Things can change quickly in the NFL. In the span of one week, the Vikings lost their franchise player (Adrian Peterson), their starting quarterback (Matt Cassel) and their playmaking tight end. It has forced the Vikings offense to make some radical changes, not the least of which is reincarnating the career of Christian Ponder.
A year ago, Ponder was the unquestioned starter. A week ago, he was the unquestioned No. 3 QB. He was getting scout-team reps in practice, but he has learned the hard way that fortunes can change for better or worse in a hurry in the NFL.
Ponder has been an afterthought for most of the 2014 season, but with Teddy Bridgewater ascending to the starting spot, Ponder has moved up a spot as well. While he has been effectively dormant for the last two months, he has worked to stay sharp mentally in the event of the potential for what occurred Sunday.
While his status has changed, his level of preparedness has remained the same, he said, and won’t change with his move up the depth chart.
“I’ve been preparing every week and trying to stay in it and be mentally prepared,” Ponder said. “This week really won’t be that different for me.”
Things got a little dicey in New Orleans because of new rules set up by the NFL. It used to be that the No. 3 quarterback on a roster was inactive but could suit up and play in an emergency. Now teams have to declare a No. 3 QB on a game day roster. The Vikings had opted to deactivate Ponder, which meant that if anything happened to Cassel and Bridgewater, the Vikings couldn’t turn to Ponder. It most likely would have fallen on tight end and former University of Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray, but Cordarrelle Patterson and Jarius Wright were also options.
“It’s scary when you’re not dressed and who is going to be the emergency quarterback – put MarQueis back there or something,” Ponder said. “You’ve always got to be ready. Being a third-string guy, it’s probably one of the toughest jobs, because you’re not getting the reps that the No. 2 guy is getting but you’ve got to be prepared. It took what Matt’s going through. We’re going to hope he’s going to have a full recovery and it won’t take long. But I’ll be ready to be the No. 2 guy.”
While Ponder’s day-to-day role will change, he has remained vigilant to learning the offense that has been installed by Norv and Scott Turner and, while Cassel was taking the first-team reps, Bridgewater and Ponder were practicing in their own way, trying to predict what play calls were coming and how they would be executed.
That classroom-style work has served Ponder well and he believes he’s ready to hit the ground running if his number gets called – just as Bridgewater’s did last week.
“It won’t be hard,” Ponder said. “I stayed in it and took mental reps. I sat there with Teddy when Matt was going through practice and tried calling the plays and just watching visually and trying to take mental reps. It won’t be that difficult to recall.”
Ponder has marveled at the poise that Bridgewater has displayed since coming to the Vikings and has been impressed with his mental approach. At first, he didn’t always believe that Bridgewater was telling the truth when he was coming off with a cool demeanor.
But, Ponder has had what doubts he may have had early erased and has come to respect the attitude Bridgewater has brought to the job.
“I remember the first preseason game,” Ponder said. “I asked Teddy whether he was nervous or not. Of course he said ‘no’ and I thought, ‘He’s just a liar.’ The guy doesn’t get nervous. The guy has a ton of poise and played extremely well. You expect to continue the next game and so on.”
In a summer and fall that has been a humbling experience for Ponder, he has tried to remain mentally sharp because he has been enjoying the tutorial in the Turner offense. He simply hasn’t had time to sulk or waste feeling bad about his spot on the depth chart because the last six months have been one of the most exciting learning experiences of his football life.
“I think the one thing that kept me in it was just how much I was learning,” Ponder said. “To learn from Scott and Norv about offenses, about defenses and just learning this offense, I felt like it was really helping me and helping me progress as a quarterback. There were a lot of positives going through this experience.”
As the Vikings begin their preparation for Atlanta, Ponder will be an active participant for the first time since the preseason. Just as Bridgewater went from the sidelines to the spotlight in an instant, Ponder now finds himself in the same position – still not back on the field, but one step closer.
He knows as well as anyone how quickly fortunes can change and is preparing because “next man up” isn’t just a mantra. It’s a way of life.
“It’s a crazy business and you always have to be prepared,” Ponder said. “This is a game that injuries happen, too often probably. You’ve got to stay in it.”
Ponder believes he’s ready for Vikings
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