Christian Ponder probably won’t have to endure the ugly exit like Josh Freeman, but his run as the Vikings’ franchise quarterback might be over thanks to the former Buccaneer.
Freeman’s tenure in Tampa had the promise of being a special one, but personal struggles and a clear rift with head coach Greg Schiano led to a dreadful divorce from the team. Now, he’ll get a second chance with the Vikings, likely at Ponder’s expense.
A banged up Ponder already conceded one start to veteran Matt Cassel this season, so it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see Freeman take over once he’s settled into the system. Head coach Leslie Frazier has already said that Freeman won’t start for the Vikes this week against the Panthers, but that’s more about getting him acclimated and comfortable than really believing in either Ponder or Cassel.
Freeman, 25, who was drafted 17th overall in 2009, wasn’t a higher pick than Ponder (12th overall in 2011), nor has he been that much more impressive over the past two seasons. But he does have the more prototypical frame and has flashed much more promise during his four-plus seasons in Tampa. This season hasn’t exactly been resume worthy or a confidence builder for Freeman, but he’s much better than this year’s numbers would suggest.
In three starts in 2013, Freeman completed just 45.7 percent of his passes and has thrown more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two) en route to a 0-3 record. Ponder hasn’t been much better, if at all, though. Through three starts of his own, the third-year starter completed just 59 percent of his passes and had thrown five interceptions to just two touchdowns on the way to his own 0-3 start.
Neither quarterback’s numbers are very encouraging for a Vikings team hoping to make a return trip to the playoffs. In fact, Cassell, who was 16 of 25 (64 percent) with two scores and no turnovers in his lone start, looks like their best option for immediate success. Although, it’s unlikely he’s the guy to rely on for sustained long-term success, which brings us back to the Freeman v. Ponder debate.
Ponder, 25, was serviceable, maybe even good, last season as a game manager for the Vikings. He completed a career-high 62 percent of his passes, threw 18 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions and even punched a couple scores in on the ground. But, he was rarely asked to do too much and seemed incapable of doing so when he was.
The Vikings’ offense is going to run through Adrian Peterson, no matter who is playing quarterback, but when Ponder was asked to take on a larger load last season, he couldn’t handle his own. Ponder threw 25 passes or more in 12 of 16 starts in 2012 (30-plus in eight), but he only eclipsed 250 yards passing four times on the season. He also threw multiple touchdowns in a game just six times, including just one game with three or more. However, Ponder also managed five games without any touchdown passes and four games with multiple interceptions.
That sort of inconsistency is exactly what the Vikings can’t afford, at least not if they have any hope of easing Peterson’s workload while continuing to score points. Freeman, who managed seven games of 250-plus passing yards and nine games of multiple touchdown passes (four games with three), gives them a much better chance at establishing that balance.
Freeman has the big arm necessary to keep opposing defenses honest and to give receivers like Jerome Simpson and high-priced addition Greg Jennings the chance to stretch the field. The accuracy issues are still there and will need some attention — a career 58-percent passer just isn’t going to cut it — but Freeman has the better skill set to build around.
There’s no guarantee that Freeman will pan out in Minnesota. There are obviously still mechanical uncertainties to address on the field and lingering maturity questions off it. After a 1-3 start to the season, though, the Vikings need to do something to try and turn this ship in the right direction. Freeman at least provides one potential solution, with almost no inherent risk ($2 million for the rest of the season).