Christian Ponder/Bill Musgrave (B. Kluckhohn/USP)
Christian Ponder is only the fifth quarterback drafted by the Vikings to enter a season as the starter. The others have had mixed results, but Ponder has more starting experience than all but one of them when they were getting their first shot to begin a season as the starter.
Christian Ponder is breaking some rarely covered ground in Vikings history – a drafted Vikings QB entering his first full season as the unquestioned starter.
It’s only happened four times prior to 2012 in the more than a half century of Vikings football and, for the most part, there has been as much or more success than there has been failure. The history of the past growing pains could bode well for Ponder moving forward.
The first time the Vikings put a young draftee into the fray was future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton in 1961. He didn’t begin his career as the starter, but took over in the second quarter of the first game of the season and held the job for the remainder of his Vikings career (split into two eras after being traded to the Giants and then re-acquired).
In that first season as a starter, the Vikings struggled to a 3-11 record and Tarkenton was far from dominant. He threw for less than 2,000 yards with 18 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a passer rating of 74.7 – all pretty pedestrian numbers, but he used that time to earn the confidence of his teammates (if not always head coach Norm Van Brocklin). The team would struggle through the infancy of the franchise, but Tark became “the man” early on after being named the starter and was the early face of the franchise as the team grew up around him.
In would be almost 20 seasons before the Vikings faced that situation again. Tommy Kramer was drafted in the first round in 1977, but didn’t enter a season as the unquestioned starter until 1979. That year, the Vikings were in a similar rebuilding mode that they are currently in. The Purple People Eaters that had dominated the previous decade were being dismantled and the Vikings struggled to a 7-9 record behind Kramer, who completed 315 of 586 passes for 3,307 yards with 23 touchdowns, 24 interceptions and a passer rating of just 69.3. Kramer would lead the Vikings to the playoffs in his second full year as a starter, but the team would waver around .500 for much of his career as the starting QB. Kramer was a gunslinger before some guy named Favre took ownership of that moniker. He took a lot of chances and threw a lot of interceptions, which tarnished many of the good things he did as Tarkenton’s replacement.
Without question, the most impressive debut was by Daunte Culpepper in 2000. He took over a team that had posted a record of 25-7 the previous two seasons. This was far from a rebuilding team at the time and Pepp flourished. In his first season as the starter, he threw for 3,937 yards with 33 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a passer rating of 98.0, not to mention rushing for 470 yards and seven more TDs. Culpepper would be an enigma with the Vikings – supremely talented, but not the kind of QB that routinely led his team back from a deficit. He was more likely to turn a 10-point deficit into a 17-point loss than he was to lead the Vikings back for a come-from-behind victory. But there was no questioning his impact on the franchise and his ability to lead the team on a playoff run. Nobody was as impressive as Culpepper coming out of the gate and he, not Tarkenton, set the standard for young Vikings QBs to follow.
The Vikings would hand the keys of the franchise to a young QB again until 2007. The Vikings drafted Tarvaris Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft and he was named starter at the end of that season. While the Vikings didn’t make the playoffs in 2007, it couldn’t be blamed on T-Jack. He battled injuries that sidelined him three times, but, in the 12 games he started, the Vikings had a record of 8-4. He threw for just 1,911 yards with nine TDs, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of only 70.8, but he won twice as often as he lost.
As the Vikings prepare for the first full season of the Ponder era at quarterback, he comes into the 2012 season with more rookie experience than any QB since Tarkenton in the team’s inaugural season. Kramer had to wait two years to become the full-time starter. Culpepper and Jackson became starters in their second seasons and neither saw appreciable action in their rookie seasons. Ponder hits the ground running as the Vikings head into the 2012 season and, while much is expected of him, if history tells us anything, things might not be as bad as the naysayers may have you believe. Don’t expect a Pro Bowl in Ponder’s short-term future, but, as the Vikings look to carve out a new chapter in the history of the franchise, Ponder will be a critical piece of that process and there is reason for some optimism that the Vikings’ rise back to respectability may not be as long a process as some might have you believe.
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.