What a difference a quarterback makes.
Last season, the Green Bay Packers won the NFC North and the Minnesota Vikings clamed a playoff berth. With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers had a chance to win every game and all things were possible. With 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder taking a step forward, the Vikings improved from 3-13 to 10-6. They closed the season on a four-game winning streak – including a wild upset of the Packers in Week 17 in which Ponder had three touchdown passes, zero interceptions and a career-high passer rating of 120.2.
As it stands, neither team is going to make the playoffs this season, and the reason begins and mostly ends with the quarterbacks.
The last time Aaron Rodgers was on the field, the Packers were 5-2 and taking an early lead in a key divisional against Chicago. Without Rodgers, the Packers lost that game and the next two. They're 5-5 heading into Sunday's home game against Minnesota, in 10th place in the NFC and behind the eight-ball in tiebreakers.
The Vikings, on the other hand, have ratcheted up the old football adage that if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have any. The Vikings have three quarterbacks but are 2-8. Ponder started the first three games. He threw two touchdown passes and five interceptions in narrow losses to the Lions, Bears and Browns.
Ponder sustained injured ribs against Cleveland, and while he finished that game, he was replaced by Matt Cassel for the next two games. Cassel threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions in beating Pittsburgh in London but was miserable in a loss against Carolina the next week.
That opened the door for Josh Freeman to start against the Giants after the bye, despite having just a week of practice. Not surprisingly, Freeman was brutal – 20-of-53 for 190 yards and an interception in an ugly loss.
So, it's been back to Ponder. He started the last four games, including a Week 10 victory over Washington in which he completed 17-of-21 passes, but he got benched in favor of Cassel for Sunday's blowout loss at Seattle. Both quarterbacks were bad – Ponder was 13-of-22 with one touchdown and two interceptions and Cassel was 5-of-13 with one touchdown and one interception.
"It's been frustrating," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said during a Wednesday conference call. "That position is so important to your football team -- not just your offense, your team. The fact that we've struggled throughout this season at that position, it's been tough. We get a chance this week to hopefully get some stability and get some good play for four quarters and maybe settle our team down. Hopefully that'll be the case."
Ponder will start on Sunday. After throwing 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 483 attempts last season, he's thrown six touchdowns and nine interceptions in 201 attempts this season. After starting all 16 games and compiling a 10-6 record last year, he's 1-6 this season.
Why hasn't he taken the next step?
"Boy, can't put my finger on it exactly," Frazier said. "Just a lot of things that go into playing well at that position and we've had some changes on offense with our receivers getting integrated with those guys and getting on the same page with them. We just haven't seen the consistency that we saw in that month of December a year ago, for whatever reason."
Ponder was the 12th pick of the 2011 draft. At that spot, Ponder should be a franchise quarterback, and Frazier said he's seen flashes of that potential even in this disappointing season. Nonetheless, the Vikings showed their doubts by adding Cassel, and doubled- and tripled-down on that by signing Freeman and then playing quarterback roulette.
"No, I don't know if we could have done a lot of things different," Frazier said. "We signed Matt Cassel during the offseason to be a backup to Christian, we signed Josh when we had a chance to a few weeks ago. Don't second-guess that decision, right decision. Had a chance to bring in a quality quarterback who might be able to give us something down the line. No, I don't know if we could have done a whole lot of things different."
What is different is the teams' position in the standings compared to a year ago. Green Bay, with its practically unparalleled run of quarterbacking excellence, is staring at its first football-free January since 2008. Minnesota, with its seemingly unending search for a long-term solution at quarterback continuing to sputter, is looking at double-digits losses for the third time in four years.
"You just look around our league, not just Green Bay or Minnesota," Frazier said of the teams' quarterbacking issues. "Your No. 1 quarterback is so, so important, and when you get to your depth at that position, it's usually not the same as your starter. Yeah, just look around the league. Good quarterback play can cover a lot of ills on your team. If you don't have good quarterback play, it can expose a lot of ills on your team. It makes a difference."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.