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Zulgad: Team should hope it can announce Christian Ponder's benching


A fractured rib means the Minnesota Vikings don’t have to face the reality of the Christian Ponder situation for a few more weeks.

Obviously, the general public doesn’t know the extent of the injury to the Vikings’ first selection in the 2011 draft, but for now the team is well within its rights to sell us on the fact that a quarterback change to Matt Cassel has been made for injury-related reasons.

Eventually, however, the Vikings almost certainly are going to have to come clean and admit that Ponder has been benched. What makes this so intriguing is that many in the organization privately have to be holding out hope that soon a day will come when that admission can be made.

That’s because if Cassel plays the way that coach Leslie Frazier, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, wide receiver Greg Jennings, running back Adrian Peterson and many others are hoping he does, Ponder won’t see the field again this season.

And that’s not being overly dramatic.

The Vikings, coming off a 10-6 season and a playoff appearance in 2012, are off to an 0-3 start and face another 0-3 team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on Sunday in London.

If the Vikings beat the Steelers and Cassel plays well, there is no way Frazier is going to go back to the struggling Ponder. Not after Ponder received 29 starts over two-plus seasons to show consistency and spent last season in a situation where he never realistically was going to be benched.

The Vikings have a bye week following Sunday’s game and then play host to the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 13.

You can’t have Cassel win the Pittsburgh game for you and then replace him with Ponder. Vikings fans already were chanting for Cassel during last Sunday’s loss to Cleveland at the Metrodome.

Can you imagine the reaction of those fans to a decision to return Ponder to the starting role after Cassel got them a victory?

In some ways this feels similar to 2008, when the Vikings benched Tarvaris Jackson and turned to veteran Gus Frerotte after an 0-2 start. Frerotte came in and won eight of 11 starts before suffering a back injury that put Jackson back in the starting role.

The Vikings finished 10-6 and made the playoffs thanks to Frerotte, but Jackson started the final three games of the regular season and a playoff loss to Philadelphia.

Frerotte was understandably unhappy when he wasn’t reinstated as the starter after he recovered, but coach Brad Childress had a large hand in drafting Jackson in 2006 and was eager to see him succeed.

That’s where the Ponder situation is very different when it comes to the coach.

Frazier signed off on drafting Ponder but it was general manager Rick Spielman who had the biggest say in scouting the quarterback class of 2011 and taking Ponder 12th overall.

Thus, it’s Spielman who is tied to Ponder in the same way that Childress saw Jackson as his guy.

If Cassel can win games, and that’s a big if considering his struggles in his final two seasons in Kansas City after a Pro Bowl year in 2010, Frazier isn’t going to go away from him. Not when Frazier has only the 2014 season left on his contract and is trying to prove that going from 3-13 in 2011 to 10-6 in 2012 was no fluke.

Continued lack of success this season will mean the end of Frazier’s tenure in Minnesota.

Spielman could try to get Frazier to play Ponder again when his rib is recovered but one has to think ownership would step in and simply say, “Nice try.” Zygi and Mark Wilf are largely hands off, but, as has been pointed out before, there is plenty of evidence that the change from Jackson to Frerotte early in 2008 came after a strong suggestion by ownership.

For now, Frazier is downplaying any potential quarterback controversy and Ponder is saying all the right things about playing against the Panthers. What else would you expect anyone to say?

But if Cassel gets on a roll we all know he will start for the Vikings coming out of the bye and we also know he will have a good chance to remain in that role the following week against the Giants.

Eventually, the Vikings are going to have to take Ponder off the injury report and admit he’s healthy. The second they do that, and he still doesn’t play, the admission will have to be made: Christian Ponder has been benched.

The only question then will be if he will get one last chance to try to get his job back – that might not be until training camp 2014, if Cassel stays healthy – or if he will go down as one of the Vikings’ most disappointing first-round picks.

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