Ponder sees clean slate, believes in QB competition with Cassel
MAY 02, 2014 5:40p ET
He was the 2011 first-round pick destined to be the long-term starter for Minnesota, solving the team's constant search and ending the year-by-year stopgaps. In his rookie season, he was given the chance to develop, knowing he'd be behind Donovan McNabb at the start. Then Ponder took over midway through the season, McNabb was released and Ponder was the man going forward.
Joe Webb was the only competition and he was declared simply a backup into Ponder's second year. Last year, Matt Cassel arrived, but again there was no doubting Ponder was the starter in a pivotal year for him.
That all changed toward the end of last year as Ponder again dealt with injuries. Once healed, he was no longer the starter. The Vikings had decided to finally move on with Cassel as the starter. For the first time in his NFL career, Ponder didn't know where he stood.
"I didn't know what was going to go on, but I'm still glad I'm here," Ponder said this week when asked if he had any doubt he'd be back with Minnesota. "I'm glad that I'm getting an opportunity to compete and we're going to see what happens."
Ponder said he is being given a chance to compete for the starting quarterback spot; this, even though Cassel was re-signed for two years by the Vikings in the offseason, presumably to be the starter in 2014.
A new coaching staff has no ties to Ponder. General manager Rick Spielman, the man who drafted Ponder No. 12 overall in 2011, is starting over. New head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have no allegiances to Ponder, and only a small connection to Cassel after he was re-signed.
Still, Ponder said the new coaches have said the best quarterback will play and he believes he's in a competition to be the starter.
"I expected Matt to come back," Ponder said. "That's good for this team, and even good for me. Competition is great for anybody and plus, me and Matt have such a good relationship already. I expected that to happen and I expect that they're going to draft somebody. There's only two guys on the roster right now. So, whatever happens, it's a competition.
"Whether it's Joe Montana or someone else here, it's a competition and it's fun. It's fun to compete. When I first got here, Donovan came in and played, and I got the ability to go out and play, and Donovan left and there wasn't much competition going on anymore. So this is going to be good for all of us and push us to be our best."
Ponder's future with Minnesota is still in doubt, too. The Vikings haven't exercised the fifth-year option for the Ponder. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, all 2011 first-round draft picks were signed to four-year contracts with a team option for a fifth year. There's little stopping teams from keeping the players under their control. The money in the option, even if picked up, isn't guaranteed.
Yet, with the May 3 deadline to declare whether they are picking up his option, Minnesota hasn't announced its intent. Ponder says he hasn't talked with the team about it and isn't worrying about the option.
"I don't know what to expect," Ponder said. "Honestly, I'm not thinking about it. And plus the option really doesn't mean much. They can cut me without anything after this year. So, it doesn't matter."
Ponder is focused instead on proving himself to a new coaching staff. With Zimmer and Turner in town, Ponder believes he has a clean slate after three up-and-down seasons in which he was dogged by turnovers and injuries.
His career completion percentage is 60 percent, even while averaging just 6.4 yards per attempt. He has a 77.3 quarterback rating in three seasons and has 38 passing touchdowns to 34 interceptions.
Ponder knows turnovers have been his biggest detraction. He believes Turner can coach ball security.
"Well, he talks a lot about ball security, so not turning the ball over," Ponder said of what he can learn from Turner. "His offense is all about timing and rhythm and getting the ball out. So, if it's one hitch and the guy's not open, move on. I like that. It's being able to make those pre-snap reads and get the ball out as quick as possible. It really limits you on your reads, the number of guys that you have to go to. So, it really helps you make decisions quickly."
This week during the team's voluntary minicamp, Zimmer and Turner were watching the quarterbacks closely.
"I want to see somebody that can lead the football team, No. 1," Zimmer said. "Guys that can execute under pressure, guys that can lead us in the fourth quarter when the game's on the line. But also make sure they know what everybody else is doing and kind of be the extension of Norv when we're on the field."
Turner thinks a lot can be learned just in the three-day minicamp setting, and the previous few weeks in talking with players.
"You're in meetings with them, see how they react to the coaching that we're going to present to them," Turner said. "You try to find out what they're strengths and weaknesses are. Matt's been a productive player and he's a better player than a lot of people think. I'm excited about Matt. This is still a very young player whose done a lot of really good things and been put in a tough situation. We're just going to work with both of them and get the best out of them we can."
Ponder said he left for the offseason motivated to improve after another year in which he wasn't able to seize the job long-term. For the first time in his career, he's uncertain of what's ahead.
But Ponder has his clean slate and trusts he has another opportunity in Minnesota.
"I think the expectation is that he's going to be the starter," Ponder said of Cassel returning. "But for me, I'm competing for the job. That's what's going on in my mind -- it's a competition. It's a clean slate for all of us, so I don't think any of the coaches have made a decision on what's going on yet. But hopefully the best guy gets to play, whether that's me or Matt."
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