Seven hundred and 13 days ago, Christian Ponder was an exciting prospect when he stepped into the Vikings huddle at Bank of America Stadium with 9 minutes, 53 seconds left in a tied ballgame with the Panthers.
Having nearly upset the defending Super Bowl champion Packers in his first NFL start the week before, Ponder, the 12th overall draft pick just six months earlier, was now taking on Cam Newton, the No. 1 pick that year.
The Vikings had the ball at their 15-yard line following Newton’s second consecutive three-and-out. After two Adrian Peterson runs gained 3 yards, Ponder faced down a corner blitz with an 11-yard dart to Percy Harvin on third-and-7.
Ponder would throw four more passes on the drive. He would complete four more passes. He would go 5-for-5 to four receivers for 63 yards and three first downs on what would become a 13-play, 72-yard winning march. When Ryan Longwell kicked the go-ahead field goal with 2:47 left, Ponder was no longer a prospect. He was the man for a franchise that was begging for a young franchise quarterback.
“He just plays with a lot of calm confidence,” coach Leslie Frazier said that day. “It’s uncanny.”
Ponder, now 713 days older, was asked about that game this week. The Vikings and the Panthers meet Sunday for the first time since that game. Only this time, the game is at Mall of America Field and Ponder’s future with the Vikings appears to be almost as far behind him as Donovan McNabb’s was 713 days ago.
“I guess you could say the circumstances this time are a little different,” said Ponder, forcing a smile born from the disappointment he has experienced the past two weeks. “You can say some of the dynamics around here have changed with Josh [Freeman] being brought in and everything.”
For the first time since he backed up McNabb at Chicago in Week 6 of the 2011 season, Ponder will be a healthy scratch on Sunday. The rib he fractured against the Browns on Sept. 29 has healed, but former backup Matt Cassel has kept the starting job at least temporarily because of his rhythmic, turnover-free performance in a 34-27 win over the Steelers in London two weeks ago.
Frazier admitted the difficulties and long-term ramifications of changing quarterbacks, but the higher priority is avoiding a 1-4 start for the second time in three seasons. The Panthers also are 1-3 and trying to avoid a third 1-4 start in Newton’s three seasons there.
What happens at quarterback next week won’t begin to unfold until Monday morning, Frazier said. The team will start off by evaluating Cassel’s performance. If he comes up short, the Vikings will use at least part of the week to determine whether Freeman, the former Buccaneers first-round pick who was signed on Monday, has learned enough of the offense to start the following Monday night on the road against the Giants.
As for Ponder, well, he is now Door No. 3 in the Vikings’ selection order. He said he doesn’t want to be traded and the Vikings wouldn’t get much in return, but no one has ruled it out as the Oct. 29 deadline nears.
Revisiting draft day 2011
The 2011 NFL draft opened with six quarterbacks taken in the first 36 picks. After Newton, Tennessee took Jake Locker at No. 8, Jacksonville traded up six spots to grab Blaine Gabbert at No. 10 and the Vikings picked Ponder at No. 12. Twenty-two picks passed before Cincinnati and San Francisco took Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick at Nos. 35 and 36, respectively.
Like a lot of teams, the Vikings saw potential in some of the quarterbacks and holes in all of them. Even Newton, the slam-dunk No. 1 selection, was a one-year major college starter with character concerns.
For Locker, the issue was accuracy. For Gabbert, it was his touch passes and leadership skills. For Ponder, it was durability and arm strength. For Dalton, it was size (6-2, 215 pounds) and arm strength. For Kaepernick, he, like Newton, was difficult to project because he was a read-option, spread-offense quarterback entering the NFL a year before teams started proving that traditional college style of offense could work in the NFL.
The Vikings liked Newton, Locker and Ponder, although it’s still unclear outside of the organization whether they would have taken Locker had he been on the board. They weren’t interested in Gabbert and, like the rest of the league at the time, they didn’t consider Dalton and Kaepernick as candidates for the top half of the first round.