- Ben Goessling, ESPN Staff Writer
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Maybe this is what quarterback Christian Ponder needed. Maybe after losing his starting job for a month, and now that the Minnesota Vikings' bizarre carousel has spun back to him, Ponder can begin to prove he was worth the 12th pick in 2011 and reward them for sticking with him for the first two years of his career. Or maybe he can prove they were wrong for scrapping that approach a month ago and turning this season into an open tryout for the quarterback job.
Ponder doesn't seem sure what to believe anymore. It's hard to know if the Vikings do, either. Ponder lost the job after injuring his rib in September -- but that conveniently happened when the Vikings were 0-3 and might have been looking for a reason to lift the quarterback after he'd thrown five interceptions in those games. Matt Cassel led them to their one victory and kept the job for a second week, even after coach Leslie Frazier said Ponder was still the starter when healthy. Then along came Josh Freeman, his disappointing debut and a concussion that looks to have ushered him out of the lineup and swept Ponder past Cassel based, per Frazier, on his "body of work." That would be the same body of work that led the Vikings to pick Cassel over Ponder when both were healthy two weeks ago.
"I wasn't sure if things they were telling me were true or not," Ponder said. "But I stayed focused. Like I said in previous weeks, I can control what I can control, and that was getting better on the field, getting healthy. I’m healthy now. And, again, I’m going to take full advantage of this opportunity.”
Ponder made that comment with an edge that we didn't see from him when the Vikings were handling him with kid gloves. He inherited the starting job so early in his career, and the Vikings protected his status as the starter so vociferously, that he might have taken things for granted. He struggled to find his voice as a leader, and he generally carried himself with the demeanor of a book-smart kid who knew what to do when things were going right, but didn't have the feel or the swagger to make things happen when something around him was amiss.
That is, until the heat really got turned up.
Though the Vikings never wavered from supporting Ponder last season, outside criticism of him reached a dull roar after a loss at Lambeau Field on Dec. 2, 2012. Ponder threw a pair of second-half interceptions -- one in the Green Bay Packers' end zone, the other at the Packers' 13 -- in a game the Vikings lost 23-14. That loss dropped Minnesota to 6-6, putting the team's playoff hopes on life support and calls for Ponder to be benched at full volume.
Ponder responded by tapping into something that probably doesn't come naturally to him, but might spring forward when he's pressed. He threw four touchdowns against one interception in the next four games, ran for another score and lifted the Vikings to a four-game win streak that sent them to the playoffs. He saved his best work for the regular-season finale, throwing three touchdowns in a 37-34 victory over Green Bay at Mall of America Field.
"A lot of guys in our sport are like that," Frazier said last month. "When you tell them they can't do something, they raise up and show you they can."
At this point, Ponder has nothing to lose, since he's already been benched. He might still head back to the bench once Freeman is cleared to play -- whether that's this week or for a future game. But if he was also working in fear of letting something slip away, maybe now he can play with the knowledge he has something to gain as the Vikings take on the Packers on Sunday.
"Any time you have to take a back seat, it gives you time to reflect," wide receiver Greg Jennings said. "I think he's done that. He's seen how important it is to play at a high level at that position. But even more is how important that position is to the overall success of the team and what it takes to hold that position."
Ponder said earlier this month when the Vikings sat him that Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman told him they wanted to see him compete for his job and prove he deserved to play. That's a dramatically different approach than the one they have used with Ponder to this point. But maybe by trying to assert their faith in him -- and indirectly reinforce their belief they made the right call by drafting him -- they did Ponder a disservice by coddling him.
He showed a little fire on Wednesday and teammates said he seemed like a different quarterback in the huddle than before he lost his job. Maybe, serendipitously, the Vikings have found a way to get something more out of Ponder. His chance to prove that is now.
"It's an opportunity to get back in the saddle and be more vocal and take a hold of this position," Ponder said, "because I don't want to give it back."