Ponder takes blame for Frazier’s firing, is unsure of own future
Leslie Frazier’s tenure with the Minnesota Vikings will be defined by the ups and downs of Christian Ponder.
The coach and quarterback will forever be linked for their time together in Minnesota, such is the nature of the two positions in the NFL. When Ponder was playing his best, Frazier had his team angled toward the playoffs. When Ponder stumbled, Frazier’s job status went with it.
While Frazier has landed on his feet as defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, Ponder status is still uncertain heading into an offseason in which he will be playing for a new coach, and maybe a new team.
"It was definitely an interesting year, and not the way that I thought it would play out or probably anyone wanted it to play out," Ponder said last week. "So with my job, I didn’t play well enough to keep the job and for us to win as many games as we should have. So, it stinks knowing that was a contribution to what happened (Frazier’s firing)."
Frazier didn’t personally choose Ponder. Rick Spielman, then as the vice president of player personnel, drafted Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Hailed by many as a reach at the time, Minnesota believed the former Florida State quarterback could be the long-sought franchise quarterback to end the year-to-year questions since Daunte Culpepper’s knee was shredded in 2005.
Frazier did align himself with Donovan McNabb, at least until McNabb looked uninterested in helping the Vikings in 2011 and was replaced by Ponder in a Week 6 loss and for good as the starter in Week 7. From then, Frazier and Ponder were together for 35 games over the next three seasons.
Ponder’s time as Minnesota’s starter seemed on its final legs, until Frazier gave him one more opportunity to prove himself this season. When injuries hit again, Frazier decided he’d put his fate in Matt Cassel for the final four games.
"I think he tried to keep giving me a chance and so that was big," Ponder said of Frazier. "He gave me a chance just to come here and just be the starter. So I’ll appreciate that. That’s a relationship I’d like to have for the rest of my life. He’s a great guy and gave me that opportunity and it just stinks that it didn’t work out."
And Ponder isn’t sure if it will ever work out for him with the Vikings.
"I don’t know what to think," Ponder said. "I got to go talk to Spielman and see what he says. My preparation is to work hard this offseason and that’s what’s going to happen. I want to prepare to be a starter whether that’s here or somewhere else. We’ll find out."
Spielman didn’t sound like a general manager who believes the franchise quarterback is on his roster.
"I haven’t got it right yet," Spielman said last week about the quarterback position. "We’ve worked as hard as we could to try to get that right. I tried to use as many outside sources as I can. I’m not afraid to look at experts in that particular area. I’m going to rely heavily on our head coach and whoever our offensive coordinator is and whoever our quarterbacks (coach) is and they’re going to be heavily involved in this process. A lot of it has to do with, too, making sure that that quarterback fits in the system that you’re trying to run.
"I wish that you could get a quarterback as easy as it is, (but) it’s not, it’s maybe the most difficult position to fill. But we’re going to do everything and use every resource we can to try to get that corrected."
Ponder started 35 games over three seasons with Minnesota and the team finished with a 14-20-1 record in his starts. He has a 60.2 completion percentage and 77.3 quarterback rating in his career. He’s thrown 38 touchdowns to 34 interceptions.
His good games — against San Francisco and Green Bay at the Metrodome last year, against Washington at home this season — give glimpses to what Spielman thought he was drafting. The moments were too few.
Despite the inconsistency, Ponder entered the 2013 season as the established starter. The coaches and Spielman continually pointed at Ponder’s progress during a late-game stretch that helped Minnesota make the postseason the previous season before he was injured and missed the playoff game at Green Bay.
This season, Ponder suffered a broken rib and lost his job to Cassel, and then Josh Freeman, before getting a second chance. A shoulder injury ended his time as the starter.
"It was an injury that took me out initially, and then when I got the job back, another injury happened," Ponder said. "So that’s just part of the game and it’s hard to play out. Hindsight’s 20-20 now, you wish something was different, but that’s the way the year went and we had to deal with it again. Unfortunately it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to."
Ponder wouldn’t say if he’d want to return to Minnesota if he wasn’t the starter. He said his preference is to be back with the Vikings because of the familiarity and his teammates.
"But ultimately I want a shot to be a starter," Ponder said. "So if that’s not here then I’ll have to find somewhere else.
Spielman is on the lookout for a new coach and quarterback combination. It’s unlikely both Ponder — who’s final season of his rookie contract is for 2014 — and Cassel would be back. One could return with a new starter, or as a short-term starter ahead of a rookie.
Ponder said he wouldn’t be surprised if the team drafted a quarterback in the first round. At this point, nothing should surprise anyone when it comes to the Vikings’ quarterback situation.
"Every team is always going to be looking for that franchise quarterback until you actually get one," Spielman said. "And you’re going to continually grind away until you finally hit on one."
Follow Brian Hall on Twitter