I’m sure the Vikings can see what everyone else can see. They aren’t going to make the playoffs this year. There are too many holes on the roster – from defensive back to the offensive line to the obvious problem at quarterback – and at 0-4 with two 4-0 teams in the same division, the season is effectively over.
You can’t possibly expect the coach or organization to admit that, though, which is exactly what they’d be doing by inserting Christian Ponder over Donovan McNabb right now. No rational organization would send such a signal after just four games, no matter how deflating the four losses have been. The only way a team can pull that off is by admitting that they’re rebuilding right from the start. Had the Vikings opted not to acquire McNabb and instead said right from the get-go that they were going to sacrifice the season in favor of developing Ponder for the future, that’s something you can at least attempt to sell to the public.
Once the Vikes brought in McNabb and trotted him out as the starter in Week 1, they were declaring their intentions. They weren’t the Bengals or the Panthers – teams that could afford to start their own rookie quarterbacks coming off of a long history of futility (not to mention, it’s a different story if you’re Carolina and your rookie quarterback is the No. 1 overall pick in the draft). They weren’t even the Jaguars, who announced their intentions loud and clear when they canned veteran signal-caller David Garrard on the eve of the season with the obvious intention of playing rookie Blaine Gabbert sooner rather than later.
The fans in Cincy and Jacksonville are used to losing. They’re ready to be sold on the future, even if it means there’s no hope for this year. The Bengals can be excited (well, not that excited, but we’ll get to that in a bit) about watching Andy Dalton and A.J. Green with no expectations other than seeing some sign that there’s hope for the future.
But the Vikings are only one full season removed from the NFC Championship game. It’s a lot tougher to sell a rebuilding effort when you were on the cusp of the Super Bowl less than two calendar years ago. Or when you’re paying millions of dollars to a couple of high-priced defensive stars (Jared Allen and Kevin Williams) in the prime of their careers. Or when you’re trying to sign two of your young building blocks (Chad Greenway and Adrian Peterson) to mega-contracts before they walk away to less purple pastures. And if you can’t sell a rebuilding effort to your own locker room, it’s an even tougher sell to the fans. This wasn’t a rebuilding year to the tens of thousands of season ticket holders who renewed their seats after last year’s wasted season. It wasn’t a rebuilding year the day single-game tickets went on sale. It wasn’t even a rebuilding year the day they picked Ponder in the first round of the NFL Draft.
And it’s not a rebuilding year now, either. Not publicly. Just four games in, the Vikes just aren’t at a point where they can admit their mistake and look to 2012. Not yet. Not when there are tickets to sell for the next home game. Just ask Leslie Frazier. Or, ask the Bengals. Bengals fans in the immediate Cincinnati area are so excited about the “hope” being sold by Dalton and Green that they haven’t seen their squad play on TV since the middle of last year. Turns out, hope is a tough sell, as they’ve now failed to sell out their last six consecutive home games.
As of last Tuesday, the Vikings were 6,500 seats shy of a sellout for this week’s game. I get the sense the insertion of Ponder would actually be a short-term boost from a PR perspective, even if it’s a long-term hit when the team inevitably continues to lose. A cynic might say the Vikings must be close to selling out this week’s game already and that they don’t need the Ponder PR boost this week. Perhaps the team is keeping that bullet in the chamber with the expectation that they'll need it in mid-November, the next time they’ll be in danger of a home non-sellout (the only home game between Arizona and November 20 against the Raiders is the always-sold-out Packers on October 23).
And who knows, perhaps by November 20 the McNabb-led squad will have engineered an unlikely about-face with four consecutive wins over the Cardinals at home, the Bears on the road, Green Bay at home, and Carolina on the road. Actually, nevermind. But even so, November 20 is still the next-most likely date for Ponder’s unveiling. Even at 0-5, you wouldn’t throw him to the wolves at Chicago next week or at home against the Packers the week after that (remember, cynics, you don't need to sell tickets to that game). October 30 at Carolina is a possibility, but the Week 9 bye sure would be handy from a preparatory standpoint to start giving Ponder first-team reps in practice. And asking a rookie to debut on Monday night on the road against the Super Bowl champs in Week 11 is just asking for disaster.
That brings us to November 20, at home against the Raiders. Realistically, at that point the Vikings are 2-7, maybe 3-6 if they catch a few breaks, and with very little chance of selling out against an annually non-contending AFC team. And then, with hope undeniably lost for 2011, it will be time to start selling hope in the future.