Christian Ponder (Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY)
While Leslie Frazier and others in the decision-making process weigh the pros and cons of starting one quarterback or another, players are away and have their opportunity to form their own opinion.
Players love the bye week. It’s a chance to decompress from a season that started in late July and prepare for the long, cold autumn and winter ahead of going to work on Sundays (and occasionally Monday and Thursday).
But this isn’t a week that the Vikings would ideally have their bye. The long week in London was the reason for giving the Vikings the Week 5 bye, but, with a week to think it over, it couldn’t be a worse time for the Vikings to be having a week away from the job site.
The bye week is the only chance for players to go off the radar. Many of them head to their hometowns or to where friends and family are located. When it comes to discussing a long-term change at quarterback, you want every man on the roster in-house to explain the decision.
By all appearances, the Vikings don’t have that. If there are Christian Ponder supporters in the locker room – their numbers could be dwindling – they could have stood up for No. 7. Those with strong opinions on keeping Matt Cassel as the starter could have quietly made their case. Neither of those are options are in play on a bye week.
By the terms of the CBA, when players have a bye week, their obligations to the team cease. There are no formal team functions other than injury rehab work as healthy players disperse throughout the country, enjoying their rare time off during the season. As a result, they’re spending the next week formulating opinions while the decision-makers that don’t wear pads and sweat and bleed to win games are making that call.
It’s a unique situation that is going to be one that could be critical to the franchise – both short-term and long-term. In his short career, Ponder hasn’t faced a legitimate challenge. In his rookie season, Donovan McNabb got his ticket to retirement punched because he played his way out of the job. In 2012, Joe Webb got his ticket punched to being a wide receiver. It was that heinous performance in Green Bay that led the Vikings front office to decide they needed a legitimate quarterback to be ready in case Ponder got hurt or wasn’t effective.
When Randall Cunningham came to the Vikings, he wasn’t a starter. He was viewed as a very good alternate option. He won the job. Jeff George was in a similar situation in 2000. He won the job. When Tarvaris Jackson got off to a 0-2 start in 2008, Gus Frerotte took his place. What do all three of them have in common? The came in under duress and exceeded the expectations the team had if they got the “next man up” call to duty.
Cunningham kept the job. George kept the job. Frerotte kept the job until his creaking body gave way and collapsed into a pile of dust. The starters all lost their jobs and didn’t get them back. What makes Cassel any different?
At this point of the season, anything that can provide a spark you go with. If the Vikings go 1-2 out of the bye week, the 2013 season is, by and large, over. They will remain mathematically alive for some time, but it will be playing out a string of games in which players are one by one pulling themselves out of the canyon they found themselves in. Cassel gave the Vikings a spark. Will Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier let the fire from that spark keep flickering? They’re playing the cliffhanger card and not saying.
In doing so, they are allowing the players on the team and their friends and family to speculate … and form opinions. Nothing splits a locker room more than a quarterback controversy. Whatever decision is made by Spielman, Frazier and other behind-the-scenes voices, the consequences are going to be big.
If they go back to Ponder and he stinks out the Metrodome against Carolina – whether early, late or in the middle – you’ll hear it. The fans were riding Ponder hard in his last home game. It was uncomfortable to witness. He ran for two touchdowns, but, if he threw a third-down incompletion, it was Occupy Metrodome and fan protests were heard loud and clear.
The word “if” when used in questions to coaches or players it taboo. If the Vikings were on the road Sunday and Ponder is good to go, you could make the case. If the Vikings force-feed Ponder to the home crowd, there could be a fan mutiny if he doesn’t play an error-free game. If he chooses to start Ponder at home, the public address system had better introduce the defense to the home fans.
At places dotted throughout the country, family and friends are asking Vikings players what they think the team should do. Unfortunately for the Vikings coaching staff, those players are making opinions and solidifying them. Brad Childress lost a segment of his locker room when he abandoned Tarvaris Jackson. Frazier could do the same if he makes an unpopular decision on his starting quarterback when everyone comes back from the bye week.
The bye week is usually a happy respite for most teams. The 2013 Vikings? You never want players not to buy into the company line and they can’t explain their decision – whatever it is – until next week. By then, the jury of player opinion will have its own verdict.
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.