For his first three seasons with the Vikings, quarterback Christian Ponder has been front and center of training camp. Whether it was as the new golden boy in 2011 following the end of the lockout to last season when every national media outlet that dispatched reporters to the farmland of Nicollet County wanted to talk to Ponder first, he was hard to miss in Mankato.
2014 has been a completely different animal. Not only is he not competing for the starting job, he is mired as the No. 3 quarterback, taking snaps with offensive teammates, many of which won’t be on the final 53-man roster.
With the new coaching staff taking a long, hard look at Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater as their potential starters, Ponder has been the man lost in the shuffle. The handwriting appears clear that the team is moving in another direction without Ponder in the equation to make much of an impact.
For someone who was looking to be one of the faces of the franchise, Ponder has become a face in the crowd, which has lent itself to some frustration and made what precious few snaps he does get during training camp practices all that much more important.
“There are times when I can get a little frustrated, but I understand what’s going on and I have to accept my place in it,” Ponder said. “It’s been a lot different than any training camp I’ve been involved with. I don’t get the number of reps that I’ve had in previous years, but all that means is that I have to make the most of the opportunities I get.”
Ponder has never found himself in such a position before. Coming out of Florida State as a highly touted college QB in 2011, he was groomed on the fast track to be ready to replace aging veteran Donovan McNabb, a process that took hold after just six uneventful McNabb starts. In 2012, he was the unquestioned starter until an injury prior to wild card playoff game at Green Bay forced Joe Webb, who hadn’t thrown a pass all season, to start in the playoffs.
Looking to avoid the same mistake in 2013, the Vikings signed Cassel, but it was made very clear to Ponder, Cassel, the fans and the media that Cassel was the backup and Ponder was the starter. The roles have been reversed this year, but Ponder is trying not to hang his head about his demotion. Instead, he’s using it as a learning experience.
“Last year, I was taking almost all of the first-team reps in camp and we were all working on the same page with the coaching staff,” Ponder said. “It’s a lot different for me this time around, but there are positives that I can take away from it. I’m learning so much watching how Matt and Teddy are doing things and listening to Coach Turner – both Scott and Norv. Some might see it as a negative, but there are a lot of positives coming out of this.”
Ponder has embraced the new coaching scheme, which is very complicated in its design. Both he and Cassel were able to hit the ground running in the spring because, under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, teams that fired their head coach following the conclusion of a season can have an extra veteran minicamp.
That extra acclimation period may not sound like much, but Ponder believes it was a big benefit for both he and Cassel.
“It was very valuable to me,” Ponder said. “Any extra time you can get learning a new offense the more time you have the better, but especially with Norv’s offense. There’s a lot to it and there’s a lot to learn, especially for a quarterback. It was definitely beneficial to us and I think the whole quarterback group and the entire offense has done a good job of picking it up and translating it to the field. I think we will see a lot of improvement.”
What has been part of Ponder’s frustration that he isn’t part of the discussion for the 2014 starting position is that he loves the new offense and thinks it fits in well with his skill set.
“It’s a rhythm offense,” Ponder said. “We like to see the big-play possibilities, but it’s an offense where, if the big play isn’t there, you check down to other options and can still make positive plays. The ball gets out of your hand quick and there is a lot of variety – different formations and a lot of different plays. And it doesn’t hurt to have Adrian (Peterson) back there because he takes a lot of attention from defenses.”
At the end of last season, Ponder floated the idea of potentially asking the team for a trade, but that never materialized. While he isn’t happy about his reduced role, he’s going to make the best of it and prepare himself as he always has – whether it is to come into games off the bench due to injury or ineffectiveness or to prepare to become a free agent at the end of the season.
“We’re all professionals and the biggest thing for all of us is to win as a team,” Ponder said. “Do I want to be the starter? Sure. So does Matt and so does Teddy. If you accept not being a starter, you really don’t belong in the NFL. I don’t know what the future is going to bring, so all I can do is work my butt off every day, learn the offense as best I can and be ready if I get the call and need to go in to help the team. I can’t get down on myself or my situation because that won’t do anybody any good. All I can do is prepare every day like I always have and the rest will sort itself out.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Ponder frustrated, but finding positives
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