NFL: Vikings' Turner not counting out Ponder
MINNEAPOLIS — Christian Ponder might be the forgotten man among Vikings quarterbacks, but new offensive coordinator Norv Turner is unwilling to bury the former No. 12 overall pick.
The competition for first-team reps between presumptive starter Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater has marginalized Ponder, whom the Vikings declined to offer a contract extension after an uninspiring 2013 season in which he twice was benched.
But Turner insisted Tuesday that there is no hierarchy among his three quarterbacks.
On the opening day of a voluntary, three-day minicamp, Turner called Bridgewater “as natural a passer as I’ve been around” and said Cassel “has started a lot of games and won a lot of games.”
But he also went out of his way to defend Ponder from criticism that he has not developed into a bona fide starter despite inheriting the job in 2012.
“I just feel bad for him, that the perception of him, because of what’s happened the last few years, is so negative,” Turner said. “I see him really as a talented guy who has an upside, and who’s going to have a really good career in this league.”
Coach Mike Zimmer said he has no timetable for naming a starting quarterback, adding that he won’t rush into making a decision before or during training camp, which opens July 25 in Mankato.
“That is good news,” Ponder said.
Cassel has been taking most of the first-team reps in practices open to the media. Bridgewater was given a look with the No. 1 offense Tuesday and has been taking more second-team snaps than Ponder. Those will be narrowed further once training camp starts.
“I’m not getting as many reps as the other guys,” Ponder said. “Whatever reps I’m getting, I’m trying to do the best I can. I know they’re trying to get Teddy ready. Hopefully, I get a real chance in the preseason games.”
Unofficial statistics from Tuesday’s full-team scrimmages: Bridgewater finished 13 of 15 overall and 4 for 4 under first-team center, Cassel was 8 for 9 and Ponder 4 for 4.
Minnesota’s quarterback position was a three-headed monster in 2013, becoming the most conspicuous thread in the team’s 5-10-1 season, after which coach Leslie Frazier was fired.
“You’d like to think as you go through you’re not in a situation where you’d play three guys, but it’s happened before,” Turner said. “Teams that have depth at quarterback tend to fight through some tough times, so I like our quarterback situation.
“I think you can create a scenario, and put it together, for all of them to start.”
Cassel was 3-3 as Minnesota’s starter in 2013 and won another game after relieving an injured Ponder. During a 48-30 Week 15 victory over Philadelphia, Cassel passed for 382 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the season with 1,807 yards, 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, and his 248-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 34-27 victory Sept. 29 over Pittsburgh in London saved the Vikings from an 0-4 start.
But Cassel was quickly benched in favor of Ponder after a poor performance the following game in a home loss to Carolina.
The Vikings stubbornly backed an ineffective Ponder, then desperately tried to salvage their season with the bye-week signing of longtime Tampa Bay starter Josh Freeman, whose woeful performance in a road loss to the then-winless New York Giants led to his banishment.
Ponder, however, failed to hold on to the No. 1 job, or reclaim it when Cassel and Freeman stumbled. He is saddled with a 14-20-1 record as a starter.
But in 2012, his second pro season, Ponder played every snap as the Vikings finished 10-6 and clinched a wild-card playoff berth. They also rode an MVP-performance from running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 2,097 yards while Ponder managed a pedestrian passing attack.
“I’ve coached quarterbacks with great backs, and it’s a really tough position to be in,” Turner said. “When you win, the back gets all the credit, and when you lose, it’s the quarterback’s fault. There’s really no in between, and it’s never that cut and dried.
“I think Ponder played awfully well in a tough situation as a young player. It’s to your benefit to have Adrian as a young player, but you’ve got to use it to your benefit. You’ve got to do some things that make it easy for the quarterback to play. I think when they did that, Ponder played well.”
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