EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Aaron Rodgers is one of the older guys now. Here comes another rookie, joining the NFL quarterback club.
Christian Ponder, meet the Green Bay Packers.
“I think he’s going to be real excited. This is what we dream about when we’re kids,” Rodgers said.
With Minnesota at 1-5, Ponder has replaced stopgap starter Donovan McNabb. The Vikings picked Ponder in the first round to be their long-term solution at the sport’s most important position. This is a monumental move for a franchise that has traditionally turned to veterans for a year or two before moving on to another one, with varying degrees of success and a few flops.
But running the ball, making low-risk throws and playing steady defense is no longer the league’s standard winning formula. It’s a young man’s game, and he better be able to throw — quickly, consistently and anywhere on the field.
“We’re in a generation of pretty darn good quarterback play,” Rodgers said. “You see some of these young guys coming up, they’re ready to play and step in and play well. I think you saw a trend beginning with Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in their year, and every year you’ve seen guys step up and play early and play well. So I think it’s great for the league.”
Ryan and Flacco each made the playoffs as rookies in 2008. Now roughly one third of the NFL’s starters are their age or younger, with Ponder accompanying Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Andy Dalton in this year’s class. Rodgers, in his seventh season and fourth as a starter, is suddenly one of the elders.
The speed of the game is frequently what coaches and players mention as the biggest challenge for young quarterbacks, and Ponder’s poise in limited action helped solidify the decision for coach Leslie Frazier. The Vikings and their long-frustrated fans have some newfound life this week for an otherwise-lost season that includes two of the next three games against Green Bay.
“I’m fired up!” quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson said after practice Thursday.
The Packers allowed 432 yards passing to Newton in beating the Carolina Panthers last month, so they don’t need to be reminded of the danger of assuming a new guy will automatically struggle.
But neither do the Vikings. Tarvaris Jackson made his first start for them as a rookie in 2006, and he finished with 50 yards in a 9-7 loss at Green Bay. Spergon Wynn (2001) and Brooks Bollinger (2007) weren’t rookies, but their first start for the Vikings came against the Packers at Lambeau Field, too, and didn’t end well.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy was the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers in 2005 when rookie Alex Smith made his first start, and he was roughed up for five sacks, five turnovers and a paltry 8.5 passer rating after completing only nine of 23 throws. McCarthy said this week he blamed himself for calling plays that didn’t put Smith in the right position to succeed.
“I never felt that the challenge was getting the rookie ready to play. It was really how he fit into the team, as far as was the team ready for him to play? I don’t think it’s realistic to go out and ask your rookie quarterback playing in his first game to go out and make all the throws and carry the whole offense,” McCarthy said. “You can’t just go in and be conservative, either, and run the ball and expect the defense to win the game.”
McCarthy added: “They obviously feel confident and have him ready to go. Otherwise he wouldn’t be out there.”
The Packers let Rodgers learn behind Brett Favre for three years, a luxury many teams don’t have, but the signs of future success were there then.
“But you never really know until you play the games if your quarterback has a chance to be a great one,” McCarthy said.
That’s what the Vikings are about to find out.
Rodgers already is one of the great ones, becoming the first player in NFL history to start a season with six games of 110-plus passer rating. The Packers are the NFL’s only unbeaten team, bringing a winning streak with them that dates to last December and includes, of course, the Super Bowl.
The rivalry hasn’t been this one-sided for decades. The Packers have won seven of the last 10 meetings, their best 10-game stretch in the series since taking eight of 10 in the mid-1980s. When they ruled the NFC with Favre in the mid-1990s, the Vikings were still competitive and quite capable of at least beating the Packers at home.
This week, with Favre finally retired and both teams at such opposite places in the standings, the intensity doesn’t seem quite the same.
“A little different matchup this year because of the records and the personnel for the fans’ perspective, but not for us,” Rodgers said. “We know what kind of game this is.”
The noise has rattled the Packers in the past, and left tackle Marshall Newhouse — subbing for the injured Chad Clifton — will have his hands full against NFL sack leader Jared Allen. But the Vikings aren’t at full strength in the secondary, an area of concern even when healthy, which doesn’t bode well against Rodgers.
“I’ve said it since Marshall stepped in: There’s absolutely no part of me that’s worried about that kid,” said guard T.J. Lang.
The Vikings have quickly acknowledged the inevitable mistakes. But there isn’t any visible part of them worried about Ponder, either.
“I prepare myself for success. When things don’t go my way, I make sure that they do,” Ponder said. “I’m a perfectionist, and I’m going to do everything I can and reach my expectations.”