After his best performance of 2013, Christian Ponder is still looking over his shoulder. This time, Ponder doesn't have to be as concerned which other quarterback might be coming; he has to be concerned that his left shoulder won't allow him to immediately follow up his career-best completion percentage.
Ponder, the much-maligned and unsteady quarterback through most of his third NFL season, was knocked out of Thursday night's game late in the third quarter when he dove for the end zone, absorbed a big hit and appeared to give his team a 28-27 lead. The touchdown was overturned, but the pain in the shoulder remained.
Matt Cassel came into the game, handed off to Adrian Peterson, who made it the final foot that Ponder came up short for the touchdown and the Vikings only extended their newfound lead with two fourth-quarter field goals while Ponder went to the locker room for further evaluation.
He came to the post-game press room with his left (non-throwing) arm in a sling.
"I decided to wear this sling for dramatic effect to this press conference so you all could feel bad for me," he joked. "I am proud of the way we played. We fought to the very end."
He will be fighting hard for the next 10 days in hopes of starting his fourth straight game and holding onto the starting job, one that he might have finally earned by completing 17 of 21 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 113.1 rating before leaving the game.
"I think Christian is really growing. He's becoming more confident, more in command," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's growing as a leader, but just the fact that he never got shaken, even after that interception. I'm sure he'll tell you this, it wasn't the right decision to throw that football where he threw it. That did not cause him to go in the tank and have self-doubt. He came back and played some of his best football. So he's growing and maturing as a quarterback."
Ponder's 113.1 passer rating was the fourth-best of his career and the first one over 90 this season. His 81 completion percentage was the best of his career.
"I don't honestly know what the difference is. I don't think that there was a change in mindset. I think that we just played the way that we were supposed to," Ponder said. "We executed like an NFL team is supposed to, especially as a 10-6 playoff team like we were last year. We really needed that. We needed that to help with our confidence, and now that's our expectation for the rest of the year."
It didn't start well.
Ponder ended the Vikings' first drive with an interception on a deep ball into double coverage that was intended for Greg Jennings. Washington safety Brandon Meriweather returned that interception to midfield and the Redskins took a 3-0 lead.
But by the time Ponder's first half was done, he had completed 10 of 13 passes for 85 yards, added a touchdown and had increased his rating to 87.0.
It was his first game this season with two touchdown passes – he threw only three in five previous starts – and he came up just short of adding his fifth rushing touchdown (initially it was ruled a touchdown).
"It was frustrating. It wasn't a good feeling, knowing that I wasn't able to go. I was going to try to get back in there," he said. "The trainers made a smart decision not letting me go. Cassel is doing a great job this year, in practice and in the two games he played. We are going to be in good hands. The way that Adrian (Peterson) was running the ball and what we saw after I left. We saw some good things. We were able to close it out. I'm just happy that we got the win."
Ponder said the medical staff popped his shoulder back into place and he initially believed he could return to the game after they did that and he was able to move it "fine," even though he admitted there was some pain.
"The sacrifice that he's made when he runs and makes plays with his legs, it only increases his credibility with his teammates," Frazier said. "… Sacrificing his body, when the guys see the tape and most of them couldn't see it because it was on the far side, but when they see that tape and see that he extended his body the way he did, it's going to increase their appreciation for who he is as a person and what he means to our team as a quarterback."
The Vikings will conduct more tests on Ponder's shoulder Friday and might leave open the possibility of him playing on Nov. 17 when they travel to Seattle.
"I don't know how it'll impact our next game. We'll learn more about it in the days to come. We've got a few days before our next game so hopefully it won't keep him out, but we'll see," Frazier said. "The fact that it's his non-throwing shoulder, it might be a plus. Time will tell."
It's been a wild ride for Ponder this year. He started the season with numerous votes of confidence from Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman. They signed Cassel to a two-year, $7.4 million contract in March but made it clear he would be Ponder's backup.
However, when Ponder fractured a rib in the third game of the season, Cassel gave the Vikings their first win in their fourth game. With Ponder healthy following the bye, Cassel remained the starter and it was clear Ponder was benched, at least temporarily. Then it was newly signed Josh Freeman starting one game before Frazier returned to Ponder for the last three games.
The shoulder is his third injury in the last year – a triceps injury kept him from starting their playoff loss last year.
"It's been an interesting year, that's for sure," he said. "My expectation is to get back and play again next weekend, but for going 0-3 the first three games, then losing the job, getting injured, to come back and lose two more and then come into this game and play, only to get injured. But, winning cures all. Winning is a great feeling. We expect that to continue to happen. The year is far from over."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of 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.
The Vikings are waiting to see how Christian Ponder's shoulder responds next week before making a…