This wasn't the way Christian Ponder wanted to end his rookie season. In fact, this might have been the worst-case scenario for a guy whose grip on the starting job no longer matches the 12th overall draft pick that was used to acquire him.
The lasting impression that follows Ponder into the new year is one of an overwhelmed 23-year-old who was ineffective and injury-prone during the final month of a season that tied a franchise record for losses (13). It came to an unmerciful end Sunday when Ponder left the game on a cart after reinjuring the right hip pointer he originally hurt against the Broncos on Dec. 4.
"I've had my ups and downs," Ponder said after the Vikings lost to the Bears 17-13 at Mall of America Field.
Ground into the turf by Bears defensive end Israel Idonije with 13 minutes, 28 seconds left in the first half, Ponder exited with a season-low 8.3 passer rating after completing just four of 10 passes for 28 yards. A poor throw that went off running back Toby Gerhart's hands also was returned for a touchdown -- Ponder's third pick-six in the past five weeks -- by Bears cornerback Charles Tillman.
After the game, coach Leslie Frazier sent a conflicting message when asked whether Ponder or Joe Webb will be his starting quarterback in 2012.
"We'll go into this offseason with Ponder being our No. 1 quarterback," Frazier said. "When you get to training camp, everyone will compete to win jobs."
For the third time in four weeks, Webb relieved Ponder. And while Webb was elusive in Tarkenton-like fashion against a strong Bears pass rush, the results weren't nearly as impressive as the first two times. After rallying the Vikings to within 1 yard of an upset at Detroit and directing four scoring drives in a victory at Washington last week, Webb completed just 17 of 32 passes for 200 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions while running for only 2 yards on four carries.
After the game, Ponder seemed resolved to having to fight for his starting job at Mankato next summer.
"I don't know if you ever have a firm grip on the starting job," said Ponder, who finished the year with a 70.1 passer rating, a 54.3 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. "Ever since I was in middle school, I was battling for a job no matter what it was. Joe has played really well when he has gotten in there, and I think it's going to be a healthy competition."
After throwing for 381 yards in a loss to Denver, Ponder threw for just 331 yards on 49.3 percent passing in the final four games. He missed most or all of the second halves of three games, once for a concussion, once because he had turned the ball over four times and once because of his hip.
Webb made it clear he's heading to Mankato thinking he has a chance to move up the depth chart.
"I'm going to feel like that no matter what," said Webb, who finished with a 74.5 passer rating, a 54.0 completion percentage, three touchdowns and two interceptions, not to mention 154 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries (7.0).
"I feel like I'm able to play with the guys, and I feel like I'm able to lead the team to wins. Even if I was a star quarterback, I'd still look at it like I was competing for a job. Your job is never safe."