The idea of a learning curve no longer applies for Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. His leash, if tight before, is now uncomfortably restrictive. Pressure and urgency now rule the moment.
For Ponder, the days of developing in the cozy and relaxed environment of the last three years are long gone. It's put up or shut up time with Josh Freeman in town, and Ponder might now be on his last chance to make his situation right in Minnesota.
ESPN's Adam Schefter confirmed late Sunday that Freeman, a 25-year-old former first-round pick who was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, had signed a one-year deal worth $3 million with the Vikings.
Teams don't typically pay that kind of money to a young quarterback unless there is a vision of that player eventually starting. And with a one-year deal, the Vikings would be certifiably crazy not to give Freeman a chance to start at some point this season.
More importantly, Freeman prioritized the chance to start now when he sifted through his offers. The Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders could have provided that opportunity, but Freeman was obviously assured by the Vikings that the same possibility existed in Minnesota.
This is now a football team with three quarterbacks capable of starting. One was drafted high, another signed as the veteran backup and the newest is just looking for a second chance. But each quarterback's future is up in the air past 2013.
Ponder is signed through 2014, but he's owed just more than $1.7 million in base salary next season. He could be sent packing without much in terms of financial backlash. Matt Cassel is 31 years old and hardly a long-term answer as a starter. And Freeman's decision to take a one-year deal now makes 2013 more of an audition for next season than anything.
Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier has otherwise stuck by Ponder, who he became immediately tied to when the Vikings selected the Florida State product with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft. Even when Cassel played well in Minnesota's first win of the 2013 season two Sundays ago, Frazier confidently declared Ponder as his starting quarterback if healthy.
However, the addition of Freeman to the mix proves that the cushion Ponder once had as the Vikings starter is gone.
For the better part of the last three years, Minnesota has given Ponder the kind of leeway most first-round picks are provided early in their respective careers. His 10 starts as a rookie were expectedly up-and-down, and an awful 11-game slump during 2012 nearly eliminated a Vikings team that was getting a historic and mostly unprecedented season from Adrian Peterson.
But through the struggles, Minnesota's faith in Ponder never wavered, and he showed the few flashes of brilliance needed (three touchdowns in a win over San Francisco, 120.2 passer rating in beating Green Bay) to keep his leash long.
After seven turnovers and three losses to begin his pivotal third season, Ponder put himself squarely on the hot seat. Freeman arriving in Minnesota only turns up the heat. If Ponder receives another chance to start again in 2013, and his pedestrian passer rating of 65.9 continues, he could very well be done as the Vikings starter for good.
Frazier, who is working on a one-year deal himself, owes it to his team to play the quarterback that gives Minnesota the best chance to win right now.
Even after a disappointing 1-3 start, the Vikings are far from dead in the NFC North. The division is led by the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, who each are 3-2. The defending champion Green Bay Packers are just a game ahead of the Vikings at 2-2.
Minnesota has an obvious window to get back into the playoff hunt, but it can't do it without strong play at the quarterback position. And the Vikings now have no reason to stand by Ponder or Cassel if neither is getting the job done.
Ponder's career with the Vikings is on thinning ice. If he doesn't play well upon returning from a rib injury, there's no question that Minnesota will hand over the keys to Freeman. Such a development would likely mean Ponder is playing elsewhere in 2014.
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