Like many purple faithful, I snuck out of work a bit early this afternoon to take in the Miller Lite Vikings Draft Party at Winter Park.
The roller coaster of emotions ultimately ended in confusion—nobody saw it playing out like this.
6:15 - I arrive at Winter Park, where I'm greeted by the Vikings' cheerleaders. So far, so good. An impressive stage is set up in the south endzone, where KFAN AM 1130 is hosting the local draft coverage. The panel consists of KFAN's Paul Allen, Paul Charchian, Mike Morris (former Vikings' long snapper) and Pete Bercich (former Vikings' linebacker and linebacker coach). The pre-draft speculation falls on a sparse, uninspired crowd. The stench of 6-10 is still lingering.
It doesn't take long to gauge the temperature of the crowd—Jake Locker is the clear fan favorite.
6:37 - Owner Zygi Wilf's arrival pumps up the growing crowd. Local and national media begin to post up. Allen, a local icon and the voice of the Vikings, teases fans with the notion of Jake Locker in purple. They're eating it up.
7:05 - The chiding of Roger Goodell is met with snickering approval at Winter Park. Minutes later, the Cam Newton selection is greeted with a smattering of boos. By the time Von Miller is donning his Broncos cap, Winter Park seating is at capacity.
7:15 - Marcell Dareus. A.J. Green. Patrick Peterson. Murmurs of a Blaine Gabbert slide begin to circulate.
7:35 - The Atlanta-Cleveland Julio Jones trade is the draft's first curveball, generating excitement throughout the crowd.
As the smell of beer and buffalo wings waft through the air, fans have zeroed in on two players: Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker.
7:39 - NFL Network flashes the Vikings' war room on the big screen. The horn sounds, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
7:41 - Aldon Smith to the 49ers. The crowd erupts as the two quarterbacks inch closer.
7:43 - Hall of Fame running back Chuck Foreman hits the stage—the fans are on fire.
7:45 - The Tennessee Titans' selection of Jake Locker draws a collective gasp. He's leapfrogged the more highly touted Gabbert. Could it be...
7:52 - Tyron Smith to Dallas—two more teams remain between the Vikings and their franchise quarterback. The crescendo reaches new heights.
8:01 - NFL Network comes out of commercial break with a shot of Blaine Gabbert on his cell phone. You can literally feel the crowd deflate. The Jacksonville Jaguars have traded up (with the Washington Redskins) and sniped the Vikings. A collective groan echoes throughout the facility.
8:07 - The KFAN panel quickly refocuses the dejected fans, and within minutes cornerback Prince Amukamara is the new team's new savior.
J.J. Watt's cell phone conversation with the Houston Texans ignites "Prince!" chants throughout the crowd. Heading into commercial break, everybody's on their feet. The Vikings are on the clock.
Time stops, as the crowd is jolted by a fleeting sense of bewilderment.
At first it's not boos—it's sporadic, painful shouts. Within moments I discover what 5,000 simultaneous root canals (without Novacaine) might sound like.
8:40 - With the initial shock still reverberating through the crowd, Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier hit the big stage to begin the damage control.
I try to collect my thoughts in the enclosed press area, where the media anxiously awaits their turn with Spielman and Frazier. The consensus: skepticism. The Vikings reached.
8:50 - Vice President of Player Personnel, Rick Spielman, is the first to meet the media jackals.
We are very excited to get Christian Ponder; he was one of our top-rated quarterbacks... we saw him at the Senior Bowl and thought he was the top quarterback there. Then we watched what he did at the combine and finished up with his evaluation down at Florida State. Myself, Leslie (Frazier) and (Offensive Coordinator) Bill Musgrave were able to spend a day and a half with him. Christian is extremely bright. He is one of the smartest guys we evaluated and spent time with. He’s an A+ character kid. Football is very important to him and he has a passion for the game... When Washington traded back to number sixteen, knowing that they would potentially take a quarterback in that spot, we didn’t want to go beyond that point. We tried to look at some options of moving back, but we did not have any takers when we were on the clock... You very rarely get a chance to take a swing at a young quarterback, and we felt that it was a no-brainer to take Christian Ponder.
When pressed, Spielman downplays Ponder's injury concerns.
Our doctors looked at that and there was nothing significant.
Spielman admits that the Vikings were not willing to pay the price Jacksonville did to move into position for Blaine Gabbert. When asked if Ponder was a reach at 12, Spielman defends his board, stating that Ponder "ranked in there" with Newton, Gabbert and Locker. He expresses confidence in Ponder's ability to transition to the next level.
He is extremely bright—one of the top quarterbacks as we went through this process. He graduated in two and a half years. He has his M.B.A. and is working on his second Masters. After talking with their coaches, he knows their offense inside and out. He has also worked in a pro-style offense. He has taken some snaps from center and you can see how accurate he is when he gets back and sets his feet. All of them are going to have some things to work on, but we felt he was NFL-ready.
Spielman puts a bow on his interview with a final vote of confidence for Ponder.
There was really no discussion; Christian Ponder was our guy... If we weren’t comfortable, we wouldn’t have taken him.
8:58 - Head coach, Leslie Frazier:
I think it’s a great night for the Minnesota Vikings, I really do. We get a chance to solidify, in my mind, the most important position on a football team, the quarterback position... the recognized leader of your team. I really believe (Ponder) is going to do a great job in the National Football League.
When asked if Ponder is the starter, Frazier's response causes me to squirm in my chair.
Well, I still want it to be an open competition with the guys that are on our roster right now. There’s Joe Webb, there’s Rhett (Bomar) and of course Christian eventually. So, it will be those three and what happens with free agency, who knows? We’ll eventually get to that point, but right now it’s a competition between those three...
Before giving way to Ponder, Frazier boasts about his new quarterback's leadership. He's already beginning to change opinions in the room.
He has good leadership qualities... Other guys gravitate to him... guys wanted to be around Christian. Those qualities were some of the things you look for beyond the talent at the quarterback position. Those are some of the things that really impressed me.
I didn’t think (Spielman and I) had to sell one another on Christian. We were excited about him all along... We all came away from that (pro day) visit saying "man, if that guy is there it would be hard to pass him up," and fortunate for us he ended up being there at 12.
9:15 - The man of the hour, Christan Ponder, checks in via conference call. He's immediately drilled about his injury history, but insists that the issues are behind him.
He then discusses the courting process, and notes his admiration for new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and the direction of the offense.
The stuff we were going over on the board when they came in was very similar to what we were doing at Florida State, conceptually. That is a good thing for me as I feel like I am really prepared...
I’m going up there tomorrow, and I already asked coach if I was going to have a playbook... he said there will be one ready for me, and we’re going to talk some ball once I get up there so I’m excited... starting tomorrow, I’ll be working on getting myself prepared.
I've used this space to promote Ryan Mallett over the last several weeks. However, while arm strength and durability concerns still linger, Ponder has begun the slow process of winning me over. At the very least, I've stepped away from the ledge. The kid deserves a chance.
Weclome to Minnesota, Christian Ponder.