Christian Ponder (Brace Hemmelgarn/US Press)
Leslie Frazier would come out and say Christian Ponder is the Vikings’ starter, but the coaching staff is talking about making that change.
The stability and experience Donovan McNabb was supposed to bring to Minnesota’s offense while rookie Christian Ponder learned the position has yielded one win in six games.
The Vikings sure look and sound a lot like a team on the verge of a quarterback switch.
Coach Leslie Frazier said Monday he’ll take the next two days to talk with his staff and promised a decision Wednesday. Ponder relieved McNabb for the fourth quarter Sunday at Chicago with the Vikings on their way to a 1-5 record. The division standings suggest pride is all that can be salvaged from the 2011 season, though Frazier refused to turn his focus to the future.
“Right now 2012 is not really on the radar,” he said.
Frazier was steadfast in his defense of McNabb until after the 39-10 drubbing by the Bears. The coach hasn’t come close to criticizing the 34-year-old six-time Pro Bowl pick he pushed the organization to acquire in a trade, after the lockout prevented Ponder from practicing all spring and summer with the team. Frazier has stopped endorsing McNabb as the starter, however, a possible sign of an impending move.
“We’re going to talk about a lot of things, but the primary point will be what’s best for our team as we go forward,” Frazier said.
Neither McNabb nor Ponder were available in the locker room Monday when it was open to reporters. The veterans on this team that’s less than two years removed from missing the Super Bowl by four points, though, aren’t interested in participating in a rebuilding project.
“Here’s the way I look at it. We’re still in 2011. We’ve got Green Bay next week. If you’re looking forward to 2012, then I say you leave this locker room and you come back in 2012,” defensive end Brian Robison said.
McNabb statistically is coming off his best game for Minnesota. He went 19 for 24, including a glaring drop by Bernard Berrian on a third-down slant pattern where the ball hit the wide open receiver squarely in the hands. McNabb still has turned the ball over only twice in six games, and Brett Favre had lost four fumbles and been intercepted 10 times by this point last season.
But McNabb was sacked four times on his last six snaps and went down without resistance when he was tackled for the safety in the first quarter. He has four touchdown passes this year and three completions longer than 35 yards.
The Vikings could make a strong argument that, despite the lack of development time for Ponder, playing the rookie is not only good for the future but the right move to give the offense more life for the present. Frazier said he doesn’t want to flip-flop from week to week, so if Ponder gets the nod the job will probably be his for good - and McNabb, conceivably, could’ve played his final NFL game.
The defending champion and undefeated Packers appear on the schedule for two of the next three games, but Frazier said the quality of the opponent won’t factor into the evaluation.
“The only qualifier is what’s best for our team, and that will be the criteria we use when we sit down and continue these discussions over the next couple days,” Frazier said.
Ponder was Minnesota’s first-round draft pick this year, taken 12th overall out of Florida State. He has shown elusiveness and confidence in the pocket, though he was erratic against the Bears, and Frazier said he was impressed by the way Ponder moved the team up the field.
“For a guy who gets limited reps in practice, it seems he had a good grasp, like we thought he would, of our offense,” Frazier said.
Once the quarterback decision is made, there are many more problems to address.
“I’ve never been 1-5 ever,” defensive end Jared Allen said.
The offensive line lost two starters to injury against the Bears and was overwhelmed by both the pass rush and the safety-stacked front on running plays. After watching the Bears get beat up by Detroit’s defense the week before, the Vikings couldn’t generate any pressure on Jay Cutler or make the strategic moves to counter the extra blockers the Bears left in. Their tackling of Matt Forte was substandard, and the downfield coverage of Chicago’s unremarkable receivers was worse.
Even their usually sound special teams were terrible.
Ryan Longwell’s 38-yard field goal attempt went way left, albeit in a stiff wind, and his kickoff - after a forced turnover and quick touchdown gave the Vikings some life early in the third quarter - sailed straight to Devin Hester.
Hester zoomed for a 98-yard return, the fourth time in 10 career games against Minnesota he has brought a kick back for a touchdown. Chris Kluwe had trouble with the gusts, too, with a gross average of only 37.2 yards on five punts. Marcus Sherels contradicted convention by calling for a fair catch of a punt at the 5-yard line, two plays before McNabb was sacked for a safety.
Allen was careful to declare the defeat a total team failure but also questioned the tackling and coverage in the secondary. Frazier called out the offensive and defensive lines for not playing physical enough and said cornerback Cedric Griffin needs to be a lot better, and improve quickly. The coach, who has rarely been critical of his players, even said he didn’t see them handle their first victory well last week.
“We didn’t go out there with the type of energy and focus that you have to play with on the road as an opponent in your division,” Frazier said, “and that comes back to me.”