GREEN BAY, Wis. — Christian Ponder yanked off his jersey and slumped in front of his locker, alone as a man can be in a room packed with 100 people.
Ponder had just thrown away what should have been the signature victory of the Vikings season and his career, failing to complete a pass for a stretch consuming 38:51 of the game clock and lobbing the two interceptions that enabled the Packers’ 23-14 victory at Lambeau Field.
He ruined Adrian Peterson’s latest infomercial on the life-affirming benefits of major knee surgery, as Peterson rushed for 210 yards only to wind up on the wrong end of the postgame handshakes.
As Ponder tried to stare holes through the carpet, Peterson approached, still wearing his uniform and cleats. He tapped Ponder on the shoulder, then pumped his fist. Not in anger, but in solidarity.
“I told him, if you keep playing with that passion that you showed today, despite those interceptions, we can win,” Peterson said.
Moments later, Leslie Frazier, on his way to the podium, leaned against Ponder’s locker and offered his own pep talk. “I told him we need to learn from this,” Frazier said.
Peterson should be commended for his support of Ponder. Frazier should not. Not on this day.
The Vikings’ brain trust committed to Ponder as their current and future starter. Sunday, they failed to react to their team’s new reality: That benching Ponder, even for a half, would have improved the Vikings’ chances of winning the game and perhaps making the playoffs.
The Bears lost, leaving them at 8-4 with their next game in the Metrodome. A Vikings victory over the Packers would have left both teams at 7-5, with the Vikings taking a temporary tiebreaking advantage over Green Bay. Peterson’s brilliance had positioned the Vikings to make the playoffs. The Vikings’ brain trust should not have allowed one man, even a quarterback taken in the first round, to hold back the rest of the team.
However different the expectations for these teams were three months ago, the Vikings withstood Green Bay’s early burst and slowly established their superiority at a shocking number of positions. The difference at quarterback would decide the game.
Playing behind a battered offensive line, facing a persistent rush and handing to journeyman backs, Aaron Rodgers completed 27 of 35 passes for 286 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Playing with the benefit of Peterson’s brilliance and behind a solid offensive line, Ponder completed 12 of 25 for 119 yards, one touchdown and two killing interceptions deep in Packers territory. He should not be held responsible for a group of wideouts who cannot get open. He should be held responsible for throws that qualify as quarterbacking malpractice.
“They got two interceptions in the red zone and that negates points for us,” said defensive end Jared Allen. “Even if we get field goals, that gives us a shot to win it at the end of the game.”
Frazier didn’t need to bench Ponder in perpetuity. He just needed to give his team a chance. Joe Webb may not be the long-term answer at quarterback, but he may have helped the Vikings beat the Packers on Sunday, and Ponder’s teammates deserved to play with the guy who gave them the best chance on Sunday.
Ponder is an important figure in the Vikings’ plans, but he hasn’t earned the deference with which the team treats him. Better quarterbacks and higher draft picks than Ponder have been benched during a game. A benching doesn’t necessarily damage a career or signal a change of philosophy.
Ponder has made 22 NFL starts. He’s past the stage where he needs to be babied. While a host of young quarterbacks drafted in the last two years have thrived, he for the second straight year has regressed during the season.
It’s fine to have a plan, but the Vikings should remember that Custer had one, too.
It’s fine to have faith in your beliefs, but then so did the Flat Earthers.
Ponder may even benefit from a benching. What’s more important is that his team would have benefited from one on Sunday, in a game that most of his teammates did enough to win.