MINNEAPOLIS – Shortly after Sunday’s 31-27 loss to the depleted Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier looked every bit as defeated as his 0-3 team.
Frazier scratched his head, lamenting a loss in which his defense came up with four turnovers. Offensive line struggles, an inability to run on one of the league’s best run defenses and another failure defensively in the final minutes all contributed to the loss.
But as is the case too often over the past three years, another big focus of Frazier’s postgame press conference revolved around his starting quarterback.
Christian Ponder, with two rushing touchdowns Sunday, wasn’t the only reason Minnesota fell to 0-3, but he also wasn’t the answer in what might as well have been a must-win game for the Vikings considering their upcoming schedule.
And so Frazier was left to throw his support behind his inconsistent third-year starter once again and hope Ponder can rally like he did last season.
“Yeah, he’s still our starting quarterback,” Frazier said. “We’re always trying to do whatever we can to make our team better. But yeah, he’s our starting quarterback.”
Ponder was asked if there is any doubt in his mind that he’s going to be the team’s starter.
“Yeah, no doubt,” Ponder said.
Like it typically seems with Ponder, it was one step forward and two steps back. After coming back strong in the second half in last week’s loss, Ponder was 3 of 4 on the opening drive for 52 yards and hit on two passes of more than 20 yards as Minnesota took a 7-0 lead, marching 80 yards in 11 plays.
For a moment, Ponder had the support of the home fans and the Vikings were following through on the expectations of getting their first win against Cleveland, which was playing third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer and had little running game to speak of after trading Trent Richardson this week.
Inconsistency is the hallmark of Ponder’s three seasons in the NFL.
The highs Sunday included making plays with his feet, running five times for 45 yards and two touchdowns. Ponder also hit on four passes of more than 20 yards, a rarity for the usually-conservative Minnesota offense.
But Ponder finished 25 of 42 for 228 yards and two turnovers. He missed an open Greg Jennings on third down in the fourth quarter, leading to a punt and Cleveland’s eventual game-winning touchdown with 55 seconds left.
“Missed him,” Ponder said. “Bad throw. He was open. He did a great job on that route and beat man coverage, beat their best corner and we weren’t able to convert.”
Ponder threw an ill-advised pass that was tipped and intercepted when his target, Jerome Simpson, was covered by two defenders. With Minnesota in position to get points at the end of the first half, Ponder fumbled on a pass attempt and the Browns recovered to end the half.
In front of a home crowd that has grown weary of Ponder’s inconsistency and the Vikings’ 0-3 start, Ponder was booed nearly every time he took the field. There was a short, but loud “Cassel” chant calling for backup Matt Cassel.
“I think it’s impossible to not hear them,” Ponder said. “But look, we want to win just as bad as the fans, as bad as anyone else. We’re more disappointed than they are. We got to give them something to cheer about.”
Ponder did so at times Sunday with his running ability and he said he’s learned to not dwell on the mistakes.
“I think that’s an area where I’ve grown a tremendous amount, not letting one play affect the other and just going out there and trying to play and take one play at a time,” Ponder said.
But Minnesota has to consider what it has in Ponder, the No. 12 overall draft pick in 2011. Ponder puts the offensive struggles and his inconsistency on a lack of execution. But there’s no denying Ponder is in his third season in the league and third season in the same offensive system with the same coaching staff. Meanwhile, the errors are similar too.
“Good opening drive, but you got to do it for four quarters and he didn’t do it today for four quarters,” Frazier said. “It’s going to be important that he does. It’s hard to play one quarter or half at this level. It just, you got to put four quarters together as a team and as a position player and we’ve got to figure out a way to get that done.”
Ponder still has the support of his teammates, who know the issues aren’t solely on Ponder’s right shoulder.
“I’ve got his back,” running back Adrian Peterson said. “He scored two touchdowns and kept us in this game. They were cheering him when he scored and booing him when the pass wasn’t that accurate or as good as they wanted. That’s what you get and you’ve got to be able to fight through that.”
Left tackle Matt Kalil said: “We have his back all the way, so we’ve got to protect him. Some of those plays were our fault just as well, so we take it very rough when he gets hit. We take pride in protecting our quarterback.”
Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman need to decide if Ponder is the player to help pull the Vikings out of their 0-3 hole.
“I don’t foresee that,” Frazier said of the possibility of a quarterback change after evaluating the game film. “I’ve got to go back and look at it, see what’s creating the inconsistency and why we’re not executing as well as we need to in certain situations. You evaluate it and make the decision that you have to make. But as we speak, I don’t see that happening.”