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Updated: September 9th, 2013 4:22pm
Zulgad: Early struggles could cause Vikings to make change at QB

Zulgad: Early struggles could cause Vikings to make change at QB

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

Christian Ponder's performance in the Minnesota Vikings' 34-24 season-opening loss Sunday at Detroit had many wondering how much patience the franchise will continue to show with him.

The Vikings invested the 12th pick in the 2011 draft on Ponder and have given every indication since then that, in their eyes, he is the long-term solution at starter.

Ponder replaced a disinterested Donovan McNabb in 2011 and started the final 10 games during a 3-13 season. Ponder's lack of success as a rookie did not stop the Vikings from entering last year with him as their No. 1 quarterback.

Ponder's 2012 performance was erratic at best, and when Joe Webb was forced to start the Vikings' playoff loss at Green Bay, it became obvious the team needed to get a legitimate backup.

Matt Cassel was signed during the offseason, but even Cassel immediately adopted the company line that he was being brought in to hold a clipboard and that Ponder remained the guy.

Ponder saw limited time this preseason and when he did play it was less than impressive.

The defense for Ponder went like this: He had led the Vikings' to four consecutive victories to end the 2012 regular season, and superstar running back Adrian Peterson was on the field for only two plays in the games that did not count.

And then came Sunday.

Ponder, who completed 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards with three touchdowns , no interceptions and a 120.2 passer rating in a must-win against the Packers last Dec. 30, did not pick up where he left off.

Far from it.

Against the Lions, he was 18 of 28 for 236 yards with one touchdown, three interceptions and a 63.1 rating. He looked far more like the indecisive quarterback who struggled at mid-season last year than he did the guy who seemed to take a major step forward in the final month.

So what will happen if the Vikings' lose again on Sunday in Chicago and Ponder struggles?

While many will be tempted to roll their eyes and expect Ponder to remain the starter, there is fairly recent precedent to think the Vikings could make a change. The lesson of a potential quarterback switch would come from the 2008 season.

The Vikings, coming off an 8-8 finish in 2007 and with expectations for major improvement under then third-year coach Brad Childress, opened the season with Tarvaris Jackson as their starter.

Childress had traded back into the second round in 2006 to select Jackson and saw him as the long-term solution in Minnesota. But Jackson, who had started 12 games in 2007, lost to Green Bay and Indianapolis in the opening two weeks.

Childress spent the majority of his time as Vikings' coach unwilling to reveal who would be his starting QB, whenever there was a question about who would get the nod.

But the Wednesday after the loss to the Colts, Childress told the media that he was making a change and that veteran Gus Frerotte would start that Sunday against Carolina.

It was never proven but this was one of the few times that word began to circulate that this was not a Childress decision. Rather, owner Zygi Wilf had strongly suggested that giving Frerotte a chance would be a good idea.

It would make sense that Childress was not only told to switch quarterbacks, but also informed that he would make it clear to an unhappy fan base that Jackson was being replaced.

The move worked as Frerotte helped guide the Vikings to seven victories in the next 10 games before getting injured. The Vikings finished 10-6 and made the playoffs, despite the fact that Jackson got the starting job back and was brutal in a postseason loss to Philadelphia.

It has been the contention here that Ponder is to general manager Rick Spielman as Jackson was to Childress. Spielman used a high pick on Ponder, has wanted to prove that wasn't a mistake and also knows that if Ponder fails that Spielman will be remembered as the guy who drafted the wrong quarterback.

But if the Vikings really see themselves as playoff worthy again this season, or a team that can win a postseason game, they will need to get far better play from Ponder and they will need it to happen in quick fashion.

What would be interesting, and what we don't know, is where coach Leslie Frazier stands on this issue. Despite last season's success, Frazier only had the option year on his contract picked up.

That means Frazier is signed through 2014, but it's rare that an NFL coach works on the last season of his deal.

If the Vikings are successful this season, Frazier figures to get an extension. If they aren't, Frazier's job could be in jeopardy.

That means if Frazier has any questions about Ponder, he and Wilf might think it's a good idea to see what Cassel can accomplish. Both want to win games and Wilf, who is getting a new stadium, also likes fan approval.

Another poor performance by Ponder, and an 0-2 start, might give both Wilf and Frazier the incentive to think that a repeat of the move made early in the 2008 season might not be a bad idea.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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