Christian Ponder is more battle-tested entering his third season than any quarterback in the Vikings’ 53-year history. Ponder started 26 of his team’s 32 regular-season games and threw 774 passes in his first two years.
Only Fran Tarkenton, the franchise’s original hero, was in Ponder’s ballpark (in his case, Met Stadium) for early experience. Tarkenton started 24 of the Vikings’ 28 games and threw 609 passes in 1961 and 1962.
The NFL’s prevailing attitude toward playing young quarterbacks was evident immediately with our expansion franchise.
The NFL draft for the 1961 season was held on Dec. 27-28, 1960. There were 14 teams, and the Vikings selected Tarkenton at the top of the third round (29th overall).
Two weeks later, the Vikings gave up what turned out to be the No. 1 overall choice in the 1962 draft for George Shaw, a journeyman with 24 starts in six NFL seasons.
Tarkenton came off the bench in the first half of the franchise’s first game, went 17-for-23 with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and the Vikings whipped the Chicago Bears 37-13.
That earned him a start the next week, but when the rookie struggled, coach Norm Van Brocklin went back to Shaw for three games. Imagine that in today’s NFL:
The rookie lights up the league in his first game, he returns to the Earth in the second game, and the coach goes back to an undistinguished veteran. Folks might have gotten on Twitter to complain about that move, if we weren’t 45 years removed from the 140-character editorials.
Tarkenton started Game 2 and then the last nine in 1961. Over the next half-century, Tarvaris Jackson’s two starts in 2006 were the most for a Vikings rookie quarterback. Ponder equaled Tarkenton’s 10 rookie starts in the now-longer season in 2011.
Ponder was drafted 12th overall. The Vikings had drafted two quarterbacks in the first round previously: Tommy Kramer at No. 27 in 1977 and Daunte Culpepper at No. 11 in 1999.
Kramer made one start in his first two seasons, behind Tarkenton and Bobby Lee. Culpepper sat behind Jeff George and Randall Cunningham as a rookie. He became the second-year starter in 2000, but only after coach Dennis Green made an unsuccessful run at 38-year-old Dan Marino.
In another era, Ponder would be winding down his internship and moving into a starting role. In the current quarterback environment, many observers already have declared Ponder to be the flaw in General Manager Rick Spielman’s team building plan — that at 25, he’s the detriment to a long playoff run.
As you recall, Bud Grant coached the Vikings for 18 seasons, and did so with enough distinction to be reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On Friday, he was asked if he sees a reason beyond economics for the current rush to play young quarterbacks.
“Instant gratification … that’s what we want in everything, isn’t it?’’ he said. “I do know this is still true: Quarterbacks get better the longer they play. We have a lot of history to show that.
“And it’s not all ancient history. Look at the guy in Baltimore [Joe Flacco]. He was just OK for three, four years, and then he was the most valuable player around at the end of the season and in the playoffs.’’
The Vikings drafted Kramer to become the quarterback post-Tarkenton, as Spielman drafted Ponder in 2011 to become the long-term solution after the Brett Favre quick fix.
Kramer had one spectacular relief appearance as a rookie, and one clunker as a starter. Tarkenton, after missing the last five games of 1977 because of injury, decided to return in 1978. Was Kramer ready to play in his second season, if Tarkenton hadn’t come back?
“Kramer was a great talent,’’ Grant said. “Beyond his ability, he had tremendous instincts. His field of vision was amazing. Kramer could see sideline to sideline and never have to move his head.
“We would’ve gone to him in ’78, and I think he would’ve handled it well.’’
So what does he see in Ponder entering Year 3?
“I watch him; I don’t scout him,’’ Grant said. “It’s too bad he got hurt that last game. It would’ve been good to see him in a playoff game in Green Bay. I think there’s a chance the game would’ve turned out different with him at quarterback.
“What they said last year was Ponder couldn’t throw deep because of the receivers he had. The Vikings have improved there, so now we’ll find out if he can pull the trigger.’’