By JON KRAWCZYNSKI
MINNEAPOLIS — Christian Ponder’s future as the Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback may have been sewn up without him even throwing a pass.
Ponder was a late scratch for the divisional playoff game against Green Bay on Saturday night, leaving the Vikings offense in the hands of backup Joe Webb, an intriguing athlete that many impatient fans were clamoring for earlier in the season when Ponder was struggling.
In his first extended action of the season, Webb delivered a dreadful performance in a 24-10 loss at Lambeau Field that ended Minnesota’s surprising season. He completed just 11 of 30 passes for 180 yards, one touchdown and one interception while Ponder watched from the sideline as a late scratch because of a bruised triceps muscle in his throwing arm.
“It was tough,” Ponder said after the game. “Obviously, the whole team has been through a lot and for us to get our first playoff experience and everything it was tough. But we’ve just got to look forward to next year and hopefully we’re going to have more opportunities to do it. I’ve just got to work my butt off to get back here.”
It seems more certain than ever that Ponder will be the guy again when next year rolls around, which wasn’t always the case in a rocky first full season as the man. Ponder started out strong during the team’s 5-2 start, but struggled mightily during a stretch of four losses in five games that threatened to waste star running back Adrian Peterson’s remarkable comeback season. The fans started to turn on him, booing him at the Metrodome and flooding talk radio shows with calls for the supremely athletic Webb to get a shot.
Ponder went six straight weeks with a completion percentage below 55 percent and three times failed to hit the 100-yard mark, turning the Vikings into a one-dimensional offense that relied almost solely on Peterson’s individual brilliance.
But with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, Ponder finally started to respond. He completed nearly 71 percent of his throws in a win at St. Louis on Dec. 16, avoided the big mistakes in a win at Houston the following week and came up with his best game as a pro in the biggest game of the season — 234 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Green Bay that go the Vikings into the playoffs.
Ponder badly wanted to try to build on that momentum and the confidence he gained by winning a shootout with Aaron Rodgers at the Metrodome, but his arm just wouldn’t cooperate. He tried to get it loose all week and even tested it out on Saturday morning before determining that he could not make the throws he needed to make.
Neither could Webb.
In a curious offensive strategy, the Vikings only ran the read option a few times during the game and mostly on the first drive, instead asking Webb to essentially be Ponder by dropping back and running a more conventional passing offense. Webb’s passes often missed Vikings receivers by several yards, which allowed the Packers to load up at the line of scrimmage to contain Peterson.
“There are a lot of plays I would like to have back,” Webb said. “I haven’t touched the field since August, that’s no excuse. I feel our team really came here expecting a victory and Green Bay is a great team and a tough team at home. It was a great learning experience.”
If anything, the performance showed how much better the Vikings offense is when Ponder is taking the snaps, and may have given him an even stronger standing in the locker room, and with the fans.
It also illustrated the glaring need for a capable backup. Ponder battled injuries in college at Florida State and in his first two seasons in the NFL. The Vikings have also been developing McLeod Bethel-Thompson. But they could be in the market this offseason for a quality veteran as well who can step in and run the offense that Ponder runs all season, rather than having a second-stringer like Webb, who has a vastly different skill set and needs major adjustments to the system to have a chance to be effective.
“We mixed some of those read-options along the way,” head coach Leslie Frazier said. “But at some point, you would like to complete some passes. Early on we did have them off-balance and had some opportunities in the passing game, but we just couldn’t connect.”