Christian Ponder shows control, poise before leaving with injury
Christian Ponder was playing loose and looking like a starting QB before leaving with a shoulder injury.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
MINNEAPOLIS --Christian Ponder approached the podium for the postgame press conference Thursday night wearing a smile and a dark black sling suspending his left, non-throwing arm at his side.
"So I decided to wear this sling for dramatic effect to this press conference," Ponder joked.
That he still had a sense of humor said everything about Thursday night for the Minnesota Vikings (2-7) and for Ponder.
The much-maligned quarterback didn't finish Thursday night's game, a 34-27 Vikings' win against Washington (3-6). Backup Matt Cassel entered after Ponder suffered a dislocated left shoulder. But Ponder deserved credit for helping Minnesota recover and pull out a come-from-behind win on Thursday, snapping a four-game losing streak.
As has been the case so often in his roller-coaster career, Ponder seemed to grab hold of the Vikings' starting quarterback spot that had been seeking for someone to step up and keep the job. And all at once, the door swung right back open because of injury.
"I don't know how it will impact our next game," coach Leslie Frazier said of Ponder's injury. "We'll learn more about it in the days to come. We've got a few days before our next game, so hopefully it won't keep him out but we'll see. The fact that it's his non-throwing shoulder, that might be a plus. Time will tell."
Ponder was 17-of-21 passing for 174 yards Thursday night, making his third straight start for Minnesota after Cassel and Josh Freeman had started the previous three games. Ponder completed 80.9 percent of his passes on Thursday, the best single-game mark of his career, and had two touchdowns and one interception.
The job was Ponder's to win or lose and he was winning it back.
Despite an interception on his second throw of the game, he finished with a 113.1 quarterback rating for Thursday's game. It's the fourth-highest, single-game rating of his career.
He looked more comfortable and in control than when he had lost the first three games of the season. Back then, a fractured rib gave Cassel a chance to start and Ponder had seemingly lost his job after he had started 29 straight regular-season games for the franchise that made him the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Teammates said Ponder looked like he had a new swagger about him.
"He had a lot of swag today," rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson said. "The coach told us to go out there and have some swag, and Ponder, he stood out there and had a little swag on the field. We like that in him. He can continue to keep that up. We behind him 100 percent, no matter what. We're happy. We behind him."
Inability to sustain drives and a defense unable to stop the opposition was limiting chances in the first half. Ponder was 10-of-13 passing for 85 yards in the first half, but many of those were of the short, receiver screen variety.
Meanwhile, Washington scored on three straight possession around halftime to take a 27-14 lead and appeared ready to put the final touches on another Minnesota loss.
Ponder wasn't done though, not yet at least. He was 6-of-6 for 51 yards on the next drive, capping the drive by escaping pressure to his left and finding a wide-open John Carlson, who did the rest of the work for a 28-yard touchdown.
The Vikings defense forced a punt for the first time in three games at home and Ponder did his part again, finding Jarius Wright for a 28-yard pass. On the next play, Ponder scrambled left again and turned up field. He dove for the end zone and was hit by Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall right at the goal line. Officials ruled Ponder had scored a 15-yard touchdown before replays showed he lost the ball out of bounds at the 1-yard line.
The bigger problem was Ponder came off holding his left arm close to his body.
"Yeah, I got hit hard on the right side and I think just the impact against the ground caused it to come out of place," Ponder said.
Doctors popped the shoulder back into place and Ponder tried to talk himself back in the game. But he was done and his availability for the next game, Nov. 17 at Seattle, is in doubt.
"It was frustrating," Ponder said of leaving the game after playing well. "It wasn't a good feeling. But knowing if I wasn't able to go, I tried to get back in there and training staff made a smart decision not letting me go, but Cassel's done a great job in practice and obviously in the two games that he played, so we're going to be in good hands. And the way Adrian was running the ball and what we saw after I left, we did some good things and were able to close it out. I'm just happy we got the win."
Ponder was in good spirits after the game because of the win. His teammates were happy too, and lauding the effort of their quarterback for the game and on the fateful run.
"That guy never quits," Carlson said. "He's been abused a little bit this year with media and the fans. He never wavers. He never quits. He just stays focused and does what he can do to help our team. Made some great plays for us today, showed a lot of heart on that run. I don't know who hit him, but whoever hit him, hit him hard. But he got us back in the game that second half by leading two scoring drives."
Will it be enough for Ponder to keep his job when he's healthy enough to return. Frazier was impressed with Ponder's performance before he was hurt.
"I think Christian is really growing," Frazier said. "He's becoming more confident, more in command. He's growing as a leader; just the fact that he never got shaken, even after that interception. I'm sure he'll tell you this, it wasn't the right decision to throw that football where he threw it. That did not cause him to go in the tank and have self-doubt. He came back and he played some of his best football. So, he's growing and maturing as a quarterback."
He has to stay healthy to be the starter though. Thursday offered another glimpse at the promise and the heartache.
"It's been an interesting year, that's for sure," Ponder said, recounting his season to date. "My expectation is to get out and play this week again. But to go 0-3 the first three games and lose the job and get injured. To come back and lose two more, and then to come into this game and play well and get injured, but winning cures all. Winning is a great feeling. We expect that to continue to happen. The year's far from over."
No one knows where Ponder's year will go from here, and that is no different than when Thursday began.