A veteran and a rookie both made game-altering mistakes Sunday in Detroit. Both were benched, but it was the rookie taking it like he should have and the veteran reportedly lashing out.
Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder was benched after three interceptions and a lost fumble. Rightfully so. He was making bad throws, and it really didn't matter if those were bad decisions, inaccurate passes or due to the effects of a hip pointer he suffered the previous Sunday. He was costing the team the chance to win and head coach Leslie Frazier made the right decision.
Veteran cornerback Cedric Griffin was also benched – only five minutes and 15 seconds into the game. His permanent trip to the sidelines came after he allowed Lions rookie receiver Titus Young a free run down the left sideline without jamming him to disrupt the timing of the route. The result was a 53-yard touchdown and a 14-0 Lions lead.
After the game, Ponder took full responsibility for his obvious errors. Griffin responded by insinuating that would ask for release.
"It was a team decision so I'm going to make my decision what I got to do after the season and they're going to make their decision," Griffin told reporters after the game.
If Griffin is hinting at asking for release, the Vikings might be happy to oblige the way he has played over the last two seasons. He hasn't had an interception since Dec. 28, 2009, about one month before he suffered his first torn anterior cruciate ligament covering a kickoff during the NFC Championship Game. Of course, Vikings fans know that he tried his best to make a quick recovery and play early in the 2010 season, only to tear the other ACL in only his second game back from injury last season.
But it isn't his yeoman-like effort to return from injury or the lack of burst that would appear to be bringing things to a boiling point with the Vikings. Instead, it appears he isn't following through with what his coaches are asking of him.
"We made that switch to try to get someone in there that would slow the Titus Youngs of the world down. That's hard to play the kind of defense we want to play if you don't execute that part of the defense," Frazier said after Sunday's loss.
Griffin has started every game this season, but the Vikings have clearly been trying to cover for him. It used to be that he was their top cover cornerback. Now that responsibility belongs to Asher Allen, who opened the season fourth on the cornerback depth chart.
Last week, Frazier acknowledged Griffin's struggles this year, which finally got the cornerback granting an interview request a few days after Frazier's remarks.
"For where I'm at right now, my play is just fine. I don't have any problem about the way I've been playing. I'm doing really well for where I am at. So, I really don't' have any criticism about my play," Griffin said last week.
"I'm happy with my play. I'm doing a good job out there. So, I can't say anything farther on that. I'm doing really well for where I'm at, so you need to understand that."
Griffin has clearly lost a step, which is understandable after ACL surgery on each of his knees over the last two years. But it appears he simply isn't following through with the prescribed techniques on the field, giving up his second touchdown of 20 yards or more in two weeks.
Frazier explained Griffin's benching.
"Just some things we talked about all week long, about what we have to do to play better in the secondary. We may not have our full complement, (but) there are certain things that we have to do to be able to function," Frazier said. "Being fundamentally sound, technique-sound – that doesn't take a lot of talent. You've just got to be able to execute some of those basic fundamentals that we ask. (We) made a change and the guys that got in there, they battled and they fought and they held their own pretty good."
Griffin is scheduled to make $14.4 million in base salary over the remaining three years of the contract extension he signed in March 2009, and his salary-cap hit over the next three years is even bigger. That hit will be $15.55 million if he is retained under his current contract. Despite the depleted state of the Vikings secondary, the team would likely welcome the opportunity to have his assistance in starting over in the secondary.
Meanwhile, while Griffin questioned his benching and defended his play, Ponder took responsibility for his mistakes – and they were many. Like Griffin, Ponder's injury, a hip pointer, may have contributed to his play. But he wasn't using it as an excuse.
Ponder didn't practice until Friday and was a game-time decision. He said the pain "wasn't too bad," but admitted there was stiffness in the hip area. He ended up throwing three interceptions, fumbled the ball twice, and took ownership of his mistakes.
"It went back to turnovers. We just stopped ourselves. I stopped the offense," he said.
Frazier thought Ponder's final interception – when he couldn't break contain like he normally would have and threw across his body – was a byproduct of his hip injury and caused him to force the throw. He said he benched Ponder for a combination of performance and injury.
"The performance, the picks, but it's partially from my standpoint due to him not being as comfortable as he needed to be," Frazier said.
Despite the benching of his first-round pick and the player he was convinced is the Vikings' quarterback of the future, Frazier assured reporters that Ponder is the Vikings' starting quarterback if he's healthy, and he's right in that assessment. The team needs to get Ponder as many snaps as possible the rest of the season, but those have to be snaps when he is able to function.
While Griffin chose to defend his performance and appeared to make a veiled threat to request his release, Ponder owned up to his actions.
"Everyone wants to play well and you never want to get benched, but I wasn't playing well enough," Ponder said. "I was hurting the team more than I was helping the team. I was excited to see Joe (Webb) out there and bring us back – one play away from winning the ballgame. That's always exciting to see, and obviously me and Joe are close friends and I was happy for him."
A little accountability can go a long way.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Yotter: A tale of two benchings
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