The real world of pro football is a demanding and fickle god. It will give a young quarterback like the Vikings’ Christian Ponder a glimpse of a rookie’s never-never land — introducing himself with a touchdown pass on the first series of his first game in the starting lineup.
First, it was a 72-yard bomb to Michael Jenkins in the opening seconds. Not quite a touchdown? The bench calls another pass play, and Visanthe Shiancoe comes open in the end zone. Ponder hits him from 2 yards out for a touchdown.
So wham! There it was. Here was a wholesome kid with a big arm, big ambitions, bold and ready to step in, seeming unawed by the occasion.
And here he was, his dad in the stands, delivering his first touchdown before thousands in the stadium had arrived from the beer taps. The crowd roared with no small amazement.
And then the young man was introduced to a larger reality: the Green Bay Packers, to Charles Woodson, who intercepted him twice, and the other starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.
So in the end, it was one more loss for the Vikings, 33-27, at the Metrodome Sunday. But unless all the eyeball readings and gut tests are wrong, it is also came with what looked like a discovery — the quarterback the Vikings have been searching for back to the Bud Grant years.
Christian Ponder had the look of that guy, throwing into the face of the Packer rush and running free-lance when it made sense or the Packer blitzers pressured him. Playing in only his second professional game, he threw confidently and with enough firepower and team cohesion to keep the Vikings in it until their defense failed to stop the Packer running game in the final minutes when the Super Bowl champions were killing the clock.
It had come to that, strangely, this game matching a rookie quarterback against the best there is in pro football. He had helped to lift it into the first-half lead in front of the energized crowd. And then he experienced the almost inevitable reality — throwing blanks for most of the second half until near the finish, when there was still a chance. And then he rallied with a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that nearly put the Vikings over the top.
But championship football teams know how to win.
If there was another discovery Sunday it was the backbone of a widely ridiculed football team, losers now of six of seven games, playing with a defensive backfield cobbled from the pawn shop.
The Packers may not have expected the hard-boiled football that it became. The Vikings had won only one game in six and seemed in disarray. The veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb, unable to develop a coherent or even noticeable Viking passing game, had been replaced by Ponder a few days before. The veteran receiver Bernard Berrian was cast into limbo during the week and may be gone for good. Their best defensive back, Antoine Winfield, was still out. His nominated replacement, Chris Cook, was in jail on charges of domestic assault.
The Packers were undefeated. They were curious about Ponder but worried about Adrian Peterson. As it turned out, Ponder surprised them early, but at the end, it was Peterson who almost beat them, playing his guts out, breaking tackles, dodging linebackers and piling up 175 yards for the afternoon before running himself to the edge of exhaustion and limping off the field.
“The team never gave up,” Coach Leslie Frazier said afterward.
In this, Jared Allen was the ring leader, harassing Rodgers, igniting the crowd and hectoring the Packers’ offensive line. The big surprise was that the game didn’t degenerate into an open brawl. If there was a revealing scene in the game-long squabbling, it came in the second quarter when Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, steaming over some unfriendly digs in the pile-ups, publicly launched a kick to the groin of the Packers T.J. Lang. The officials didn’t like it any more than Lang did and docked the Vikings 15 yards.
With the game on the line, it was that kind of war. Nobody fought it harder than Allen, who delivered two sacks and kept the Viking crowd in a frenzy — which was somewhat diluted by thousands of Packer imports from Wisconsin.
It was that kind of game, right at the edge of open brawling.
The constant in it, from start to finish, was the All-Pro Aaron Rodgers, delivering what was a tutorial for young Ponder. Rodgers began the game with 13 consecutive completions and finished with 24 out of 30 for 335 yards, three touchdowns and an NFL efficiency rating, 146.5, into the stratosphere.
He needed no gifts from the Vikings but got one to open the second half, when the Vikings’ miseries in the secondary became almost comical. Hussain Abdullah inexplicably deserted one of the most dangerous pass receivers in football, Greg Jennings, who was open by 20 yards, almost standing and waiting, practically tapping his foot, by the time Rodgers’ throw reached him for a 79-yard touchdown.
Ponder, meanwhile, came back to earth and ultimately completed only 13 of 32, including a stretch when he virtually went 0 for the third quarter. But he finished with a respectable 219 yards and two touchdowns, the last one covering 24 yards to Michael Jenkins and lifting the Vikings to within six points at 33-27 with seven minutes remaining.
The undercard of the scoring battle was the renewed duel between the field goal kickers, the Vikings’ Ryan Longwell, who hit two (including a 52-yarder) and the Packers’ Mason Crosby, whose four field goals included a gargantuan 58-yarder. But with Ponder’s touchdown throw to Jenkins, the tactical battle between the benches took over and the Vikings were back in the middle of it.
The crucial decision came from the Viking bench. Less than three minutes remained. The Vikings faced fourth down with yards to go for a first down on their 36-yard line. Trailing by six points, Frazier chose to punt rather than risk failing on fourth down and virtually ensuring a clinching Green Bay field goal. The boos from the crowd were predictable.
“We still had three time outs and the 2-minute warning,” coach Leslie Frazier said in the media interview afterward. “We felt that that if we played good defense [against the run] and got the ball back and give it to our offense … unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
It didn’t because the other part of the bargain — to force a Packer punt — belonged to the Viking defense. It had to stop the ensuing Packer ground game to force a punt.
The Packer offense declined to cooperate. Rodgers turned loose the rumbling running back James Starks. In three tries, the Vikings defensive line, knowing he was going to run, couldn’t stop him or the Packer offensive line, and it was over.
Despite the loss, you could see a semblance of relief for Frazier, so somber on the sidelines so often, undemonstrative, worried, wondering when his offense was going to arrive. He felt a start Sunday. He liked Ponder’s verve and his obvious potential, and the possibilities for a new team camaraderie behind a young quarterback almost all of them like. That seems to include the deposed quarterback, Donovan McNabb, who was generous with his advice to Ponder on the sidelines.
Does all of this offer a genuine lift for the Vikings approaching their next game, against a team that at least formerly seemed as troubled as the Vikings? It might, except next week the Vikings play at Carolina, whose own rookie, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, is one of the hottest young quarterbacks in the NFL.
It sounds like a setting for Christian Ponder to move the team four quarters instead of two.