Freeman in — is Ponder out?
EDEN PRAIRIE — The Christian Ponder era isn’t over for the Minnesota Vikings.
At least, that’s the front coach Leslie Frazier put up on Monday, the same day newly-signed Josh Freeman arrived at the team’s complex to begin assimilating to the offense.
Ponder is recovering from a fractured rib and either he or Matt Cassel will start against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Beyond that, Freeman will certainly be in the mix.
“I think Christian still has a bright future here with our football team,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “It may not look like that on the surface, but Christian is a professional. He’s going to work as hard as he can every day to prepare and get back on the field and help our team win.”
Don’t believe it. Ponder is still with the team, and he practiced “with very little pain, if any” to his fractured rib. But signing Freeman can mean only one thing: The Vikings have had it with Ponder’s inconsistency and no longer view him as the long-term option at quarterback.
Ponder is only 25 and was the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. But Freeman is only 43 days older than Ponder and he was the 17th overall pick in 2009.
“Freeman is a good player,” Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. “He was a first-round pick for a reason.”
The Vikings aren’t concerned about Freeman’s fallout with the Buccaneers, chalking that up to a personality clash with coach Greg Schiano, who might be as high strung as Frazier is laid back.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman reached on Ponder in the draft. But it was understandable. For so many years, the Vikings had been a team that relied on signing aging quarterbacks for short-term runs. In many cases, such as Brett Favre in 2009, it worked. But it was time for this franchise to commit to a rookie and take the plunge, regardless of how high the pick was in the draft.
In 29 games as a starter, Ponder has shown glimpses of being a potential franchise quarterback. When the Vikings needed to win their last four games to make the playoffs a year ago, Ponder helped make it happen, finishing it off with his best game as a pro in the season finale against the visiting Packers.
But more often than not, Ponder has been more of a tease, lapsing into long slumps in which his accuracy and confidence disappear. He is 0-3 this season with seven of the Vikings’ 10 turnovers and a 65.9 passer rating that ranks 31st in the league.
A fractured rib sidelined him for the Sept. 29 game against the Steelers in London. With backup Matt Cassel throwing more decisively, the Vikings finally achieved some rhythm while not turning the ball over.
A week later, Freeman agreed to terms. Ponder returned to practice a day later, saying all the right things. But even he knows it doesn’t look good.
Asked what this meant for his future in Minnesota, Ponder thought for a second and said, “I don’t know. I mean I’m not management and my focus right now is what I can control, which is getting healthy and preparation. We’ll see what happens. It’s their decision. It’s not my decision.”
Essentially, the decision had been made. Freeman was due for a physical on Monday afternoon.
“We think he’ll be able to help us,” Frazier said. “To what degree, only time will tell, but we’re looking forward to having him join our team and, hopefully, help us get some momentum and continue the momentum that we started with that win against Pittsburgh.”
Ponder seemed to be winging it when cornered by reporters for about 2 1/2 minutes before the team’s public relations staff rescued him on Monday.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” Ponder said. “I’m a man of faith, so I believe that God has my future in His hands. I don’t know what that means, but I’m trying to get healthy and ultimately I think this will make be a better quarterback.”
Ponder said his confidence is still in place.
“This wasn’t my decision and it’s, I guess, what’s best for the team,” Ponder said. “But in my eyes, I’m getting prepared to play. As long as I play well, then I’m the one on the field.”
Ponder said Frazier told him that he has “full confidence” in him as a quarterback. Asked if he can believe those words considering Monday’s actions, Ponder said, “Leslie is a man of faith, so I’m going to take him at his word and I believe what he and Rick say.”
n CB Chris Cook (groin) missed the Steelers game and all but a few moments of the Browns game the previous week. He returned to practice on Monday and appears close to returning.
n SS Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) missed part of the Browns game and all of the Steelers game. He returned to practice on Monday and appears close to returning.
n TE-FB Rhett Ellison (knee), who has missed the past two games, returned to practice on Monday and appears to be close to returning.
n K Blair Walsh has made 8 of 9 field-goal attempts, including 2 of 2 from 50-plus yards. The one miss, a 44-yarder with less than seven minutes left against the Steelers, triggered what nearly led to a third straight fourth-quarter meltdown.
n DE Jared Allen leads all NFL defensive ends in consecutive regular-season games started with 98. Allen leads the Vikings with 3.5 sacks.
n OLB Chad Greenway entered the season with six interceptions in 96 career games. He now has two in four games this season.
n PR Marcus Sherels has returned only four punts for just eight yards this season. He has seven fair catches. He's not known for his explosiveness. His long return is six yards, so the other three have gone for two yards.
n MLB Erin Henderson entered the season without an interception in 50 career games, including 21 starts. He has two in four games this season.
Bye week report card
PASSING OFFENSE: D - The Vikings essentially pulled the plug on the Christian Ponder era when they signed former Buccaneers first-round pick Josh Freeman during the bye week. Ponder, a reach with the 12th overall pick in 2011, has continued down his consistently inconsistent career path to the point where the Vikings jumped at the chance to find out whether Freeman, 25, can be their quarterback of the future. Before being sidelined by a fractured rib, Ponder went 0-3 with a 59.0 completion percentage, seven turnovers and a 65.9 passer rating that ranks 31st in the league. Backup Matt Cassel was given the start in Week 4 against Pittsburgh in London's Wembley Stadium. The offense immediately developed better rhythm as Cassel played with more decisiveness and, even more important, no turnovers. Ponder isn't the sole reason the Vikings are 1-3, but quality quarterbacks can cover up weaknesses in other areas. Ponder can't do that.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B - Even though he has played only five games, Adrian Peterson still ranks second in the league with 421 yards rushing. He's averaging 4.6 yards and has five touchdowns, including runs of 78 and 60 yards. The Vikings, however, have not been as consistently dominant running the ball as they were a year ago. The line has struggled to keep defenders from penetrating the line of scrimmage and disrupting Peterson before he has a chance to get going. The Lions dominated the Vikings' front line after Peterson's first carry went 78 yards for a touchdown. The Bears and Browns also did a good job containing Peterson before a breakout game against the Steelers.
PASS DEFENSE: D-minus - Confusion and a lack of depth and quality in the secondary have made the Vikings vulnerable to the pass and late-game meltdowns. Confusion between coordinator Alan Williams and the defenders on the field reigned in Chicago when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler drove the Bears to the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left. A week later, the communication was better, but Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer, who was elevated from No. 3 QB four days earlier, also beat the Vikings with a game-winning touchdown drive in the closing minute. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was doing the same thing, marching to a game-tying touchdown, when he was sacked and stripped of the ball by Everson Griffen inside the Vikings' 10-yard line in the closing seconds. The Vikings miss cornerback Antoine Winfield, whom they released in a salary cap move in the spring. Josh Robinson, a speedy second-year player, has struggled as Winfield's replacement, particularly as the slot corner in the nickel. Chris Cook, the starter on the right side, has struggled and has been his usual unreliable self because of yet another injury (groin). He's missed nearly all of the past two games. Rookie first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes has been solid so far, but the Vikings don't play him in their base defense. Marcus Sherels, the team's punt returner, has held his own as Cook's replacement. But his skills are limited. At safety, Harrison Smith has played well, but Jamarca Sanford struggled before being knocked out early in Week 3 because of a hamstring injury. His replacement, Andrew Sendejo, is a special teamer who shouldn't be playing on defense.
RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus - The Vikings rank 15th in run defense, but have struggled worse than that. They're 23rd in average yards per carry allowed (4.2). The Lions were able to gouge the Vikings between the tackles with Reggie Bush. That opened up the screen game and the downfield passes. The Bears stayed balanced because the Vikings couldn't seal off the interior. The Browns and Steelers were pass-heavy because the Vikings couldn't stop the pass.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C - It has been an inconsistent first quarter of the season for a special teams unit that's usually sound. Blair Walsh is 2 of 2 on 50-yard field-goal attempts this year and 12 of 12 for his two-year career. But his one miss of the season - a 44-yarder with 6:24 left in the fourth quarter of the Steelers game - nearly led to a third consecutive fourth-quarter collapse. Vikings rookie Cordarrelle Patterson matched a team record with a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Chicago. But that also was the same game that Chicago's Devin Hester set a team record with 249 kickoff return yards. Rookie punter Jeff Locke has been up and down, ranking 16th in the league with a 45.9 average. The special teams were embarrassed n the upset loss to the Browns in the home opener. They gave up a 34-yard run on a fake punt and a touchdown off a fake field goal.
COACHING: D-minus - Leslie Frazier and his staff deserve credit for holding an 0-3 team together for a "home" game played 4,000 miles from the Metrodome. A win heading into the bye week at least temporarily saved the season. But the coaches didn't fare nearly as well in the first three games. In the opener at Detroit, Williams, the defensive coordinator, had no answers or adjustments when the Lions repeatedly threw screens and underneath passes. At Chicago a week later, Williams wasn't on the same page with his players during the final drive. Against the Browns, the entire coaching staff was to blame for being upset in their home opener. Special teams coach Mike Priefer's reputation took a hit when the Browns gambled twice on special teams and came up with two big plays that put 10 points on the board.