The Vikings are getting it right at the quarterback position. In the curious case of Christian Ponder, making no move is the right move.
Ponder "will be here" in 2014, according to general manager Rick Spielman, and that's the right move, even if it isn't the popular move. Fans will disagree – wait, they have already, right? – but there is absolutely no harm in keeping Ponder around for another season for numerous reasons.
On the field, which matters most, Ponder was outplayed for the majority of the season by Matt Cassel. That's as much an indictment on Ponder as a compliment to Cassel.
But the Vikings have moved beyond banking that three or four "good" games – the type that former head coach Leslie Frazier would often refer to has "giving us hope" – will translate into a season of success. As it turned out, their actions, like signing Cassel as insurance in 2013, showed that their "hope" wasn't a certainty, and it shouldn't have been. Ponder showed in 2012 that he was just as capable of a clunker as he was putting up reasonable performances.
The fact of the matter is that Vikings fans have been so starved of elite or even very good quarterback play since 2009 that they may have forgotten what it looks like and settled for mediocre. Criticize Spielman all you want for the selection of Ponder, but he at least is willing to admit that the team can't rely solely on Ponder, and not even Ponder and Cassel, if the veteran returns to the team under a different deal after opting out of his current one.
Ponder had the opportunity to put a stranglehold on the quarterback position in 2013 but instead ended up leaving some fans wanting to strangle him. Still, if he can calm down and the influence of different mentors finds a way to get the most out him, then why not keep him working (relatively cheaply) in the wings?
He wasn't the complete failure some fans wanted to shovel on him and he wasn't deserving of holding onto the starting the job, either. The truth was somewhere in between for him.
Cassel outplayed Ponder, but not by a whole lot when it was all said and done. Both had relatively pedestrian passer ratings – Cassel at 81.6 and Ponder at 77.9. Cassel proved to be more willing to go downfield, averaging 7.1 yards per attempt to Ponder's 6.9 yards, but Ponder had the better completion percentage at 63.6 to Cassel's 60.2.
The problem with Ponder was the appearance that he couldn't get comfortable in the pocket and the confounding mistakes that could quickly turn him and the scoreboard sideways. So even if he did improve – and his substantially increased number of explosive passes in 2013 compared to 2012 would indicate some areas of improvement – he didn't earn the starting job nor is he likely to enter the 2014 season as the favorite for that, even if Cassel isn't re-signed.
The Vikings almost surely will enter the season with Ponder in addition to a veteran and a high-round draft pick. The smart play says the veteran will be given the first crack at the starting job with all members of the organization pulling for the rookie to overtake him by the start of the regular season.
Spielman knows the Vikings have to "keep swinging" until they find a franchise quarterback. If they do that in the next two years – and it would then almost surely come via the 2014 draft – they have enough of the other pieces in place to make a serious run in the playoffs. Adrian Peterson should still be one of the best running backs in the league and may look even better than he did in 2013 when he struggled through a bevy of injuries … and under the sometimes confusing formations that former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave initiated that seemed to invite more defenders into the proverbial box to stop Peterson. Defensively, there is a lot of work to be done on personnel, but the defensive stylings of Mike Zimmer should help quicken that restoration process.
But when it comes to Ponder, there is no harm in waiting another year to see if he, too, can be helped by the implementation of Norv Turner's offense and the coordinator's touch with quarterbacks.
Off the field, retaining Ponder makes perfect sense. He is entering the final year of his rookie contract, but because he was a first-round pick he will cost $3.23 million against the salary cap. That's a pretty steep price if he ends up as the No. 3 quarterback in 2014, but it would cost the Vikings $1.47 million to release him. In other words, either way they are paying for what at this time only can be classified as a "reach" in the 2011 draft.
Ponder can't enter the season as the starter or there could be a fan revolt. He didn't earn that honor, either. He also likely can't be traded with a cap number in excess of $3 million. And he isn't likely to be released with a prorated bonus of nearly half his cap number that would be charged to the Vikings anyway.
In other words, there are several incentives to simply keep him on the roster for the fourth and final season of his rookie contract and hope that Turner's tutoring can still make something of a quarterback that has hardly even reached the level of teasing fans to this point.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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