Freeman signing means Ponder is on notice

MINNEAPOLIS -- We'll begin by allowing a moment for the scenario that doesn't signal a dramatic shift at the quarterback position is coming for the Minnesota Vikings. Christian Ponder has a broken rib, and Josh Freeman could be here to add depth to the roster if Ponder's injury keeps him off the active roster for several weeks.

Phew. Now that we've got that disclaimer out of the way, we can move onto the real upshot of the Vikings' decision to sign Freeman to a one-year, $3 million contract, as reported by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. In short, the Vikings' quarterback position is as open as it has been in Ponder's three years with the team.

A person with direct knowledge of the situation said Freeman will not come in as the Vikings' starting quarterback; the team still needs to see if Ponder is healthy enough to play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, and will list him or Matt Cassel atop the depth chart to begin the week.

But Freeman, who reportedly had interest from the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills after he was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, wasn't going to sign with the Vikings to sit on the bench. The Vikings weren't going to give him $3 million -- and make Ponder the third highest-paid quarterback on their roster -- to have Freeman hold a clipboard. This is now a three-way race for the team's starting quarterback job, and though it could still end with Ponder as the No. 1 quarterback, the days of the 25-year-old having a presumptive hold on the job appear to be over.

As much rope as the Vikings have tried to give Ponder, as strongly as they have supported him through his struggles, they've got too much on the line to go on like that without giving themselves options. Coach Leslie Frazier needs to produce enough wins to get a contract extension and keep his job. Running back Adrian Peterson is 28 years old, and might not have more than a couple years left at his peak. And if general manager Rick Spielman missed on Ponder with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, he needs to act swiftly and limit the damage before deciding how the Vikings will move forward at the position, whether that's with Ponder, Freeman, Cassel or someone else.

Freeman, like Cassel, turned in an impressive 2010 season before his play slipped and things soured with his old team. He has been turnover-prone in every season but 2010, and he might not be with the Vikings longer than the rest of this season. His peaks in the NFL have been higher than Ponder's, though, and he flashed his big arm by throwing for three touchdowns in a Thursday night game at the Metrodome last October. He is far from a perfect option for the Vikings, but he's an intriguing one.

And at this point, that's all the Vikings have at the quarterback position: options. They don't have a bona-fide starter, or even a quarterback they can unequivocally say will be on their roster next year. There is no commitment to Freeman yet, and Cassel -- who might have reason to be irked after leading the Vikings to their first win of the season a week ago in London -- doesn't have anything promised to him, either.

In the end, this is about Ponder and the cushion he no longer enjoys. He now has to show he's healthy and a better option than a quarterback with a Pro Bowl appearance and another with a 4,000-yard season. He has had a knack for playing his best football when he has the most to prove, and if he can do that now, maybe he'll redeem the Vikings' decision to pick him so high in 2011.

But if the Vikings' decision to sign Freeman signaled anything, it's that Ponder's days with the benefit of the doubt are just about over.