Updated: November 1st, 2011 12:48pm
Zulgad: Why wait on Christian Ponder? Vikings had their reasons

Zulgad: Why wait on Christian Ponder? Vikings had their reasons

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Leslie Frazier probably couldn't have won this one either way.

If Christian Ponder had been handed the keys to the Minnesota Vikings offense at any point this season and struggled, critics would have said the coach put the kid in too soon.

If the rookie quarterback had success, that same group would wonder why Frazier didn't have Ponder replace the struggling Donovan McNabb earlier.

One has to figure that given a choice, Frazier would have picked the second option and on Monday that was the question he had to answer.

After Ponder had helped the Vikings remain competitive in a six-point loss to Green Bay and then engineered a three-point victory Sunday at Carolina, Frazier was asked if Ponder's performance had caused him to wonder what might have been if the change had come sooner.

The Vikings have won only two of their first eight games and enter their bye this week realistically, but not mathematically, out of the playoff race.

"I don't really think about that part of it because I know why the decision was made and why we made the decision to start him when we did," Frazier said. "I really don't go there. I just know where our team was and what we needed to do."

There are decisions Frazier has made in his first full season as a head coach that can and should be second guessed. This includes the one to trade for McNabb.

But one thing that is very difficult to question is the handling of Ponder, the 12th overall pick in the April draft. The feeling from this corner was that asking Ponder to start from day one would have been too much to dump on the plate of a guy who was unable to do any offseason work with his new team because of the NFL lockout.

Signing or trading for a veteran quarterback to start in front of Ponder for part of this season was a good idea. It was my feeling that McNabb wasn't the best choice, but there was no quarterback who I felt would elevate the Vikings to the level of a playoff team this year. This was a 6-10 team in 2010 and still has a ways to go.

Frazier clearly disagreed and that went into his thinking of picking McNabb.

"The thought process for me going into it was where I thought our team was, how close I thought our team was to contending for the NFC North Championship and what I thought we needed late in ballgames, based on my knowledge of our football team," Frazier said. "I thought we'd be competitive in games.

"I didn't think we were like some of the other teams coming into the season that would be satisfied with maybe going 4-12 or 3-13 or whatever. I thought we could be competitive so I made the decision based on that, that this would give us the best chance to pull out some fourth-quarter games.

"When you get to 1-5 and you've played all of these close games and you haven't been able to pull them out, then you have to start rethinking some of that. That had a lot to do with making that decision (to change quarterbacks)."

The right call

Frazier's timing won't save the Vikings 2011 season, but it does appear he inserted Ponder when he was ready to take on the starting role.

Anyone who saw Ponder play in the preseason witnessed a young quarterback who was far too eager to run at the first sign of trouble and appeared to be literally learning the offense on the job.

He wasn't ready and putting him in as the starter could have been a major mistake.

Anyone who has seen Ponder play the past two games, has seen a guy who looks far more poised. This doesn't mean Ponder has been perfect and he still takes off at times when protection breaks down, but he no longer looks like a deer in the headlights.

Frazier said there was no eureka moment when it came to Ponder moving past McNabb. Rather, it was a gradual thing in which Frazier saw Ponder growing as a quarterback during practice sessions in which the rookie would run the scout team offense.

"Probably around maybe two or three weeks ago I saw some things that told me he's just about there," Frazier said. "Just certain things I needed to see. Then we put him in that Chicago game and they kept their number ones out there and continued to run their same defense, bringing pressure over and over and over again and he didn't get flustered."

The Vikings were trailing the Bears, 39-10, on Oct. 16 at Soldier Field in the fourth quarter when Ponder replaced McNabb. He completed 9 of 17 passes for 99 yards. His numbers were nothing spectacular but it was clear the stage wasn't too big for him.

If those stats didn't help tell Frazier that Ponder was ready, maybe this exchange did.

"He came off the field after one of those series and he said, 'Coach, glad you put me in there,'" Frazier said. "This is the fourth quarter of the game. I said, 'This is pretty good now.'

"We always talk about, 'Enjoy the moment.' This stuff is over so fast in the National Football League. One play and your career is over. He was enjoying the experience. He wasn't in awe for the fact that we were on the road, not playing very well as a team. He embraced that moment and that game kind of told me it's time."

The fact Ponder would embrace the opportunity to play in a 29-point blowout isn't a surprise considering his outlook on getting this chance.

"I love this game," he said. "I love being in this position. It's been a dream come true for me. It's the best job in the world to be honest with you. I'm loving being here. I've worked really hard to get here, so I'm just savoring everything."

Thriving under pressure

Ponder is doing more than that.

He might be savoring the opportunity but he also looks as if he's at ease. The fact he was able to complete 9 of 10 passes for seven first downs on third down Sunday spoke to his ability to thrive in pressure situations.

One of those conversions came during a 13-play, 72-yard drive in the final quarter that took 7 minutes, 10 seconds off the clock and ended in a Ryan Longwell 31-yard field goal that proved to be the game-winner.

"It's about what I expected," Ponder said of playing in the NFL. "Going into this thing I thought it was going to be tough. And it's been tough facing the best competition in the world."

One of the knocks against McNabb was his inability to convert third downs.

He completed 21 of 48 passes (43.8 completion percentage) for 197 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and six sacks in those situations. McNabb posted a 60.9 passer rating to rank 38th of the 51 quarterbacks ranked by Elias Sports Bureau.

Ponder's success on third down Sunday made him 19 of 27 (70.4 percentage) for 242 yards with no touchdowns, an interception and three sacks in those situations.

His 82.6 passer rating ranks 18th in Elias' rankings.

"Just his understanding of defenses, knowing what you need to attack if they are in man defense, knowing what you need to attack if they are in zone," Frazier said when asked about Ponder's success on third down.

"Just the wherewithal to process that information at the line of scrimmage. It just shows his maturity and his knowledge of football (Offensive coordinator) Bill Musgrave and (quarterbacks coach) Craig Johnson have done a great job with him preparing him for those situations, but still he has to be the one to go out and execute in those moments.

"For him to have the poise and composure to do the same things he does in practice, in a game, he is light years ahead of where you think he would be in some situations."

Ponder admits he doesn't know where his cool-under-pressure ability comes from on third down, adding, "I've just always been that way and try to treat those downs just like any other down and not put pressure on myself. Let the play develop and see what happens."

The next step

Ponder and his teammates will return from the bye next Monday and begin preparations for their Nov. 14 (Monday night) game against the Packers at Lambeau Field.

That would be the same Green Bay team that spoiled Ponder's starting debut, yet the same team he played well enough against to build confidence.

While the Vikings are four games under .500 and stuck in the cellar of the NFC North, there is definitely a different feeling in their locker room than there was a few weeks back.

Ponder's teammates are very careful with their words when asked about the rookie mainly because they don't want to insult McNabb.

Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe declined to get into specifics when asked if there was anything different with Ponder. But Shiancoe did answer when asked about the poise Ponder seems to show.

"Poise is definitely important, and confidence," said Shiancoe, who has seven catches in the past two games after having 16 in the first six. "Confidence in himself, confidence in the other players around him, especially the line. And it seems like he has a lot of confidence in both areas. Which has given us confidence in his abilities as well."

Ponder appreciates the support but he isn't hurting for self-confidence and one gets the feeling that soon this will be his locker room. He will be the one dishing out the support.

As Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Andy Dalton became starters earlier this season, Ponder waited patientily for this opportunity knowing it would come sooner rather than later. Frazier wanted to give McNabb a shot and Ponder understood that.

In the short term the decision will be questioned, but in the long run it almost certainly was the right to err on the side of caution.

Any on the job lessons Ponder is forced to endure now will be considered building blocks for 2012 in a league in which rebuilding isn't a multi-year project. 

Especially if you have the right quarterback in place.

"I think it all goes back to the quarterback himself," Ponder said of the pitfalls of playing a young QB. "I think guys respond to things differently. One guy that makes a mistake is going to be a head case for the rest of the game or rest of the season no matter what it is and won't be able to get over it. But there's other guys that, hey, realize that you're going to make mistakes and just learn from them."

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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