MINNEAPOLIS -- The last time Christian Ponder played this well, the last time he did this much to fan the flickering flames of hope in his ability to be the Minnesota Vikings' long-term quarterback, the same thing happened: He got hurt.
Last Dec. 30, as Ponder was leading the Vikings to a 37-34 win over the Green Bay Packers to secure the NFC's final playoff spot, he took a helmet shot from Morgan Burnett to his right elbow. He finished the game, but his arm swelled up so badly he was barely able to throw a ball 10 yards the next week. He sat out of the Vikings' playoff game at Lambeau Field, missing both his opportunity to start in the postseason and to build some kind of momentum for himself.
The circumstances were similar Thursday night -- during a 34-27 Vikings victory -- as Ponder rolled to his left, stretching for the pylon in hopes of scoring on a 15-yard run near the end of the third quarter against the Washington Redskins. He had recovered from an early, ugly interception on a deep ball to Greg Jennings, hitting 16 of his next 20 passes for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns, benefiting from a game plan that kept the Vikings' offense moving and the ball coming out of Ponder's hand quickly. He looked in control. He looked assertive. He looked like a viable quarterback. There was nowhere near as much at stake for the Vikings, but there might have been even more on the line for Ponder than there was last December.
And whatever equity the quarterback built for himself Thursday night now rests on his ability to return quickly from a dislocated left shoulder. He has played reasonably well in the Vikings' past three games, at a time when a small bit of reliability seems enough to secure the starting spot. The first time Ponder got hurt this season, it gave the Vikings a convenient excuse to bench him; this time, players could be heard hoping for him to come back. Now, it would seem, is Ponder's opportunity to create the momentum that has slipped out of his hands so many times in Minnesota.
"I think Christian is really growing," coach Leslie Frazier said. "I'm sure he'll tell you this: It wasn't the right decision to throw that football where he threw it [on the interception]. That did not cause him to go into 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."
That didn't sound like something Frazier would say about a quarterback he was planning to sit down anytime soon. The Vikings, once again, seem committed to seeing where Ponder can develop, even if it's only for the moment and even if it's only because they have no better alternative. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is putting Ponder in the shotgun more often and calling for a no-huddle offense more regularly because it works for Ponder. The quarterback said he is getting more input into the game plan each week, and he's spent considerably more time in the Vikings' offense than Matt Cassel, who replaced Ponder on Thursday night, or Josh Freeman. The Vikings seem cautious about going back to Freeman too soon after his ugly performance against the New York Giants three weeks ago, and they appear to regard Cassel as their best option to come in as the No. 2 quarterback. Even if Ponder's opportunity hasn't come through the most impressive set of circumstances, it's in his hands now, and he doesn't need to apologize for that.
He does need, however, to hang onto it. If healthy enough, he'll be returning in 10 days for a devil of a matchup: a date with the Seattle Seahawks' snarling defense in one of the NFL's toughest road environments. Percy Harvin, who screamed at Frazier after Ponder overthrew him on an easy pass last year in Seattle, could be returning from a hip injury and standing on the other sideline.
Some of the decision will be out of Ponder's hands. He said he expects to play against Seattle -- and Frazier sounded hopeful based on the fact the injury is to Ponder's non-throwing shoulder -- but the Vikings' medical staff will have the final call. Still, the team's apparent reluctance with Freeman and its view that Cassel is best used as a backup means the door, somehow, is once again wide open for Ponder, at least for this season.
"I just want to start as many games as possible and stay out there and keep playing," Ponder said. "I'm going to do everything I can to be healthy. The expectation is to go."
At the moment, it seems, Ponder's expectation lines up with the Vikings' hope.