Ex-Buccanneer storms the Cassel
By Eric Wilkins, Sports Editor
Christian Ponder was taken 12th overall in the 2011 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings to be the main man behind centre. Now, not even halfway through his third season, it looks as though his billing as the franchise quarterback is over—thanks to the arrival of Tampa Bay cast-off, Josh Freeman.
While the speed of the change should come as a bit of a surprise (and a bit of a slight to the consistently average Matt Cassel), the fact that it happened shouldn’t. Ponder has been, at best, a mediocre game manager. Not a mediocre quarterback. A manager. And it’s debatable if he’s even as good as that. Thad Lewis could probably look respectable if he had the best back in the league to take some pressure off him too. Pivots taken in the top half of the draft are expected to be more than average. Ponder has woefully failed in that regard.
That said, it’s not really his fault. Even when he was selected by the Vikings, many saw it as an overdraft. A desperate move by a club needing someone to take the snaps. Everyone knew Donovan McNabb wasn’t going to be the answer. While Ponder is definitely a bust, the situation he was thrown into made this result unavoidable. A team with no receivers to speak of and impossibly high expectations; what was he supposed to do?
Ponder’s failure also illustrates the faults of the modern shift in thinking when it comes to quarterback development: gone are the days of first-rounders spending a season or two on the bench and becoming acclimatized to the league before taking the reins. Nowadays, rookies are thrust into the spotlight almost immediately. Last year’s crop of highly touted quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill, and Brandon Weeden) were thrown into the fight from day one. While Luck, RGIII, and Wilson are obviously exceptional players who proved the move was the right choice, Tannehill and Weeden’s baptisms by fire were significantly less successful.
While recent history has shown that this shift isn’t as ineffective as previously thought, one does have to question the reasoning behind it. Yes, some teams seemingly have no other choice but to start their prized prospect due to a lack of depth in the position; but even in those situations, is it really so much about the club starting their best available player, or getting fans into the seats? Don’t kid yourself. The NFL is a money-driven league. In as much as every coach is doing their best to turn their club into a contender, one can’t help but think that owners get a little bit too involved with the football operations for their own good. After all, who would you rather see behind centre? A journeyman or a hyped rookie? Who’s going to put butts in the seats? Sell more jerseys? Get on the cover of Sports Illustrated? From a financial point of view, it’s a no-brainer. But from a football standpoint? Beware. For every Cam Newton, there’s a Blaine Gabbert.