NFC North: Gary Cuozzo
October, 25, 2011
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireChristian Ponder, the Vikings' 2011 first-round pick, made his first start this week.Two ingredients are mandatory for the success of an NFL franchise.
You need a quarterback to win games and a modern stadium to make money.
And at this moment, it's uncertain whether the Minnesota Vikings have either.
So pardon the dramatics, if you will, but I truly believe the Vikings are entering the most critical time period in their 51-year existence.
During the month, they will find out whether the state of Minnesota will finance a new stadium or risk losing them to another market. And by the end of 2011, the Vikings should have a decent idea whether rookie Christian Ponder is a true franchise quarterback or just the next in a long line of short-term starters.
Check out the chart to your right. Since their inception in 1961, the Vikings have had only three quarterbacks I would consider long-term starters. Fran Tarkenton (13 seasons), Tommy Kramer (seven) and Daunte Culpepper (five) are the only quarterbacks to have been the Vikings' primary starter for more than three seasons.
The Vikings have filled the other 26 years with a mishmash of journeymen (Gary Cuozzo, Wade Wilson and Rich Gannon) and big-time veterans at the end of their careers (Warren Moon, Brett Favre, Randall Cunningham and Jim McMahon). Their hope is that Ponder, 23, will put an end to their annual search for a Band-Aid solution.
If first impressions mean anything, Sunday's debut performance against the Green Bay Packers was encouraging. Ponder threw aggressively downfield; seven of his 13 completions went for at least 15 yards. He was mobile, routinely buying extra time outside the pocket and gaining 31 yards on four scrambles. And he without question brought an energy and confidence to an offense that seemed to be treading water for the season's first six games.
"He took charge with confidence," tailback Adrian Peterson said. "He never seemed rattled. Just very comfortable, which is something I am very excited about. He bounced back from two interceptions and continued to go strong, which says a lot about him as a leader."
Peterson said the difference was "definitely very noticeable" and, as someone who just signed a seven-year contract extension, seemed optimistic about the franchise's future.
Smart Vikings observers know not to overreact to the emotional debut of a quarterback candidate, and there are plenty of unanswered questions about Ponder's long-term viability. After watching him float a few passes to the Packers' secondary, I would rank arm strength atop that list. But the next nine games should give us a good sense of where his career is headed.
If all goes well, Ponder will be the Vikings' quarterback when they open their next stadium. Where that facility will be located, of course, remains a topic of fierce debate both in Minnesota and in the NFL offices.
The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome expires in less than four months -- on Feb. 1, 2012. A top league official has already acknowledged the Vikings would be free to pursue relocation options at that point, and owner Zygi Wilf has said he won't sign a short-term lease extension at the Metrodome without financing approval for a new stadium.
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Vikings' lease at the Metrodome, their home since 1982, expires in less than four months.
Without a deal in place by Feb. 1, the Vikings could technically move to Los Angeles or another market in time for the 2012 season, provided NFL owners grant approval. That timetable has finally moved a decade-long conundrum to the front burner of Minnesota politics, putting enormous pressure on a resolution -- one way or the other -- before Thanksgiving.
Gov. Mark Dayton has set a Nov. 7 deadline for settling on a project site and plan. Wilf prefers a suburban site for a project that would cost $1.1 billion, but powerful members of the business community are pushing for a site in Minneapolis. After making his recommendation, Dayton will oversee two weeks of debate and public hearings prior to a proposed Nov. 21 special session of the state legislature to vote on the final package.
Anything short of approval at that point almost certainly would push the next round of debate past the expiration of the Vikings' lease.
Would Wilf commence relocation efforts in February? Last week, NFL executive vice president Eric Grubman told 1500ESPN.com: "[T]hey are free to explore their options and from all I know they already could be exploring their options. They do not need clearance from us."
It's more likely that Wilf would put the franchise up for sale under that scenario. Presumably, the new buyer would pursue relocation. In either event, we'll know in a matter of weeks whether that possibility will even exist. Barring an extension of Dayton's pre-holiday deadline, Judgment Day is coming for the Vikings -- both on and off the field.