Souhan: Brain trust puts its fate in a quarterback's hands

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2011 - 8:21 AM

The choice of Christian Ponder comes down to this: The Vikings needed a QB and feared missing out.

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Brandon Young was not pleased when the Vikings picked quarterback Christian Ponder in the first round Thursday night. His buddy Jim Vnuk laughed at left, in the front row of the 2011 draft party in the field house at Winter Park.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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The attendees at the Vikings' draft party jeered when the team selected Christian Ponder and jeered Rick Spielman when he explained the pick.

The inebriated might wind up being right. Ponder might prove too fragile for the NFL and might become one of the many first-round quarterback busts in recent league history.

But this is one of those moments when it might be best to invest a little hope in the Vikings' brain trust, because there is no greater thrill for the modern-day sports fan than to watch the development of a good, young quarterback, and there is no better template for winning than a coach and a young quarterback growing into their jobs together.

Let's skip the usual draft-day analysis. It doesn't matter whether the draft experts think the Vikings reached. Or think there were better quarterbacks available than Ponder. Or think there were better players at other positions available at No. 12.

Draft experts and NFL teams alike are often wrong, not because of a lack of due diligence but because projecting young quarterbacks is an inherently risky business.

The Vikings' explanation was right on: They needed a quarterback, and trading down would have put them at risk of missing on a guy they liked.

We don't know how much they liked Blaine Gabbert or what they would have done had Gabbert and Ponder both been gone by No. 12.

What we know is this: Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was desperate to draft a quarterback who could lead his team, and he seemed very happy at the lectern late Thursday night.

Why not? This is a day for hope, and Ponder gives Vikings fans reason to do so.

The consensus: He's smart, diligent and tough. His injuries gave his detractors reason to question him; the Vikings say they liked his toughness in trying to overcome them.

What we know for sure is that Frazier has tied his future to Ponder. So has personnel boss Spielman.

If Ponder develops into a star, Frazier and Spielman will be here a while. If he proves to be a bust, Zygi Wilf probably will be hiring a new personnel guru and coach within three years.

Brad Childress never overcame the stigma of investing faith in Tarvaris Jackson, even though he was hardly the first coach ever to miss on a second-round draft pick.

Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson all landed quarterbacks early in their tenures that would make them legends -- Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman.

Brian Billick was known as an offensive genius with the Vikings, but with the Ravens he couldn't survive the failures of Kyle Boller, even after winning a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer.

Bill Belichick never won a Super Bowl until Tom Brady emerged.

There is no more important position in pro sports, and there is nothing more rewarding than watching a kid learn to lead a team and dissect an NFL defense.

This will take time, though, and require patience from ownership, coaches, teammates and the public.

Unless they bring in a veteran to mentor Ponder, the Vikings will be asking a rookie to survive in a frightening division.

The Packers are Super Bowl champs, and they might be better this season, with better health.

The Bears went to the NFC Championship Game while piecing together an offensive line.

The Lions benefited from the Vikings' pick by taking Auburn monster Nick Fairley, meaning the Vikings' primary concern this season might be keeping Ponder healthy during the two Detroit games.

The Vikings are suddenly a very interesting and volatile team. The NFL's persistent failures in court mean defensive end Ray Edwards and receiver Sidney Rice are likely to remain on the roster.

So Ponder might benefit from all of the position players who helped Brett Favre have a career year two seasons ago -- Adrian Peterson, Rice, Visanthe Shiancoe and Percy Harvin.

The Vikings have an offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, who helped mentor Matt Ryan in Atlanta. They have a strong running game and dynamic receivers. A well-coached and intelligent quarterback might have a chance to be productive with all of these pluses in place.

In this division, with a new staff in place, we shouldn't expect miracles.

If we're all lucky, though, we'll get to watch Frazier and Ponder grow together; we'll get to watch Ponder mature into an NFL star right before our eyes.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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