For the third time in four games, the Vikings will have a different starting quarterback. Josh Freeman is out after one game because of a concussion and Christian Ponder is back in with a relaxed attitude and nothing to lose that he hasn’t already lost.
“I already got benched,” Ponder said with a smile. “So it can’t get worse than that.”
Ponder has seen it all the past five weeks. He’s been publicly supported by the team as its quarterback of the future. He’s broken a rib that cost him a start. He’s lost his job short-term to Matt Cassel and then presumably long-term to Freeman when the 25-year-old former Buccaneers first-round draft pick was signed Oct. 6.
This week began with Freeman’s wildly erratic 20-for-53 performance in the Vikings’ 23-7 loss to the Giants on Monday night. But nothing had changed at quarterback as of Tuesday morning. Freeman was named the starter for Sunday night’s home game against the Packers. Ponder was relegated to backup and fodder for trade speculation.
According to Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, all of that changed Tuesday afternoon when Freeman came to Winter Park saying he “wasn’t feeling so well.” The Vikings evaluated him and determined that he was having “concussion-like symptoms,” according to Frazier.
“I talked to him about (when the concussion happened), and he said he thought it was at some point during the third quarter,” Frazier said. “He didn’t say anything about it during the game. Even in the postgame. … There was nothing on the sideline or during the game that made us go ask him, ‘Are you all right?”
Frazier didn’t actually rule Freeman out, but said the short week coupled with the NFL’s new protocol for returning from concussions made it “more than likely” that Freeman is out. There are two levels of testing that concussed players need to pass. The first is a baseline cognitive exam. Then comes a physical test, followed by a period of rest to see if the symptoms return. Freeman wasn’t able to pass the first level Wednesday evening and won’t be able to practice Thursday.
“We need to get Christian ready to go,” Frazier said.
Teammates who have fielded a seemingly endless stream of quarterback questions are now shifting their support once again to a new guy from the week before.
“Anytime you have to take a back seat, anytime you have to sit down for a minute, it gives you time to reflect,” receiver Greg Jennings said. “I think he’s done that. I think he’s seen how important it is to play at a high level at that position, but even more importantly how important that position is to the overall success of the team and what it takes to actually hold that position. It’s not just about your quarterback play, it’s about how you lead off the field as well and on the field.”
Ponder said he feels more relaxed, which he expects will help him play better. Asked if he’s more relaxed because he’s got nothing to lose since he’s already been benched, Ponder said, “It couldn’t get any worse than that. That’s probably fair to say. I think I was playing with a lot of pressure on myself before and never felt in sync. Now is the opportunity to take that deep breath and go out and have fun again.”
In a strange twist to a bizarre tale, Ponder steps back in against the Packers at Mall of America Field.
Ponder’s last victory before starting 0-3 this year came against the Packers at home. Needing a Week 17 win to reach the playoffs, Ponder had three touchdown passes and a career-high 120.2 passer rating in a turnover-free 37-34 Vikings victory.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” Ponder said. “Obviously, (the starting job) swung away from me, it swings back and it’s time to grab ahold of it and not let it swing away from me again.”
The Vikings are 1-5 and riding a two-game losing streak in which they’ve been outscored 58-17. The Packers have won three consecutive and are 4-2. But considering the twists and turns thus far in the Vikings’ quarterback situation, Ponder throwing at least a temporary wrench into Freeman’s future with the team can’t be ruled out.
Frazier said he is not thinking about the quarterback position beyond Sunday night.
“Obviously, we want Christian to have a great game on Sunday night,” Frazier said. “We’ll deal with whatever comes after that.”