Friday, April 29, 2011
Christian Ponder: The Vikings' only choice
By Kevin Seifert
The Vikings had no choice but to take a chance on Christian Ponder.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- I've been using a baseball analogy for years to describe the Minnesota Vikings' increasingly desperate future at quarterback. After years of band-aid solutions and poorly conceived development plans, the time had come to take a swing for that elusive franchise quarterback.
Thursday night, the Vikings saw it the same way.
"The thing that we went back and forth on," vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said, "was this: 'When are you going to get another chance to swing?' If we didn't get a quarterback this year that we liked, then maybe we're looking at a quarterback next year. Who knows what the quarterback class is next year? And I know we're sure as heck not planning on picking at No. 12."
After beating the drum for so long, I can't disagree with Spielman's logic, his approach or the end result: Florida State's Christian Ponder, whose pre-draft stock was so uncertain that he turned down an invitation to attend the draft in New York City because he thought he might not be selected until the second round. Whether it was Ponder or TCU's Andy Dalton or Washington's Jake Locker or even Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, the Vikings weren't going to move forward as a franchise until they identified and committed to a plan at this position.
That said, if you were one of the fans who booed the decision at the Vikings' draft party or jeered Spielman as he answered questions live on stage, I understand that too. Neither Spielman nor coach Leslie Frazier claimed he was their first choice, not after a draft that saw three quarterbacks selected in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.
I don't think many people who watched Ponder's career at Florida State, especially his senior season, came away thinking he is the next great quarterback in the NFL. He is an indisputably smart prospect who completed 62 percent of his career passes at a top football school and displayed leadership and toughness by playing through a painful bursa sac injury last season.
If you're upset with anything, blame the mistakes that led up to this moment. The franchise was crippled by trusting that Tarvaris Jackson, a second-round draft pick in 2006, would one day develop into a starter. His failures led to a series of short-term replacements that only delayed the inevitable decision to move on.
By the time that point arrived, the Vikings' depth chart looked like this:
That list doesn't suggest a need. It's a crisis. And what you saw take place Thursday night was just that. It was crisis management. The Vikings didn't take the best player available. They took the best quarterback available, at least on their board, and in a quarterback-driven league, they have no choice but to tie their hopes to him.
Spielman called Ponder "one of our top-rated quarterbacks" who was "right there in the mix" with other quarterbacks he evaluated. But Spielman admitted he considered a trade that would have netted the Vikings a presumably higher-rated quarterback, Missouri's Gabbert, but he wasn't willing to give the Dallas Cowboys his second-round pick (No. 43 overall) to move up three spots to No. 9.
Frazier said that Ponder would have been "hard to pass up" at No. 12 and spoke as if he would be an immediate starter. (Providing he beats out Yuck and Ick.)
So what are they getting in Ponder? It won't be the mobility of Cam Newton or Locker, and Ponder isn't as smooth of a passer as Gabbert. But the Vikings undoubtedly got one of the smartest quarterbacks in the draft, one who scored a 37 on his Wonderlic test and who graduated from Florida State in 2 1/2 years. He completed his MBA in May 2010 and spent last season working on a second graduate degree in sports management.
Ponder completed 68.9 percent of his passes and averaged more than 300 yards per game as a junior at Florida State, but his performance dipped dramatically after the bursa sac injury last season. Reverting as a senior is always a warning sign among NFL teams, and his collection of college injuries -- which also included a third-degree shoulder separation after making a tackle following an interception -- drew some raised eyebrows as well.
The injuries compelled Ponder to play in the Senior Bowl, where he excelled and began the process of convincing teams he was healthy. Thursday night he said: "I think I was mislabeled as injury prone."
Ultimately, the Vikings spent a day and a half with him on the Florida State campus and came away convinced he was among the players they would consider drafting at No. 12. Was he the player they hoped to draft? Neither Spielman nor Frazier said that. They called the choice a "no-brainer," but it wasn't because they think Ponder is the next Aaron Rodgers or even Matt Ryan. It's because they knew better than anyone that Yuck and Ick weren't a realistic option.
A free-agent acquisition would only prolong the process. It was time to take a swing. They didn't get the fastball they were hoping for. But when you're behind in the count, sometimes you get a curveball. The Vikings couldn't wait on their pitch. It wasn't time to be picky. Christian Ponder, welcome to Minnesota.