Buried deep in Tom Pelissero's column over on 1500ESPN.com was a line that stopped me cold. Thursday night's preseason finale, Pelissero wrote, could be "the last extended game action" that Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder sees until August 2012.
At one point, that line would have indicated a disastrous beginning to Ponder's NFL career. The Vikings made him the No. 12 overall pick in part, they said, because he was the most NFL-ready quarterback available in the draft. That assessment made the late-July acquisition of veteran Donovan McNabb surprising, but I'll be the first to admit the Vikings will be a better team in September with McNabb as their starter than they would have been with Ponder. Based on what we've seen in the preseason and in practice, Ponder isn't ready to start for a team that has postseason hopes in 2011.
There is a trade-off, of course. Getting McNabb up to speed, and somewhat stubbornly giving Joe Webb a chance to compete, has cost Ponder the volume of game action that could have accelerated his development. As it is, Ponder has looked like a typical rookie quarterback in his brief preseason stints, one who is figuring it out as he goes along. He has looked proficient on simple bootleg passes that get him out of the pocket, but his resistance to throwing downfield suggests he isn't yet confident where his receivers and the defense will be.
"He was pretty wide-eyed at first," said offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, "[and] understandably because you're not only trying to learn not only a new system, but learning about how NFL defenses react and attack a young quarterback. He's had a bunch on his plate. He's made progress."
Ponder will start Thursday night's game against the Houston Texans, but his path thereafter is unclear. McNabb appears to have absorbed Musgrave's offense quickly, and if the preseason is any guide, has as firm of a grip on the starter's role as he could possibly have. At this point, it's reasonable to foresee him starting 16 games this season, barring injury. His job was to provide insurance against Ponder's development, and the Vikings will need to cash in on it, at least at the season's outset.
It's difficult to gauge how that dynamic will impact Ponder in the long term. For every football person who insists that quarterbacks need sideline development, you get two more who say the only way to improve is through game action. But when I spoke with Ponder during training camp, I got the sense he was perfectly at peace, if not relieved, by the decision to place him on a slower track.
"I was never really worried about it," he said. "I was just trying to do as much as I can to step into that role if it was going to happen. I wasn't really sure what to expect. I was trying to get it all in and see how it played out. ...
"[But] it was kind of a mutual thing. It was the best decision for everyone involved with me and the team. Obviously with the whole summer cut out, it makes things a lot harder if you want to start Week 1. To learn from a guy like Donovan, who has been to so many Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl, there are always things you can pick up."
Speaking to reporters this week, Ponder said he has "definitely learned a lot" this summer. He admitted he is "in that thinking stage" but was looking forward to his extended game action Thursday night.
"I've thought each week I've learned a different thing from each game and hopefully take it into this last one," he said. "I think I've progressed."
As the chart shows, the Vikings have used a total of 12 draft choices to acquire nine different quarterbacks in the six years since Daunte Culpepper suffered a career-altering knee injury in 2005. Their search appeared over after drafting Ponder, but it might be a year or so before we find out for sure.