There is little questioning the level of success the Vikings will have in 2013 will be directly related to the success that Christian Ponder has. If he takes the next step in his progression as an NFL quarterback, he will be hailed as a sound draft choice that helped bring the Vikings franchise back from its worst season in history. If he doesn't, he could become the albatross that gets heavy around the neck of Rick Spielman.
Does that sound familiar? Spin it however you want, the Minnesota career of Brad Childress rose and fell on his bullish support of Tarvaris Jackson. It should be noted that he put his faith in a guy the Vikings traded up to get with the last pick of the second round of the 2006 draft – the debate remains as to whether anyone would have drafted him in between the time the Vikings moved up and were scheduled in the third round. But, even so, Chilly didn't lock and load with the 12th pick of the draft or the fourth quarterback taken in the first 12 picks – which, along with Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker, were all considered "reach" picks.
Spielman's history of acquiring quarterbacks has been sketchy at best. In his only previous general managerial post in Miami from 2004-05, Job One was to finally come up with an adequate replacement to Dan Marino, who had last played in 1999. Gus Frerotte, A.J. Feeley, Sage Rosenfels and Jay Fiedler. To that end, it was an unqualified disaster.
It should come as no surprise that when Spielman assumed a role in the Vikings front office he dipped into that same well of mediocrity to answer the troubling Jackson Question, bringing in both Frerotte and Rosenfels as Band Aids for sucking chest wounds. When Chilly gave up on T-Jack two games into the 2008 season, his career took a downward spiral that saw him lose his starting job in Minnesota despite posting a winning record and getting another chance in Seattle before once again unceremoniously being shown the door.
The simple fact remains that, since 2000, the only success the Vikings have enjoyed at quarterback has come from Daunte Culpepper and Brett Favre. Other than those two, if the Vikings have been successful, it has been despite their quarterbacks, not because of them.
Last year spoke to the role Ponder played with the Vikings. It was pretty easy to decipher – even for non-football fans. If he doesn't mistakes, the Vikings win. If he does, they lose. In 16 starts last year, Ponder didn't throw an interception in eight of them. The Vikings went 7-1 in those games. In the eight games he did throw a pick, the Vikings were 3-5.
In six games, Ponder was sacked one time or less. The significance of that is that he was, for the most part, not beaten down in the backfield. In those six games, the Vikings went 5-1. In games he was sacked two or more times, the Vikings were 5-5, and in games he was sacked three or four times, the Vikings were 1-4.
Few quarterbacks have such night-and-day statistics. Great quarterbacks can throw a couple of early interceptions and come back and win games by catching fire in the second half. Ponder's numbers speak loudly. When he isn't pressured and doesn't make mistakes, the Vikings win. When he does, the Vikings lose.
At a time when yardage numbers in for NFL quarterbacks are at an all-time high, the agreed-upon standard for an NFL quarterback is in the range of 250 yards. Some QBs throw for 400 or more and win. Others throw for 200 and win. Ponder threw for more than 250 yards just four times. He threw for less than 200 yards nine times, less than 135 yards six times and less than 100 three times. He had two games with less than 65 yards. For comparative purposes, Adrian Peterson had less than 65 yards rushing just once – and that was in Week 2 when the Vikings still had a pitch count on him.
The bottom line is that, to date, Ponder has been little more than a game manager. He needs to be protected and efficient for the Vikings to win. Fortunately, the best thing he has had going for him to this point is that he can turn around and hand the football to the one of the greatest running backs in the history of the game.
If Spielman is right and Ponder makes the jump up the NFL QB ladder that he so fervently expects he will, the Vikings could be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If he remains a game manager only, he will have the type of pedestrian career that guys like Frerotte and Rosenfels had. At some point, he will be replaced. The question now is will that be sooner or later?
With all the changes to the Vikings roster, there may be no player – not even Peterson – that will be more important for the Vikings' success in 2013 (and beyond) than Ponder. If he justifies Spielman's faith and love, the Vikings could be in for huge things. If he doesn't make that progression, the results will likely mirror his production.
Spielman's allegiance to Ponder may end up being his crowing achievement – or his undoing. This year may be the watershed year for both of them. It's a marriage that they will go through together – for better or worse.
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.
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