Christian Ponder (Alissa Foreman/Viking Update)
They won’t be coming after each other and might not even be in the game during the same stretch, but the two rookie quarterbacks Saturday night, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker, are both aiming to live up to their draft status and improve their standing on the depth chart.
There aren’t many matchups that are overly intriguing in a preseason opener. Any veteran starter with an injury will be held out. The starters may see two series, but just as many will only be one-and-done. The games will be decided by the guys on the second, third and fourth line on the depth chart. However, in the Vikings-Titans game Saturday night, the debuts of Jake Locker and Christian Ponder will be a matchup to watch that may well be pointed to years from now.
Few things energize a fan base following an awful season like drafting a quarterback with promises of that man being the Chosen One of the franchise moving forward. In just the last three years, the NFL has seen the fortunes of teams turned around with fresh-faced starters at QB – Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Matt Ryan have led their teams to the playoffs, Josh Freeman in Tampa Bay won 10 games last season and Sam Bradford took the Rams from the worst team in the league to still being in playoff contention 16 weeks into the season in the parity-infested NFC West. The new formula in the NFL is that, if you have the talent, a rookie QB can be thrown in immediately and take a team to the playoffs.
Despite that recent track record, as things stand today, the only rookie QB currently slated to start in Week 1 is Andy Dalton of the Bengals, who wasn’t taken until the second round of the draft. That came a day after four quarterbacks were taken with the first 12 picks. With a lockout in place, there was no chance for teams to work with their young QBs to see if they had the “it” factor that could convince the team’s veterans that this kid can get the job done. The thinking from April to August has changed considerably.
Four teams looking to change their fortunes in the current buyer’s market for first-round quarterbacks made the leap of faith – Carolina taking Cam Newton with the first pick, Tennessee taking Locker at No. 8, Jacksonville snapping up Blaine Gabbert with the 10th pick and the Vikings landing Ponder at No. 12. We may never know if Ponder was ranked No. 2 or No. 4 among quarterbacks on the Vikings’ draft board, but, with the Fab Four all in the NFL, where they were picked won’t matter as much as how they produce.
The only team that had an established quarterback was Jacksonville, where David Garrard is a solid, if not spectacular, quarterback. Gabbert was drafted with the expectation of sitting and watching. Newton is likely to win the Carolina starting job if he can pick up the system, but the current buzz out of the Carolinas is that pedestrian second-year man Jimmy Clausen will begin the season as the incumbent starter. Believe that when you see it. If Newton is even passable in running the offense, the future begins Week 1.
The other two – Locker and Ponder – were drafted by teams that had significant pressing issues at quarterback and at the very highest levels of power in the organization. On the QB front, the Titans were fed up with Vince Young and Kerry Collins was on his way to a much-deserved retirement. They drafted Locker with the idea that, if no veteran was available, he would start Opening Day. The Vikings watched the Old Gunslinger limp into the Gulf Coast sunset and, with the team fed up with Tarvaris Jackson, Ponder came in as the starter if a veteran wasn’t available.
A funny thing happened in the opening days of the free-agent feeding frenzy. With months to think, re-think and re-re-think their decisions with new head coaches and new offensive coordinators, both the Vikings and the Titans knew that they needed to have a viable veteran option or their 2011 season could be primed for failure. Both teams jumped and both rookies went from the face of the franchise to the face under the ball cap.
The Vikings swung a trade to take Donovan McNabb off of Mike Shanahan’s hands and the Titans helped make Seahawks fans sleepless in Seattle by signing long-time starter Matt Hasselbeck. Both came to their new teams knowing their role – being the veteran presence with the heir to the throne being groomed.
As a result, Locker and Ponder will both be on display Saturday night. Locker will likely play the majority of the first half, replacing Hasselbeck, who has struggled in his adjustment to the first non-West Coast Offense of his pro career. Ponder is expected to be the third quarterback in for Minnesota, likely playing the second half behind Donovan McNabb and Joe Webb.
Despite likely not being on the field much at the same point of the game, the comparisons will be made given their current situations with the team. Locker is clearly the No. 2 option in Tennessee and his job is going to be trying to convince the new coaching staff that he gives the team a better chance of winning than Hasselbeck. Since they have the same amount of time with the offensive coaching staff, Hasselbeck has the advantage with NFL experience, but Locker is fighting for the starting job.
Ponder’s case is a little different. The Vikings have, for a third straight season, put their offensive chips in front of a potential Hall of Famer. McNabb may not be a first-ballot Hall of Famer like Brett Favre, but he could have his bust in Canton someday. Ponder went from fighting for the starting job to fighting for the No. 2 position.
The game that may have earned Leslie Frazier his full-time job was an improbable win against the Philadelphia Eagles on the road – a game delayed a day by projections of snow in Philly. Joe Webb was the hero of that game. As a former player himself, Frazier has no predisposition to pushing Webb to the No. 3 QB behind Ponder. As it currently stands, Webb is No. 2a on the depth chart and Ponder is No. 2b. He has to do something to supplant Webb to lock down the No. 2 position behind McNabb.
With all the similarities of the situations Ponder and Locker have – new head coaches, veterans in front of them, first-round premium draft picks taken higher than many draft experts believed they would or should be taken, and having their careers compared and contrasted for years to come – in their first meeting, Ponder and Locker may never be on the field at the same time. Still, given the magnitude of organizational expectations, this remains the matchup to watch Saturday night.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.