GREEN BAY, Wis. — Christian Ponder dressed slowly, as despondent as could be expected after he was forced to sit out would have been the biggest game of his brief NFL career.
A Minnesota Vikings team employee helped the young quarterback slide his shirt over his injured throwing arm, taking special care and straightening out a sweater covering severe bruising that protruded from the white sleeve on his right arm.
This was supposed to be Ponder’s next big step. After helping Minnesota to the playoffs last weekend with the finest game in his two NFL seasons, the quarterback was being counted on to take down the rival Green Bay Packers once again, this time at Lambeau Field.
Only that damaged arm ensured Ponder wouldn’t be taking snaps from center John Sullivan. Backup Joe Webb got the call, making his first throws of the entire 2012 season — in the playoffs. Ponder, who suffered a deep triceps contusion when his arm was hit by Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett on a blitz during Week 17’s 37-34 win last weekend, couldn’t recover in time for Saturday’s game and was declared out a mere couple hours before kickoff.
“I think it was just clear that it wasn’t going to work,” Ponder said after the game. “Obviously I really wanted to play, but consulting with (head athletic trainer) Eric Sugarman, our training staff and the doctor, just said it was probably wise to get ready and let it rest and hopefully be ready for Atlanta next week.”
But there will be no next week in Atlanta as Minnesota lost, 24-10, buried under an early deficit created by Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers’ efficient passing and Webb’s ineffective passing leading to gang tackling of star running back Adrian Peterson.
Peterson was slowed, relatively, to 99 yards on 22 carries after rushing for 409 yards in two regular-season games against the Packers. But Webb could offer no help. He finished 11 of 30 for 180 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but the final stats were aided by his four completions long after the Packers had taken a 24-3 lead in the third quarter.
Webb, in his third year with Minnesota, hit on four of his final five passes for 119 yards on the last two drives. Prior to that, he was an ugly 7 of 25 for 61 yards. Webb said he didn’t find out he would start, even after taking the majority of snaps in practice most of the week, until the team worked out before the game.
“It took a couple of possessions,” Webb said of his adjustment. “It really did. Practice, working scout team is a whole lot different than going live contact on game day. But that’s part of our job. It’s got to be the next man up.”
Ponder was listed all week as a limited participant in practice with an elbow injury. But he said the injury isn’t to his elbow, but rather a deep bruise in his triceps. He said he took snaps during the week but mostly in handing off the ball. He tried a few passes in Thursday’s practice and then again Friday as the Vikings tried to give his injury a chance to heal with the short week of rest.
Ponder, under close supervision from Sugarman, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and general manager Rick Spielman, made 10 short throws about 2 1/2 hours before the game, ended his warmup and went back inside.
“The biggest thing, a little bit of pain, but I can play with pain,” Ponder said. “The biggest thing was I lost flexibility. I couldn’t get the ball in position to where I could throw it normally and lost a lot of power and everything. Just wouldn’t have been wise to play.”
Ponder said the decision was “cumulative” between him, the medical staff and coaches. Coach Leslie Frazier had hoped Ponder’s elbow would improve, but couldn’t start his second-year quarterback because of his inability to throw during pregame warmups.
“Some of the things we asked him to do, he wasn’t very good at getting done, and the things we needed him to get done if we were going to put him out there,” Frazier said. “It wasn’t the right thing to do.”
Teammates say they didn’t find out Ponder wouldn’t play until right before the game, though some said they had an inclination after Webb took most of the practice reps. Webb’s lone regular-season action was three snaps late in a win against Tennessee, when he had two handoffs and a kneeldown.
“It’s nearly an impossible situation to put a guy in like that,” fullback Jerome Felton said. “Joe’s skilled, and he’s a good player, but you don’t take a snap all year and it’s rough.”
With the Vikings in the dark, certainly Green Bay wasn’t expecting Webb, the 2010 sixth-round draft pick out of Alabama-Birmingham who was drafted to play wide receiver before being switched back to quarterback by former coach Brad Childress.
Webb’s athleticism helped Minnesota score first as the Vikings using several read-option plays with Webb and Peterson running effectively to get Minnesota into field-goal range. But the Vikings went away from the read-option, choosing to let Webb — who ran for 68 yards — try to pass. It played right into Green Bay’s hands.
“They did a good job of keeping it under wraps,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I knew Joe Webb was going to play. That’s not the case. We didn’t adjust our game plan. Our players and coaches did a hell of a job.”
And with that, Ponder now has plenty of time to rest his right arm.