MINNEAPOLIS — There was a Christian Ponder-sized elephant in the postgame interview room on Sunday.
The Vikings had won 21-14, defeating the Bears and advancing their record to 7-6. They’d done so handily, carrying a two-touchdown lead into the fourth quarter, and as the clock ticked down, there was no doubt who’d be walking off the field victorious.
It “epitomized what a team win is all about,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. He was “so very proud.” And he should have been. His team had defeated a division rival that beat them easily just two weeks before. It was all pride and learning and growing and the oh so very warm and fuzzy platitudes that come from a win, without nary a mention of Christian Ponder and the factor he was not.
Frazier’s quarterback finished the afternoon with just 91 passing yards on 17 attempts. He was, in a sense, Mr. Irrelevant. It wasn’t that the team won in spite of Ponder — he did little wrong — but rather that it won with him rendered something close to an afterthought.
And that’s what happens a week after cries for the second-year quarterback to be benched rang out in earnest, a week after Ponder threw two interceptions and had just 119 yards passing in a loss in Green Bay. The game plan has shifted and solidified, with the quarterback in a supporting role. That’s justified, especially when Ponder has posted three of the year’s sub-100-yard passing performances, when there have only been 15 instances, in fact, in which a quarterback has attempted more than 15 passes and netted fewer than 100 yards, when Ponder owns exactly 20 percent of them.
But no, the solution is not to bench Ponder, and Sunday’s win proved it. You don’t bench a quarterback when his team leads throughout, when he doesn’t make glaring errors, when his not quite thrilling play nonetheless results in a win that seemed — dare anyone say — easy.
Instead, the solution is the game plan that Frazier hammered home all week to his team and credited with the win, the plan that relies upon Adrian Peterson being Adrian Peterson and the defense being something approaching perfect.
So when Frazier offered his opening statement about Ponder, it was not quite as crazy as it sounded.
“Christian did a great job of leading our offense,” the coach said. “Very efficient in what he did in the passing game. Executed the game plan just like we wanted, and things worked out just like we thought they would throughout the week.”
He was a leader, if limited; efficient, if limited; executing his limited slice of the game plan. And in that, Ponder served his purpose.
In an ironic twist during this, perhaps the streakiest stretch of Ponder’s season, two rookies stood out on defense, one (Harrison Smith) scoring a 56-yard touchdown and the other (Josh Robison) with a 44-yard interception. And so talk of the invisible rookie wall bubbled up, as did the notion of youth and its inconsistency. Frazier marveled at the two rookies, how they’ve yet to become fatigued, yet to hit that wall or bury themselves in slumps. They’re playing like three- or four-year veterans, Chad Greenway said, and with every hint of praise, it was hard not to think back to Ponder, to his youth and inexperience and the wall that he may have run into a year after he dropped the rookie designation.
But here’s the thing: The wall didn’t matter Sunday. Ponder’s passing struggles didn’t either, not when the team played like it was supposed to play, like it did on Sunday. The Vikings neutralized whatever weaknesses Ponder may be exhibiting, perfectly twisting their strengths to prevent, to obscure, to at least stanch the quarterback criticism that dominated last week’s loss. Ponder gets the benefit of the doubt. His team won. He didn’t screw up, and there’s even room to imagine that maybe, on a longer leash, he could have done something more.
“He did a terrific job of doing the things we asked him to do throughout the week and then to go out on Sunday, today, and execute the game plan,” Frazier said of Ponder. “And sometimes it’s going to require him to do a little bit more, but we felt with this game plan, the most important thing was to get Adrian going, and our defense really stepping up. It may be different next week. We may need more from him. But for this game this week, it was perfect.”
For this week. That’s the kicker, the three words that might dull the postgame jubilation. The game plan worked. Between Peterson and defense, there was enough. But quarterbacks are the NFL’s most talked-about players for a reason. They’re there to make an impact, to all too often be a barometer of how the team as a whole is playing. And as the stakes become higher and Vikings cling to hopes of a playoff berth, they may very well need more. They may very well have to look for more from the player they’ve told to do less.
But for this week, it was enough. This week, when it came to Ponder, there was so little to say, which beats criticism any day. So when the elephant entered the room on the heels of Frazier’s praise, there wasn’t much to ask. There were no big plays to discuss — “What did it feel like to watch Peterson run the ball in, to see that kind of greatness?” seemed hardly the proper line of questioning — and so he talked about setting the tone and scoring fast. He was quizzed about incomplete passes and that one inconsequential interception. He explained a miscommunication and a missed read.
And then, when it came time for the obligatory “a couple more questions” command, the time when voices are supposed to jostle for the quarterback’s attention, there was nothing left to say. There was silence and a thank you, and that was all. Four minutes of Christian Ponder was enough.