Christian Ponder’s new role as the starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings became inevitable about the time the team blew a 20-0 halftime lead against the Detroit Lions in the third week of the season.
Since that debacle – the third time the Vikings squandered a double-digit halftime lead to start the season – fans have clamored for Ponder to replace the fossilizing Donovan McNabb, a once-great quarterback who hasn’t been good for a couple of seasons and now just looks bad. When people compare a quarterback’s throws to Magic Johnson’s bounce passes instead of Dan Marino’s spirals, he’s not long for the starting role.
Now Ponder gets his chance, against the defending champion Green Bay Packers in a game that many people expect will use running time in the second half once the score gets out of hand. If Ponder survives that game, he could be the starting quarterback for the next decade. Or he’ll prove over the final 10 games that he doesn’t have much of a future in Minnesota and the Vikings can again look for another new young – or old – quarterback next spring. But unless Ponder grows into a Pro Bowl quarterback who leads the Vikings to numerous playoff seasons and the Super Bowl, chances are he’ll never be as popular as he was during these first six weeks of the season.
There might not be a more popular player in the league than the second-string quarterback of a struggling team. Yes, on some level fans can understand that a million things affect a team’s performance – poor offensive line play, lack of a rush from the defensive line, slow linebackers, dumb defensive backs, receivers with bad hands and indecisive running backs. Plus, fans can always blame the offensive coordinator. Speaking of which, isn’t it about time they finally fired Schnelker?
But the quarterback is the face of a franchise. He receives praise during the good times, sometimes when he doesn’t even deserve it, and blame in the bad – often when he doesn’t deserve it. He needs to improve his accuracy or mobility. He needs to look at more than one receiver. He has to throw the deep ball better. He has to inspire. Can’t he check down? Can he not look so befuddled in the face of a pass rush? Can he not smirk after an interception? Can he be benched?
Fans chant for the backup at games and call for the starter’s head on talk radio. How often does a backup come in and change things? It does happen, although it seems the ones who lead their team to glory assume the starter’s spot because of injury, not fan impatience. NFL history has several examples of backups who starred only after fans expected the worst when the starter went down. Earl Morrall with the Dolphins in 1972. Jeff Hostetler with the Giants in 1990. A man named Brady with the Patriots in 2001.
More often, the backup struggles just as much as the starter, lending credence to the theory that the team’s problems went much deeper than quarterback.
The Vikings have a long history with popular backup quarterbacks. Before he became the starter, Ponder belonged to a distinguished group that included Steve Dils, Wade Wilson, Rich Gannon, Sean Salisbury, Gino Torretta, Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Todd Bouman, Gus Frerotte, Sage Rosenfels and a handful of other forgettable QBs.
Ponder’s ascension is a bit different. No one expects Ponder to turn the Vikings’ season around. No one thinks he’ll be a Tom Brady who leads the Vikings to a 10-6 record, sneaks them into the playoffs and then stuns the Packers in Lambeau in January. Fans want Ponder because they want to see what he can do beyond this season. This has become a nightmare of a season, perhaps Ponder can provide a reason to dream about the future.
But usually the backup scores high in popularity polls because fans think he can alter a team’s fortunes immediately. Is there anything more exciting for the fans of a bad team than that moment during a game when the backup sheds the headset, clipboard and jacket and starts warming up on the sideline?
“Finally! The coach has come to his senses! Honey, come here, watch. The offense is going to march up and down the field now.”
He sprints out to the huddle while the former starter shrinks on the sideline, forced to stand next to his coach who has publicly humiliated him. They should do it like baseball – send the guy to the showers, let him escape the stares of the fans who had been booing him for hours, days or months.
All of the quarterbacks I listed above enjoyed moments when fans adored them. Yes, even the unfortunately named Steve Dils. We wanted Wilson’s arm, Gannon’s legs, Salisbury’s…what, swagger? We wanted Johnson’s smarts, Bouman’s Minnesota roots (not to mention, what a vertical leap! Guy could dunk. Hey, it matters), and George’s cannon. George might have been the most beloved backup of them all.
The 1999 season for the Vikings was one of the most anticipated in team history. Coming off the famous 15-1 season that ended with the infamous loss to the Falcons, the Vikings returned the same roster. Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Robert Smith, Randall Cunningham. All the key players returned from the record-setting offense. But the Vikings started the season 2-4. The magic Cunningham summoned a year earlier disappeared in ’99.
And behind him? A strong-armed former No. 1 draft pick whose physical skills were never doubted. Fans saw all those weapons on the field and dreamed of watching George fire his perfect passes to them. Many backups are unknown commodities who are popular simply because they’re someone different. Fans knew George. They knew about his many weaknesses, but also his numerous strengths.
There really was the hope that if Denny Green simply changed quarterbacks, the franchise would have a chance to win its first Super Bowl.
Green finally made the move after six games. And…George lived up to expectations. He threw for 23 touchdowns and averaged more than 8 yards per attempt. Most importantly, the offense thrived, as did the team. The Vikings went 8-2. They defeated the Cowboys in the playoffs. On the road in St. Louis in the second round, they actually led the eventual Super Bowl champions 17-14 at halftime, before the Rams blitzed them in the second half for a 49-37 victory.
George was gone the next season, replaced by Daunte Culpepper. He’d eventually be replaced in fans’ hearts by…Gus Frerotte. Such is the life of the beloved backup quarterback.
In eighth-grade I served as the field general for one of the more dominant football teams in southern Minnesota. Behind a bruising running game and punishing defense, we brutalized our foes. Occasionally I threw a roll-out pass or ran the option. Otherwise I stuck the ball in our running back’s stomach and watched him put tiny, bespectacled defenders on their backs.
But in 9th grade, we joined with Waldorf-Pemberton. I started to realize football wasn’t my sport. On our 9th grade team, I lost the starting QB position. My complete lack of arm strength, speed or poise in the pocket finally did me in. I wasn’t completely upset with this event, even if my father likely was. Kids were bigger now. Meaner. And our offensive line spent much of their time doing brilliant impressions of bullfighters.
So I spent the season as the backup. Unfortunately, we struggled. Our 8th grade heroics had been replaced by 9th grade realities. We won some, lost some, didn’t dominate any of them. The newspapers and talk radio filled with talk that perhaps a change of quarterback could bring about the magic from the year earlier (so I imagined).
Finally I got my chance in a big showdown against big-school Mankato East. On the road. Hostile territory. Ones of people in the crowd. The coach gave me the nod because the normal starter was being disciplined for being on detention in school. I seized the moment. Didn’t complete a pass, true. But I handed it off for a long TD run. That was the intangible I brought – guys ran harder when receiving a hand-off from me. Leadership. We actually won the game, stunning our much bigger foes in a thrilling game.
Let the record show that I went 1-0 that year when I got the start. But also let the record show that I only played one quarter of that game against mighty Mankato East – the starter returned for the second quarter, his punishment finished, just like my QB career.
Backup quarterbacks have to be ready at all times. You never know when incompetence – or detention – will force a coach’s hand. They’re the most popular players on the field, as long as they stay off of it. Ponder’s now the man.
Let the calls for Joe Webb begin.