Christian Ponder (Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY)
The first two years of the careers of Christian Ponder and Tarvaris Jackson share some similarities. Ponder, however, will have a third season as the starter to prove himself, something Jackson never got.
As the Vikings prepare for what they hope will be Christian Ponder’s coming out party, it’s hard to imagine that the last time there was this much organization excitement about a young quarterback was seven years ago when Tarvaris Jackson was drafted with the boast from head coach Brad Childress that he had the skills to be the next Donovan McNabb (the McNabb of early Eagles vintage, not the bloated short-arming QB that was cut loose by the Redskins and Vikings within a 10-month span).
There are some similarities between the two that mirrored one another over their first two seasons. For those who don’t remember how T-Jack became a Viking, a little background is needed.
A member of the Vikings scouting staff spotted Jackson at Alabama State University and saw something special in him. The Vikings went extremely cloak-and-dagger to make sure nobody knew of their intentions. They didn’t fly planes directly to the nearest airport to work him out, instead landing 100 miles away and driving to work him out. They checked into hotels under assumed names. It was something straight out of a cheap spy novel.
As an organization, the Vikings were enamored with T-Jack, especially Childress. He wanted to prove that he could develop a young QB that wasn’t a first-round pick. Jackson was going to be Chilly’s pet project – his legacy if T-Jack became the player the scouts and coaching staff thought he could be and would be. Few others viewed Jackson as better than a late-third or fourth-round pick. The Vikings traded up to the last pick of the second round to make sure nobody else grabbed him. It cost them, but they got their man.
Instead, Jackson’s career took a strange, bizarre turn … and then another … and then another. Much like Ponder, Jackson came to the Vikings with a veteran QB at the end of the line of his NFL career that was brought in to be a caretaker of the position while the young QB developed. Brad Johnson was that guy for the Vikings. In his second run with Minnesota, he came in the year after longtime Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper was shown the door. The plan was for T-Jack to watch and learn his first year and be ready to compete for the starting job his second season.
Much like Donovan McNabb in 2011, the Brad Johnson of old wasn’t on display in 2007 and Jackson ended up starting the final two games of his rookie season and, in his second year, the coaching staff removed the competition and handed Jackson the starting job. T-Jack lived up to the hype (as did Ponder). The Vikings were 8-4 in the games Jackson started and 0-4 in the four games he missed due to various injuries. It wasn’t always pretty, but the team won on Jackson’s watch.
However, that is the point where the Vikings hope the similarities end. In 2008, after starting off 0-2, Childress made the difficult decision to bench Jackson in favor of Gus Frerotte. Yet, with the playoffs on the line and Frerotte crumbling due to injuries, Jackson got the call late in the season and helped the Vikings clinch a playoff spot. In 2009, Frerotte was gone and Jackson was ready to reclaim his place as the starter. That was where his career took a very different path than expected.
Jackson’s ascent to the role of starter got scuttled when Brett Favre became available. Mired on the bench in 2009 and 2010, Jackson’s Vikings career got shelved. With Childress fired during the 2010 season, the guy who championed T-Jack’s cause was gone and with it went Jackson’s Minnesota career. He and Ponder never played together, primarily because when Ponder was drafted the Vikings gave him Jackson’s number – sending the clear message that T-Jack would not be back.
From there, Jackson’s career has been on a downward spiral in terms of his role with a team. Signed by Seattle in free agency in 2011, Jackson started 14 games and posted the best statistical season of his career. But it was obvious the Seahawks didn’t see him as a long-term solution at QB. He went from being the incumbent starter to No. 3 on the depth chart without a game being played. Pete Carroll signed Packers backup Matt Flynn in free agency and drafted Russell Wilson, who won the starting job in training camp. Jackson was the odd man out and was shipped off to Buffalo.
Jackson didn’t take a snap with the Bills in 2012, but, when Ryan Fitzpatrick struggled badly, Jackson was re-signed by Buffalo earlier this year. At the time, he was the top guy on the depth chart. That would change in a hurry.
As had happened in both Minnesota and Seattle, Buffalo drafted a quarterback – this time it was E.J. Manuel – in the first round to be their future and Jackson’s days were numbered. When Kevin Kolb became available, he was signed to compete with Manuel for the starting job and Jackson became expendable. He was released and re-signed with Seattle, where his career will continue, but not in the way had planned or hoped.
Early in both of their careers, Jackson and Ponder had their similarities. While Ponder still has what the Vikings view as a bright future ahead of him, the same was thought of Jackson entering his third NFL season. That dream came crashing down and his career has been derailed. That isn’t the plan for Ponder, but it wasn’t for Jackson five years ago either.
You never know how the fickle finger of fate will look upon an NFL career, where little is guaranteed. Jackson went from being the next big thing to a cautionary tale with very little of it being of his own doing. He was a victim of circumstance who never got a legitimate opportunity to win and hold his starting job.
Jackson’s career has never been the same since that fateful August day in 2009 when the clouds parted and Favre’s plane landed in the Twin Cities. Fortunately for Ponder, Favre is retired and will be staying that way. If Ponder succeeds or fails, it will be done on his own terms. Favre took away Jackson’s final chance in Minnesota.
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.