Vikings gamble on Josh Freeman in effort to make the most of Adrian Peterson's prime

Les Carpenter
Yahoo Sports

The Minnesota Vikings can't waste the best years of Adrian Peterson. So they have no choice but to move away from quarterback Christian Ponder.

Less than two weeks ago, Ponder flew to London as the future star of a team suddenly going nowhere. He fronted team rallies. His picture – not that of the star running back, Peterson – appeared on the credentials that were handed out for all NFL functions in the UK that week.

[Photos: NFL International Series - Steelers vs. Vikings in London]

To anyone who was in England on the last week of September and stumbled across the NFL, Christian Ponder must have seemed like a very big deal.

But already his Vikings career was falling apart. His broken rib gave the team a chance to assess a little more than two seasons of uneven performance marked by interceptions and the fumbles. The player who was supposed to lead the Vikings into a decade of dominance in the NFC North instead turned into a turnover machine.

[Related: Why Josh Freeman will struggle with the Vikings]

When Matt Cassel didn't turn the ball over against the Steelers in the London game Ponder was forced to miss, it should have been obvious his time in Minnesota was close to done. The fact Peterson seemed to endorse Cassel over Ponder right after the game only made that reality clearer.

Now that the Vikings have signed Josh Freeman, the chance Ponder takes another snap in Minnesota is unlikely. Freeman has the strong arm Minnesota needs. He is a threat to throw a ball long that will ultimately force defenses to pull back from the line of scrimmage, opening running lanes for Peterson.

There are challenges, of course, for Freeman. He too has been intercepted a lot in the last two seasons. His play has been erratic, and as good as he has looked at times in his career, there has always been something that has kept him from winning close games the way some of the great quarterbacks do. A glance at his career shows tons of passing yards and few signature wins.

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But Freeman brings a promise that the Vikings can get better. They are too good to be 1-3 and one of the season's early punch lines. Peterson is in the prime of his career, and management would be foolish to waste the best years of a player who just ran for more than 2,000 yards. The window is too tight for the Vikings to continue clutching Ponder and hoping, somehow, the interceptions and fumbles stop, and he grows into the quarterback they have longed for him to become.

Maybe Freeman isn't the answer. But his $3 million contract for the rest of the season says Minnesota is going to do whatever it can to see if he is that quarterback. At first he might split time with Cassel because Cassel does know the offense and led the Vikings to their only victory this season. Eventually, though, the opportunity to seize the job will be Freeman's.

It's hard to judge Freeman's time in Tampa Bay. The last two years have been filled with drama under coach Greg Schiano. The Bucs gave him weapons last year with Dallas Clark and Vincent Jackson, and he threw for 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns. Then things fell apart. Is that because of Schiano? Is everything that happened these last few weeks Freeman's fault? The Vikings are going to find out. They have to find out because the other way wasn't working.

What is happening to Ponder is unfair. He was probably not a first-round quarterback, but the pressure to find that future star is immense now. Teams are desperate to find that player they can put in front of the team and say: Here is your future leader. They reach in the draft. They project brilliance. And everybody loses.

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Ponder has positives. When on, he is accurate. Given time to learn the NFL game, he might still make an excellent starting quarterback. He probably needed to sit for two years and study. Instead, he was forced into the role of the Vikings' quarterback of the future. He made the mistakes young quarterbacks make, and because of that he is likely through in Minnesota.

The Vikings had no choice. The clock is ticking on Peterson's career. He is 28 now, creeping ever so close to 30, when running backs suddenly stop being great. His yards-per-carry have dropped from the 6.0 of last year to 4.6. And while the 4.6 is more in line with his career average, it's a sign he isn't getting the opportunities to explode that he did last season.

Enough of the blame for that lies on Ponder.

So he goes from the face of the future to forgotten. For the Vikings there is no time to waste.

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