Christian Ponder entered the Vikings game Sunday night in relief of Donovan McNabb, and much to the relief of Vikings fans.
There was no comeback win in sight for the Vikings, who trailed 39-10 when the No. 12 overall pick was inserted into the game, but Ponder's athleticism showed through after McNabb's night ended with back-to-back sacks and two backup offensive linemen in the game due to injuries.
At the point of Ponder, the game was already over in a brutal team performance that continued the Vikings' house of horrors at Soldier Field, but the career could just be getting kick-started for Ponder.
Like McNabb, Ponder experienced some of the same pressure, but instead of McNabb stepping up to create passing lanes like a veteran, it was Ponder finding the creases to escape, buy time and unload throws that connected with receivers in stride.
At this point, there is no guarantee Ponder is the savior Vikings fans seek. He is a rookie, after all, and he was the fourth quarterback selected in April's draft. But it's also clear after watching this year's other rookie passers, along with the recent history of previous rookie quarterbacks, that there can be some success in that role. At this point, with a 1-5 record for the Vikings, there is little reason to hold back.
After the game, head coach Leslie Frazier didn't commit to any starter, saying "we've got to sit down on Monday and talk about a lot of things and just decide on what direction we want to go."
McNabb's numbers hardly told the story. He completed 19 of 24 passes for 177 yards, but he started out with his trademark inaccuracy, throwing high and behind tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on his first attempt. It was an incompletion in which both players could accept culpability, but McNabb's history of bounce passes doesn't allow him to be in line for much benefit of the doubt.
His next pass, a bubble screen to Percy Harvin, was nearly intercepted, and Bernard Berrian dropped the next third-down offering – a throw that clearly was on target.
McNabb said he "absolutely" expects to start, but he knows the offense is struggling and the film doesn't lie about the missed opportunities. Even several passes he did complete never gave his receivers an opportunity to pick up yards after the catch, including a 30-yard completion to Berrian that was slightly behind him and finally took advantage of Chicago's inexperienced safeties. If the throw had been on target – hitting Berrian in stride – it likely would have been a touchdown.
"I just seems like it's something every single play. Nothing you can just pinpoint. You get in certain situations and you've got to be able to capitalize," McNabb said. "Just a mix of everything together on the offensive side."
McNabb continued his mantra that the numbers don't matter and it's all about the wins. But there is only one win in six tries. On Sunday night, it was clearer than ever that the Bears were daring the Vikings to beat them in the passing game and they simply weren't equipped to handle it.
"We had some things we wanted to answer with in the passing game. We felt like there would be a lot of eight-man fronts to defend the run and we wanted to be able to get to some things in the passing game," Frazier said. "We just couldn't get in sync, for a number of reasons. If you get in a position where you have to throw, then we've got to be able to make those throws and we've got to be able to protect the quarterback and we weren't able to do that."
The Vikings lost right tackle Phil Loadholt for the game with a bruised knee (he is expected to play Sunday against the Packers) and center John Sullivan to a concussion (his status will likely be uncertain all week).
McNabb was sacked four of his final six plays on the field, and the Bears were in a similarly fortuitous position in the fourth quarter. When Ponder entered the game at the start of the final period, his team had a 39-10 deficit and Chicago knew he would be passing most of the time. Despite the pressure, Ponder was the one that looked like a veteran stepping forward to find the passing lanes and hit receivers in stride.
"I thought he did a good job under the circumstances. We'll go back and look at the tape and fully evaluate it, but it seemed like he moved around pretty good. We'll look at the tape and just see," Frazier said.
"As far as protection, we got in some predicable situations and they did a good job as far as rushing the passer and then beat us sometimes one on one. We want to avoid those predictable situations when the defensive line can pin their ears back and get after our quarterback."
To his credit, McNabb continued to talk with Ponder in the fourth quarter, pointing out coverages and keys for the rookie. But McNabb also isn't giving up the fight easily. He expects to remain the starter.
"I don't see it ending like this. It's tough. You're 1-5 at this particular point," he said. "I felt like we did a lot of great things today. I guess we'll sit down and talk, but I still expect to be in there next week."
The Vikings were hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 1992 Chargers, the only team to start a season 1-4 and still make the playoffs, but the Chargers never fell to 1-5.
Up until this point, the feeling was that going to Ponder as the starter might be admitting the season is over. If the Vikings would make the playoffs after this disastrous start it would be unprecedented, but moving to Ponder may be the best way to keep veterans engaged and feeling like they are working toward something brighter in the distance.
McNabb's inaccuracy caused frustration among some playmakers and they know he was a one-year bridge. Turns out, that bridge led to nowhere. It's time to put aside past loyalties and avoid a resounding chorus of boos next week at Mall of America Field against an undefeated Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers team. Playing Ponder might be the only way to keep the ticket-buying, ratings-enhancing fan base from checking out on Frazier.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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