Christian Ponder and the Minnesota Vikings picked up a little something to take with them on their midseason vacation.
"I don't think a win has ever felt so good," linebacker Chad Greenway said, reflecting on how the Vikings beat Carolina 24-21 the day before.
Still very aware of their 2-6 record, the Vikings nonetheless scattered Monday afternoon with smiles on their faces as the bye on their schedule arrived. Players were given a week off until their next gathering on Nov. 7. They'll get a little extra rest time, too, because of the Monday night game against Green Bay, and won't have another full practice until Nov. 10.
"One and seven wasn't going to cut it, so we had to pull this one off," tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said. "And we did. We fought all four quarters. Everybody fought, fought, fought, fought. We played a physical game, and that's what we were trying to do."
They're practically eliminated from the playoff chase, but the promotion of Ponder as the starting quarterback has injected life into the locker room and provided coach Leslie Frazier some relief from the scrutiny of his performance and second-guessing of some of his decisions.
"Sure does feel good to be able to come here on a Monday after a win," Frazier said as he clutched the podium with each hand and grinned broadly.
Later in his news conference at Winter Park, the coach was asked whether he remained unsettled by the Panthers' conversion of a fourth-and-15 pass late in Sunday's game that gained 44 yards to set up an attempt at the tying field goal.
"I told our coaches this morning, `Nothing is gnawing at me after a win,'" Frazier said, smiling again. "We won the game. We're going into the bye. Vikings win. That's all I'm concerned about. We'll fix all that other stuff during this bye week."
His new quarterback has sure helped him feel better.
Ponder has plenty to improve upon, including a 51.9 completion percentage, but his poise—particularly in the clutch on third down—has transformed an offense that didn't have a spark or an edge when Donovan McNabb was starting. Considering the big leads blown by the Vikings in each of their first three losses, it's natural to wonder what their record would be if Ponder had the job from the start.
"I know why the decision was made and why we made the decision to start him when we did," Frazier said, declining to speculate on the possibility. "So I really don't go there. I just know where our team was and where we were and what we needed to do."
Sometimes teams are wary of sending a rookie into action too soon for fear that bad habits will develop and frustration will taint his development.
"I think it all goes back to the quarterback himself. I think guys respond to things differently. One guy who 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," Ponder said. "But there's other guys that … realize that you're going to make mistakes and just learn from them."
Worried that the lockout limited Ponder's learning time, Frazier pushed the Vikings to acquire the 13-year veteran McNabb in a trade. But he pulled the plug on that experiment after the Vikings lost five of their first six games.
Ponder's debut against the Packers on Oct. 23 was impressive, resulting in what Greenway called the most positive loss of his life.
The sample size is small, so some caution must be applied to the praise being heaped upon Ponder, especially when there are many other flaws this team has. But Shiancoe dismissed the danger of getting too excited too soon.
"You always have to be excited over improvement and build on it," Shiancoe said. "The excitement is going to cause the building process, so it has to be there."
Adrian Peterson caught five passes for 76 yards, a career-high in receiving for him, and Ponder was credited for surveying the defense and checking down to throw his star runner the ball out of the backfield. The Panthers kept their safeties back a lot, a look the Vikings aren't used to. Usually, one of them is up near the line to try to stop Peterson.
"Hopefully we'll be able to help Adrian achieve his goal of 2,000 yards rushing if we start getting a lot of two-high safeties," Frazier said, flashing that grin again.
Frazier saw a buildup in practice by Ponder that told him the rookie was ready. It was the way he ran the huddle, the maturity he showed on the field and the type of throws he was able to make. Relieving McNabb on Oct. 16 at the end of a blowout loss at Chicago, then, solidified in Ponder the game experience he needed to build off his strides and natural strengths.
"He didn't get flustered. He came off the field after one of those series and said, `Coach, I'm glad you put me in there!'" Frazier said, adding: "He embraced that moment. That game kind of told me that it's time. And then looking at where our team was at the time."
The first-round draft pick from Florida State shrugged off his role in the team's mood swing, but his confidence is clear.
"Pressure is what you put on yourself," Ponder said with the same calm he's showed in the pocket.
With his popularity increasing by the day, Ponder is headed on a hunting and fishing trip in South Dakota with teammates Greenway, Cullen Loeffler and John Sullivan. He'll return to Minnesota with, at least, the opportunity to make these games in November and December meaningful.
Ponder has Vikings feeling better with bye
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