TVA Smackdown: Ponder Vs. Veteran, Part 1


It’s been the big question of the off-season: Should the Vikings dive into the 2011 campaign with rookie Christian Ponder at QB, or would it be more prudent (and perhaps less wearing on the fans’ nerves) for them to pick up a veteran starter to bridge the gap until Ponder is fully ready? Jon Merkle and I consider both sides of this issue in the inaugural installment of TVA Smackdown (think of it as Pardon the Interruption with more hair and less Statboy).

The Vikings Should Start Christian Ponder

In April, the Vikings made Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder the #12 overall draft pick. The general belief is that the Vikings wanted Jake Locker or Blaine Gabbert instead, but the breaks just didn’t go their way. Needing to fill their quarterback hole, and not wanting to gamble on a trade-down, the Vikings were forced to reach for Ponder, who by some experts’ reckoning wasn’t even one of the top 5 QBs in the draft.

This is all now water under the bridge. Ponder is Vikings property, and every indication we’ve gotten so far says that he will be considered for a starting job when the season finally gets underway. Since the draft we’ve learned a few things about Ponder that would tend to make us more enthusiastic about his prospects. We now know that he has a strong work ethic, a very positive attitude and loads of confidence. He also seems comfortable with the media – not a minor consideration when you’re talking about a man who might one day end up being the face of the franchise.

Unfortunately there are also lots of things we don’t yet know about Ponder. We have no idea how he will stand up to an NFL pass rush. We have no clue what kind of on-field leadership he will exhibit. We don’t even know if he can make all the throws with consistency.

In other words, most of the important stuff is still unknowable, and will remain unknowable until Ponder actually gets on a field with his teammates. This makes it tough for anyone trying to gauge Ponder’s chances of ever living up to that #12 overall pick. The fact is, we can’t know with any certainty yet whether Ponder has the goods, or is destined to be a bust.

This uncertainty is what makes the veteran option look so attractive to some. And, truth be told, I think Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman probably are leaning in the veteran direction. That said, there’s still a solid argument to be made for letting Ponder start from the beginning.

He Was Drafted #12 Overall

Ponder’s draft position is by itself possibly the best argument for letting him start immediately. You used that high a pick on him, so you must have a high degree of faith in his ability. Put him out there and see what he can do. Maybe he will prove to be the next Matt Ryan or Sam Bradford. You won’t find out unless you give it a shot. If Ponder turns out to be good from the start, the selection will be totally vindicated. Frazier and Spielman will look like geniuses.

The Team Isn’t Going Anywhere Anyway

Let’s be honest about the Vikings’ overall prospects for 2011. Does anyone truly think this team has a playoff run in it? With that offensive line? With all those concerns in the secondary? And what if they can’t keep Sidney Rice? How will Bill Musgrave’s play-action-heavy offense even function without a legitimate deep threat? And even if they keep Rice, does this feel like a playoff team? In a division with the league champions, the conference runners-up and an emerging Detroit squad?

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but the Vikings’ chances of doing anything this year are pretty weak. Obviously many of the Vikings’ veterans disagree with this assessment – hence their endless stumping for old guys like Donovan McNabb and Plaxico Burress – but as I’ve said in the past, the players aren’t the ones who’ll be held accountable for personnel mistakes. It’s all on Frazier and Spielman, whose job is to find a middle-ground between the long-view and the short-view.

To me, the best middle-ground position is this: Start Ponder, and back him up with a veteran who’s at the end of the road. Then if Ponder struggles mightily you’ll have someone to throw in and take the lumps. This way you will preserve Ponder’s confidence and prevent a veteran revolt. Under this scenario, you can always put Ponder back in late in the season when you know you’re out of it.

I am not waffling here. Under this plan, Ponder is still the starter right off. If he catches on, he remains the starter for the rest of the season. Whatever veteran you pick up would be an end-of-the-road type guy, a Marc Bulger or a Jake Delhomme. An insurance policy, in other words.

Aren’t We Tired Of Fill-In Quarterbacks?

I know Brett Favre was good in 2009, but let’s be frank: 2009 Brett Favre ain’t walking through that door. Outside of that one magical season, the Vikings’ fill-in QBs have been serviceable at best (Gus Frerotte, Brad Johnson), awful at worst (Kelly Holcomb, Brooks Bollinger). It’s high-time the Vikings climbed off the free agent QB merry-go-round and identified a young talent who can lead them into the future. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers, the Bears have Jay Cutler, the Lions have Matt Stafford (if he can stay healthy). It’s time for us to find a guy who can join that group.

Young Quarterbacks Get Good Fast

Matt Ryan. That’s all you need to say here. Matt Ryan was drafted by the Falcons and plugged into the same sort of offense Bill Musgrave wants to run, and quickly became a Pro Bowler. Why can’t Christian Ponder do what Ryan did? Are Ryan’s physical skills appreciably better than Ponder’s? Did Ponder not run a pro-style offense at Florida State, just as Ryan did at Boston College? Is Ponder not smart and sure of himself? On the surface at least, Ponder would seem to have most of the same qualities as Ryan. There’s still uncertainty of course, but like I said before, the only way to clear up those doubts is by letting the guy play.

The bottom line: The Vikings are probably not going to make a playoff run in 2011. I’m not saying 2011 is a strict rebuilding year, but it is something of a retooling year. After years of wild spending and a pure win-now mentality, the Vikings probably need to dial it back for awhile and let some young guys develop. They do have some decent prospects along the offensive line and a potentially good QB-TE tandem in Ponder and Kyle Rudolph. Yes it’s fun being in contention year-after-year, and having guys like Brett Favre and Randy Moss come through, but now it’s time for the Vikes to pay the piper for all that, take their lumps for one season and emerge as a stronger team with a better base of young talent. The move here is obvious: Play Ponder, forget the name veteran, and if necessary write the season off as a learning year. Many of the older guys may not like it, but that’s just tough. The Vikings have spent years hammering teams together through blockbuster signings and trades, now it’s time to build from within. That’s how the Packers got where they are. If the Vikes want to compete on that level, they should adopt a similar philosophy. It’s all about the organization, and of course the quarterback.

Coming soon: Jon Merkle tells us why the Vikings should/will trade for a veteran QB.

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