be an NFL quarterback. Even if you have a physically taxing job, you can probably make accommodations for a similar injury and still perform your duties at a slower pace. It should go without saying that the same does not apply for an NFL quarterback.
In the end, I'm guessing most of the Ponder-based angst stems from fans who are upset that the Vikings laid an egg in the playoffs and wanted somebody to be mad at. They needed to lash out because the thought of spending a week (or an entire offseason) alongside smug Packers fans after that loss is really hard to stomach. Maybe they were in the "play Joe Webb" camp all season and were embarrassed to be proven so wrong. Or they were upset with the Vikings' brain trust for having no legitimate backup quarterback to turn to when Ponder went down. So they found themselves a convenient scapegoat – the pretty-boy No. 1 draft pick who earns millions of dollars, married the blonde bombshell sideline reporter, and showed just barely enough improvement in his second season (in the last four games of his second season, actually) to tease the Vikings into running him out there again in 2013.
But I can say this with complete confidence: if Ponder had "sucked it up" and tried to play through the injury, only to heave a dying quail on the first possession that Charles Woodson picked off and returned for a touchdown, these same Internet tough guys would have been screaming at Ponder for being selfish, for putting himself ahead of his team, for desperately trying to hang onto his job when everybody knows that Joe Webb gives the Vikings the best chance to win.
Look, I'm not saying Ponder is untouchable or should be immune from any criticism. Lord knows he provided plenty of ammunition this year – his performance in the first Lambeau game alone should give the front office night sweats this entire offseason, and rushing into a marriage with two weeks left in the season and a playoff berth at stake was certainly … odd.
But if you're going to attack the guy via social media, do it for the right reasons. His "toughness," "heart" or "dedication" are not among them.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
I'll admit, I've been slow to hop on the anti-Christian Ponder bandwagon. Not that I've loved what I've seen from him on the field, but I just think it's unreasonable to expect the Vikings to already give up on their No. 1 draft pick from 2011. True, the timetable for young quarterbacks has accelerated and expectations are higher, thanks to the rookie-year success of Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Heck, even the rare flashes of competence that Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill have shown this year are a step up from most of Ponder's performances.
My main argument for supporting Ponder is that you'll never know what he's capable of until he's throwing to a full slate of NFL-caliber receivers. I even took to Twitter after the Bears debacle two weeks ago – when Jerome Simpson put on a pass-dropping clinic, and Jarius Wright and Stephen Burton were quick studies – and said dumping Ponder now would be akin to the Twins firing pitching coach Rick Anderson because he couldn't turn Esmerling Vasquez and Luis Perdomo into Cy Young winners.
Then the Vikings went to Green Bay. Ponder absolutely gave away a winnable game with two horrendous decisions/throws, and did nothing on the plus side to overcome those errors. He was truly, spectacularly horrible, and the fact that the coaching staff didn't replace him with Joe Webb should tell you all you need to know about Webb's stock within the organization. Had the Vikings won that game, they'd be tied with the Packers at 7-5, one game behind the Bears in the NFC North, and their unlikely playoff bid wouldn't be on life support.
When Leslie Frazier took over full-time in 2011, it looked like he had a major rebuilding project on his hands. Instead, Adrian Peterson has recovered from injury and remains in his prime as an elite tailback. The defense is still getting decent run out of veterans like Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield, and they went a long way toward shoring up weaknesses on the offensive line and in the secondary in last year's draft.
But with Ponder flailing about in the backfield, giving away games that could be won by simply "managing" rather than putting the team on his back, the Vikings are wasting Peterson's prime. They're wasting the continued efforts of their defense and recent draftees. And they're wasting a golden opportunity to challenge the Bears and Packers, who aren't as invincible as the Vikings feared.
Thus, presuming Ponder doesn't suddenly morph into the second coming of John Unitas the next four weeks, I've come around to the idea that the Vikings should at least consider their options at quarterback for 2013. The decision won't be made in a vacuum – it's not, "Should Ponder be the starting quarterback next year?" but rather, "Is Ponder the best of the Vikings' options at quarterback next year?"
So let's take a look at their options. They way I see it, the Vikings could go one of three ways. They could maintain status quo and give Ponder no competition for the starting spot; they could go 180 degrees the other way and bring in a veteran to supplant Ponder from Day 1, or they could split the difference and bring in a second-tier veteran to push Ponder and at least give Frazier a backup he felt confident in calling on when Ponder puts up a stinker like he did last Sunday. (We're not going to bother considering drafting another rookie starter, because the attendant learning curve would likely keep the offense in wheel-spinning mode as Peterson, et al, get another year older.)
So, let's take a spin around the NFL and see who the Vikings might be considering as they weigh their options for 2013
Alex Smith – His $7.5 million salary is guaranteed on April 1, 2013, meaning he'll get the axe as long as Colin Kaepernick doesn't completely fall apart during the final few weeks of the season. Jim Harbaugh traded up to draft Kaepernick in the 2011 draft, and he'll give the former Nevada star every chance to prove his worth and make him (Harbaugh) look like a genius.
Kevin Kolb – He's due $9 million in 2013, with a $2 million roster bonus. Even though rookie Ryan Lindley isn't tearing it up, it's possible that between Lindley and John Skelton, the Cardinals will be happy to let Kolb go and choose from the two much, much cheaper options. Also, Kolb has pretty much stunk when he's played, so … he's got that going for him.
Matt Flynn – His contract was worth $10 million guaranteed, and $19.5 million over three years. The Seahawks might just hang onto him for that investment, although if they decide that Wilson is their present and future, it's possible Flynn will be on the market. How fun would that be? First Favre, then Flynn? Packers fans would be apoplectic.
Chase Daniel – The Saints' backup will be a unrestricted free agent. It's hard to say what he's capable of doing in the NFL, because Drew Brees doesn't take a play off. But he might be worth a sniff as a quarterback to challenge Ponder.
Michael Vick – There's no way the Eagles pay him the $15.5 million he's owed in 2013, and they'll probably have a new head coach anyway, somebody who will want to make his mark on the Eagles roster. Thus, Vick will be a free agent. But does he have anything left? Will he be a fit in Bill Musgrave's offense? Will Musgrave even be the Vikings' offensive coordinator? So many questions …
Matt Leinart – He'll be an unrestricted free agent, and he's making just $700,000 with the Raiders in 2012. Oakland has hitched its wagon to Carson Palmer, so Leinart would likely jump at the chance to challenge for the job. But isn't he just a left-handed Christian Ponder?
Matt Cassel – He's due $16.5 million over the next two years, and it's likely the Chiefs have seen enough from him. But isn't he just a right-handed Matt Leinart?
Chad Henne – The Jaguars are in a similar position as the Vikings. Do they stick with their 2011 first-round draft choice, who's been underwhelming thus far? In this case, Blaine Gabbert might have more rope to work with because the Jags aren't close to contending. They're more likely to let Henne walk, thus dodging his $2.6 million salary for 2013, and rolling the dice on Gabbert.
Matt Hasselbeck – He'll be 38 next September and he sure looked like he was done when the Vikings schooled him in October. But Jake Locker is the future in Tennessee, and with $5.5 million due Hasselbeck in 2013, it's possible the Titans will gamble on Locker with Rusty Smith as the backup, meaning the former Seahawks Pro Bowler could be available as a veteran mentor and possible challenger to Ponder.
Ryan Mallet – He was in the same draft class as Ponder, but slipped to the third round due to rumors of drug use. He's apparently kept his nose clean thus far in New England, but he's signed to a team-friendly contact and there's no way Bill Belichick trades his insurance policy for Tom Brady for anything less than a price the Vikings should not be willing to pay.
Matt Moore – The Dolphins are obviously smitten with Tannehill, meaning they could save $2.5 million by letting Moore walk after this season. He showed promise at the end of the 2009 season, when he went 4-1 down the stretch for Carolina, including a three-TD, no-interception performance against the Vikings. But he went 6-7 as a starter for Miami in 2011 and would be little more than competition for Ponder if the Vikings were to bring him aboard.
There are a handful of potential free agents not even worth discussing – Derek Anderson, Jimmy Clausen, Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, Colt McCoy, Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen – and at least one other – Joe Flacco – who won't be hitting the market.
So, looking at our list, there's probably only one guy out there (Smith) who would become the starter the moment he sets foot in the locker room at Winter Park, a couple of guys (Flynn, Daniel) with intriguing potential, a couple players (Kolb, Cassel) who had their chance as starters and failed spectacularly, some possibly washed-up has-beens (Vick, Hasselbeck) and never-weres (Leinart, Henne, Moore).
Are any of them better options than starting next year with Christian Ponder as the only quarterback option on the roster? That's up to Rick Spielman and – perhaps – Frazier and Musgrave to decide.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData and a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook. He's covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
I have a confession: listening to the Vikings postgame show on KFAN is a guilty pleasure of mine. Whether it's a two-hour whine-line after another bitter defeat or a string of euphoric proclamations of Viking greatness after a hard-fought victory, I always get a kick out of the enthusiasm, passion and dedication on display from Vikings fans.
But I will never understand the mindset that drives some callers to propose tinkering with something that's not broken – or to propose repeatedly debunked theories as a solution to the Vikings' current woes. In this case, I'm referring to the weekly calls for Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave to find a way to get Joe Webb into the lineup via some version of the Wildcat formation.
Those calls are perhaps to be expected when Christian Ponder lays a pterodactyl-sized egg on the Metrodome turf like he did against Arizona, when he was picked off twice for the third straight game, completed 8 of 17 passes for 58 yards, and possessed the pocket presence of kitten chasing a butterfly. Or even when he struggles toward competence, like he did Thursday night against Tampa Bay, when he wobbled his way through a 36-17 loss.
However, it also doesn't seem to matter whether in the preceding three hours Ponder has completed 77 percent of his passes (as he did against Indianapolis), thrown a pair of touchdown passes against zero interceptions for his second straight game (as he did against San Francisco) or amassed a season-high 352 passing yards (as he did against Washington). The calls still come, reliable as an October snowfall in the Twin Cities.
I get the fans' frustration with the offense when it's not running smoothly or effectively. And I understand the tease factor of Webb, who has put together a few nice games under center in the Frazier era.
But the Wildcat – or the Blazer package, as the Vikings have called it – is a gimmick. It doesn't work consistently enough. The Dolphins shook up the NFL in 2008 when they used Ronnie Brown in the Wildcat role and scored a few touchdowns. It worked for a few weeks, most teams tried to copy the blueprint, and the league's defensive coordinators adjusted. Now it's about as fresh as Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonation, which debuted that same autumn.
The only team that's running the Wildcat with any success this year is the 49ers, where Collin Kaepernick runs behind the NFL's best offensive line and the Niners are usually protecting a big lead built on the strength of a dominant defense and the efficiency of the team's base offense under Alex Smith.
On the other hand, the Vikings' history with the Wildcat is spotty, at best. Last season, Webb had six carries for a grand total of 9 yards in Blazer appearances. His success running the ball has come when he's taking snaps under center and scrambling in a broken field.
That only happens when he's the starting quarterback or called on to take over the offense due to injury. When Webb enters the game in the Blazer, the defense knows he's there to do one thing – run the ball. With the element of surprise gone, he's trying to run against nine men in the box, and the results have been predictably dismal.
Could Musgrave draw up some Blazer plays that give Webb the option to pass? Sure – but if they're going to pass the ball, the Vikings have shown that they clearly Ponder handling that duty. Pulling him out of the game for a series interrupts the flow of the offense and will only hamper Ponder's development, which – even given their 5-3 start – remains the No. 1 priority for the 2012 season.
Look, I understand fans' frustration with Ponder. We live in an instant gratification society, and when you see what other neophyte quarterbacks have done in recent years – think of what Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton, among others, accomplished as rookies – it's natural to want more productivity out of Ponder.
But other teams have been rewarded for their patience with young quarterbacks. Eli Manning, Jay Cutler and Smith didn't win their first playoff games until their fourth year as a starters; Drew Brees was in his fifth season, and Peyton Manning his sixth. The younger Manning faced constant criticism before he finally broke through. Smith was benched a number of times. Cutler and Brees were traded before they blossomed as playoff winners.
Is Ponder in the same class as those quarterbacks? Clearly not … but the Vikings bet a first-round draft choice on the possibility that he will get there. They're not going to put up any roadblocks toward his development in the hope of short-term gains, especially when the Wildcat detour has been proven a road to nowhere.
In other words, fans can call for the Wildcat until they're purple in the face, but Frazier and Musgrave are committed to Ponder, for good or for ill.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
The Vikings keep finding more creative ways to lose games, and in the wake of the ever-stupefying defeats, naturally fans are looking for somebody to blame. Leslie Frazier, Bill Musgrave, Tyrell Johnson, Ragnar … hell, there are probably some people still mad at Bob Schnelker.
But the No. 1 target of the fans' disdain is quarterback Donovan McNabb. The scorn is justified. McNabb has been everything we saw last year in his dismal stint with the Redskins – inconsistent, indecisive, and all too inaccurate. So naturally, Vikings fans and even some in the media have begun calling for Frazier to bench McNabb in favor of rookie Christian Ponder.
I understand the argument – I really do. McNabb has been just shy of terrible, three other rookie quarterbacks (Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Andy Dalton) are already starting even though Ponder was dubbed the most "NFL-ready" of the No. 1 draft picks, and the backup quarterback is always the most popular guy on the roster.
So I understand the calls for Ponder. I just don't agree with them.
To be clear, this is not a defense of McNabb. He's been the main reason for the three straight second-half collapses – the offense has done next to nothing after halftime all year, leaving the defense tired and exposed. He can't throw downfield (though his receivers and offensive line are a huge part of that dynamic), and when he had a chance to hit Bernard Berrian (!) with a potential game-winning TD on Sunday, McNabb's throw fluttered harmlessly out of bounds.
But this decision should have nothing to do with McNabb. Remember, when the Vikings traded for the veteran quarterback, they told us he was brought here to protect Ponder. The Vikings brain trust didn't want to rush the rookie. They didn't want to force-feed their No. 1 draft pick to NFL defenses before he was ready, and the offseason labor stoppage cost him valuable time to master Musgrave's offense.
Thus, it really doesn't matter if McNabb throws for 39 yards in a game, or can't hit an open man in the end zone, or throws ball after ball at his receivers' feet. Because this decision isn't about McNabb – or at least it shouldn't be.
The only factor that matters is whether Vikings coaches believe that Ponder is ready to start. If there's any chance that playing Ponder right now will risk long-term damage to his development – or endanger his health, given the Vikings' pass-protection issues of late – there's no reason to throw him to the wolves right now.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this team is not Super Bowl-bound. I'll admit that when the season started, I thought the Vikings were about an 8-8 team – maybe they'd catch a few breaks, win a couple tossup games and pull out a Wild Card berth. Well, they've now had three of those tossup games, and they've lost them all.
Sure, it's frustrating to watch an over-the-hill McNabb waste three straight impressive performances by the Vikings defense with second-half performances that would make Spurgeon Wynn cringe.
But even if you think Ponder gives them the best chance to win right now, there's no sense in calling on the rookie quarterback to save the season, because there's nothing to save.
The Vikings traded for Donovan McNabb to serve as a bridge to the Christian Ponder Era. No need to cross that bridge until you have a better idea of what's on the other side.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, contributor to the Maple Street Press Vikings 2011 Annual (on newsstands now!), and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press.
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