EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. Thanks in part to the Minnesota Vikings, the St. Louis Rams were faced with a franchise-altering moment in March when the Washington Redskins came calling.
On the table was a lucrative trade offer from Washington, which would net St. Louis six draft picks in exchange for the No. 2 overall selection and the rights to select Heisman-winning Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Rams could pick Griffin, who has wowed the NFL early in his career with both his arm and his legs. Or, they could take the bounty of picks and build around their current starter, Sam Bradford.
St. Louis, who had drafted Bradford No. 1 overall two years earlier, stayed patient with Bradford and traded the pick.
"It just fell into place for us," St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher said this week. "We have a franchise quarterback back here, we certainly need picks, and we're looking forward to building our team as a result of that trade."
Minnesota (7-6), which will face the 6-6-1 Rams on Sunday, never had the chance to choose between a possible once-in-a-generation talent in Griffin and its previously anointed answer at quarterback in Christian Ponder. In 2011, the Vikings won a late-season game, at Washington of all places, and ended up with the third overall pick behind St. Louis.
For better or worse, the Vikings and Rams are remaining patient with their futures tied to quarterbacks who have been inconsistent, at best, in their short careers.
Bradford is receiving the required patience because of his lofty draft status. Ponder is getting his fair chance to prove himself after being picked No. 12 last year and having his first offseason wiped out by the lockout.
Ponder has led the Vikings to a 9-14 record in 23 NFL starts. His career 74.9 quarterback rating comes with a 59.1 percent completion rate and 27 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions. Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier called this season's final three games, with a playoff berth on the line, a "defining moment" for his quarterback. Ponder's hold on a starting spot might be loosening, but the Vikings aren't turning their backs on their second-year starter.
"Well, we anticipate him just continually getting better and playing better in this ballgame and the remaining two ballgames after St. Louis," Frazier said Wednesday. "We're not looking to next season or trying to figure out who's going to be our starter next season. We expect him to play well against St. Louis, and then we get ready for the next ballgame."
Bradford's numbers aren't much different than Ponder's. Bradford has started all 39 of the Rams' games in his career, in which St. Louis has gone 14-24-1. He edges out Ponder narrowly in quarterback rating (76.6) but trails in completion rate (58.2 percent). Bradford has career 39 touchdown passes with 31 interceptions.
Yet few people question Bradford's viability as a franchise quarterback. The Rams have added to the timeline of his evaluation because of last year's lockout and injuries to Bradford and his supporting cast.
"We washed that aside and we started over," said Fisher, in his first year with the Rams. "I think Sam has an opportunity to be one of the better quarterbacks in this league in a very short period of time."
Surrounding Ponder and Bradford with the requisite help is important to the evaluation.
Since drafting Bradford, St. Louis has selected five receivers and one tight end in the top four rounds. Just this year, the Rams picked Brian Quick in the second round and added Chris Givens in the fourth round. Givens leads the NFL with five catches of 50 or more yards.
Danny Amendola, a free-agent pickup in 2009, has continued to make progress amid injuries and leads the team with 51 catches. Brandon Gibson, a third-year player acquired in a trade, is trying to find more consistency and has 40 catches.
"It's very important," Fisher said of the team adding receivers to judge Bradford properly. "Sam needs to be able to trust them, which he does. I think that's shown, here, in the last few weeks. Some of the throws that he's made, timing throws; Sam's a pro now. I mean, you can look back over your shoulder as you exit the practice field on Friday, and he still has them out there working in individual routes. And so, he's worked hard to establish relationships with them."
Trust with receivers is lacking with Ponder, especially with injured playmaker Percy Harvin out for the rest of the regular season. Minnesota's help for Ponder has come by way of tight end Kyle Rudolph, drafted in the second round after Ponder last year, and left tackle Matt Kalil, this year's first pick at No. 4 overall. The Vikings did select receivers Jarius Wright and Greg Childs in the first round this year, but Wright was inactive the first nine games and Childs has been out all season with knee injuries.
As recent games have demonstrated, Ponder doesn't have the necessary help on the outside or deep down the field, stunting the team's evaluation of its young starter. And until Minnesota addresses its dearth of receiving talent, as the Rams have sought to do, patience might still be a virtue when it comes to Ponder.
"It's important," Frazier said of having quality receivers to evaluate Ponder. "You want to be able to get a good receiving corps for a quarterback, any quarterback. We're going to continue to work toward that. We've got some guys here that are making some plays for us. We're going to need to make some plays this Sunday. But having the receiving corps as part of the evaluation along with the evaluation of the quarterback, I think you have to combine the two."
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