EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In some ways, Christian Ponder and Leslie Frazier are outliers in the NFL, gentle and gracious men in a league that so often breeds aggression and conceit. They have risen to the pinnacles of their respective careers together, with the Vikings drafting Ponder 12th overall three months after they removed the interim tag from Frazier's title. And when Ponder quarterbacked the team to four wins and a playoff spot last December, playing his best football after Frazier stood by him through a dreadful eight-game stretch, it seemed like a triumph for a refreshing, if unusual, brand of Vikings football.
The 2012 Vikings came into the season with little expected of them after a 3-13 campaign the year before. They rode to the playoffs on a transcendent season from Adrian Peterson, good fortune with injuries and a forgiving schedule, yes, but numerous players also pointed to Frazier's ability to stay on message and keep his team together. A club that had once led the league in arrests has now gone 15 months without one, and when malcontent receiver Percy Harvin clashed with Frazier, the Vikings traded their talented receiver to Seattle, seemingly standing by Ponder after reports about Harvin's lack of confidence in the quarterback. Even if the Vikings didn't have the league's most talented roster, things seemed as harmonious around the team as they had in a long time.
But the NFL has a funny way of stamping that out in a hurry, and Ponder's 2013 season has been a long, slow march to what seems like something that will become official on Friday: his removal from the starting quarterback position.
Frazier said he wasn't worried about Ponder through a dismal preseason, deflected some of the blame aimed at the quarterback after he threw key interceptions in losses to Detroit and Chicago and maintained Ponder would start in London after a Week 3 loss to the Cleveland Browns dropped the Vikings to 0-3. But then a fractured rib coincided neatly with the Vikings' chance to make a switch at quarterback, Matt Cassel led the team to a victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Frazier was faced with a decision on his quarterback. That process got even more complicated this week when the Vikings signed Josh Freeman from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a move that appeared to signal the end of their commitment to Ponder.
Former Buccaneers quarterback Shaun King, who now contributes to Pro Football Talk, said in a Tampa radio interview on Thursday that the Freeman move wasn't Frazier's choice.
"It's interesting there," said King, who said in the interview he had talked to people in the Vikings organization about the Freeman signing. "Leslie Frazier won't handle it like (Buccaneers coach) Greg Schiano did but Leslie Frazier really wasn't in favor of bringing Josh Freeman in. This is (general manager) Rick Spielman and the owner (Zygi Wilf) who overruled the head coach and said, 'No, we've kind of figured out what Christian Ponder is. We want to see what Josh Freeman can bring this team.'"
The results don't play in Ponder's favor; he has thrown two touchdowns and five interceptions this season, and has made many of the same mistakes he's committed in previous seasons. Frazier is coaching for a new contract after the Vikings picked up his 2014 option -- and didn't offer him a long-term deal -- after the 2012 season. He needs wins, and though he said this week it's solely up to "me and the coaching staff" who starts at quarterback, he obviously doesn't build the roster.
Still, there seemed to be a twinge of sadness in Frazier's voice on Thursday, as he tiptoed around the question for one more day of whom will start at quarterback on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Ponder said moments earlier he had already been told who would start, and though he wouldn't divulge the answer, he said the last two weeks have been "frustrating and disappointing.
"Some of the dynamics of this organization have changed, obviously, with bringing in Josh," Ponder said. "But I’m preparing like I’m going to be on the field, and my biggest focus is to controlling what I can control. And what’s out of my hands is out of my hands."
It seems clear Cassel will start on Sunday, with Ponder backing him up and Freeman getting a week to learn the offense. Ponder's future from there is unclear; he said a trade "would be difficult to deal with," and added Spielman and Frazier have said they still believe in Ponder during their conversations with him.
But for a coach and a quarterback who have so far been tied at the hip, Thursday felt like the end of something. Business reasons made it a sensible move; personal reasons made it difficult.
"I just want to make sure I'm doing the right thing," Frazier said. "We'll go through practice tomorrow, see where those guys are, and just try to do the best thing for our team."