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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Minnesota Vikings: Is it time to give up on Christian Ponder?

By Sean Jensen

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel (16) warms up before the game at Wembley Stadium in London, England, Sunday, September 29, 2013. In the background is backup quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson (4) (Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)Despite public protests to the contrary, the Vikings appear to be in the NFL’s most unenviable gray area: trying to decide whether to fish or cut bait on the guy they drafted to be their franchise quarterback.

After starting in three losses to open the season, Christian Ponder was sidelined last Sunday with a fractured rib. Backup Matt Cassel came in and led the Vikings to their first victory, 34-27 over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London.

So now what? With a bye on Sunday, the Vikings will have had an entire week to think about this before starting practice again on Monday.

“Are they holding on and hoping that at some point it clicks?” asked Kurt Warner, a former NLF MVP who led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder (NFL file: Sean Ryan)

and now in an analyst for the NFL Network.”Very few guys (don’t) do anything then all of a sudden become all-pro guys,” Warner said. “I never like to say a guy is or isn’t (a franchise quarterback), but I haven’t seen the big throw — that consistent big throw down the field — from Christian to make me say, ‘There’s no doubt you can win a championship with this guy.’ ”

Being selected in the first doesn’t guarantee a quarterback will succeed, or even that he’ll have a job. On Thursday, for example, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released longtime starter Josh Freeman, the 17th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft.

“There’s a lot of guys that get drafted high, they last a couple of years, then they’re gone,” Warner said.

The timing is tricky, putting an organization in a difficult position. At some point, Warner said, they have to ask themselves, ” ‘Are we willing to swallow our pride and admit we made a mistake?’ And we know how difficult that is for people to do in the NFL.”

Brian Billick, who led the Baltimore Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV after the 2000 season, doesn’t have a specific philosophy for shelving a franchise quarterback.

“But you have to look at an individual and ask, as the old cliche goes, ‘Does he give us the best chance to win?’ ” said Billick, now an analyst for Fox Sports. “If you question that, or your team questions that, you have a problem. But if you make that change, and it doesn’t work out, and you go back, where are you as a team?”

Tony Dungy never this problem while coaching the Indianapolis Colts because he had Peyton Manning, who the team to a victory in Super Bowl XLI. But Dungy said the decision to abandon a starting quarterback is a delicate one.

“Your judgment has to be good,” said Dungy, now an analyst for NBC. “You got to be right when you’re staying with a guy and you think he can do it. But if you make that move — whether it’s after two years, or one game, or two games — it’s because the players know how you (feel). If you’re not behind him, and you’re taking him out, everyone has a doubt.

“It is a fine line, and you can’t ride it too long. … If you’re no longer sure, then it’s probably time to make a move.”

Dungy pointed to the Miami Dolphins as an example.

Last year, the Dolphins took Ryan Tannehill with the eighth overall pick, started him all 16 games and finished 7-9.

“You have to be careful. Last year, everyone was saying Tannehill wasn’t very good,” Dungy said, “and now they’re (3-1). It comes and goes very quickly. And the big thing is, don’t get affected by what the fans think or commentators think. What do you see in practice? Do they believe in the quarterback?”

Warner has a unique perspective because he’s been on both sides, as a quarterback. After successful runs in the Arena League and NFL Europe, Warner stepped in for the St. Louis Rams when starter Trent Green tore his ACL during a preseason game. He performed brilliantly, leading the Rams to Super Bowl XXXIV, where they defeated the Tennessee Titans.

“I felt I could play. I felt, for me, it was a lack of opportunity,” Warner said. “But I didn’t expect the year that I had. That was kind of ridiculous.”

Warner said each franchise has to determine what they need from their quarterback to win a championship. For instance, Warner said, the Kansas City Chiefs are counting on the defense and run offense to carry the team, and the pressure isn’t as great on quarterback Alex Smith.

“He may not pull the trigger on all those throws, but he’s smart, and he’ll throw the check down,” Warner said. “It really just comes down to, ‘What are you looking for and do you feel that guy has that capability?’ I’m a guy who believes a championship quarterback has to have the confidence and ability to make big, critical throws.”

That’s something Warner said he hasn’t seen enough of from Ponder.

“It’s not that he hasn’t done some good things, and made good plays. Throwing on the run, I think he’s exceptional,” Warner said. “But the bottom line is, do you have that guy who has the confidence to make those plays down the field? To attempt them first, but to make them more than you miss?

“Christian hasn’t gotten to that point yet. I don’t know if he’s that guy. In games, I haven’t seen that.”

Warner provided Eli Manning and Joe Flacco as examples of his point. Both have had struggles in their careers, but they both performed brilliantly in three postseasons to win three Super Bowl rings between them.

“We all have clunker games,” Warner said, “and we have a stretch where it’s not going good. But if you’re afraid to make a mistake, then you can’t get your team to that next level.

“If you looked at Eli’s career, it’s probably very average. But he got into the playoffs two times, and he made play after play after play. That’s the bottom line.”

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