Vikings: Fits and starts for Christian Ponder

May, 30, 2012
5/30/12
4:45
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PonderBruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireVikings quarterback Christian Ponder said he wants to avoid "thinking too much."

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Toward the end of an 11-on-11 drill Wednesday, Christian Ponder threw a pass that no NFL quarterback should make. Ponder, in whose hands the Minnesota Vikings have placed their short-term future, could not find an open receiver and began drifting to his right. He tried to throw the ball out of bounds, but instead short-armed it and lobbed a 5-yard duck into the arms of an undrafted rookie cornerback named Bobby Felder.

"Bonehead mistake," Ponder acknowledged to reporters even before he was asked. "Trying to throw the ball away and didn't."

The first rule of organized team activities (OTAs) is that you do not talk about organized team activities (OTAs.) Oh, wait. That's "Fight Club." Let's try again. The first rule of OTAs is that you do not draw conclusions from OTAs. No one in the history of the NFL has made a team, earned a starting job or provided incontrovertible evidence of future stardom in a springtime, no-pads practice.

So with that substantial caveat in mind, here is what I'll say of Ponder's work in Wednesday's OTA: You would be disappointed if you were hoping to see fundamental and significant improvement. As always, Ponder carried himself like an NFL quarterback. But his hit-and-miss results were indicative of a player who is still gaining confidence within his scheme. If I had to guess, a too-late thought about where he could have thrown that 11-on-11 pass play was responsible for the hitch that caused the interception.

In all fairness, that's what this time of year is for -- to grow more comfortable, not demonstrate it -- but that won't do much to assuage a fan base already on edge about Ponder's future. I've always found cornerback Antoine Winfield to be a measured voice of reason on young players, and here's what he said when I asked if he had seen Ponder make strides during the early portion of offseason work: "Well, it's hard to say right now. It's only been two days of OTAs. I'm not really sure. I'll have to answer that after training camp."

It would be a bit dramatic to suggest that Ponder, entering his second season and in the midst of his first true NFL offseason, is facing a make-or-break year. But an alarmist could look ahead and wonder what direction the Vikings might go if a poor season leaves them near the top of the 2013 draft.

To make that a moot point, Ponder is focused on improving two aspects of his 2011 performance: early down completion percentage and patience in the pocket. Let's take a look at each.

As the first chart shows, Ponder had the third-worst completion percentage on first down among 34 qualified quarterbacks last season, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. In most cases, quarterbacks should hold the biggest advantage over defenses on first down because every type of play must be accounted for. But in 2011, as the second chart shows, Ponder was the worst-performing quarterback in the NFL.

Why was that? Part of the blame should go to a series of injuries to tailback Adrian Peterson. It wasn't difficult to defend an offense that lost its best player. But Ponder acknowledged that he must be willing to accept positive first-down plays even if they aren't big gainers.

"Just [need to make] smarter decisions, I think," he said. "Not trying to force the ball down the field. I think if we have go routes called, if it's not open, have the patience to be able to check it down. It all comes down to patience and knowing your reads and finding the open guy. Football is not a hard game. You've just got to find the open guy and get the ball to him."

Ponder suggested that he wants to avoid "thinking too much," another indication that the Vikings' offensive scheme is not yet second-nature for him. But he is clearly making the mental effort to avoid what coach Leslie Frazier referred to earlier this season as "happy feet."

Ponder actually scrambled with great success as a rookie, converting 13 first downs on 28 carries that totaled 218 yards. But we all know that few NFL quarterbacks make a career of such plays.

"I've got to do a lot better job of moving around the pocket and not taking off so early and getting a feel for the pocket," he said.

Earlier this offseason, Frazier said: "I think as he gains more experience and more confidence, he'll stay in the pocket and get rid of the ball or do what he needs to do."

We've discussed several times the criticism ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer directed at Ponder last season. In essence, Dilfer suggested that Ponder looks like a big-time quarterback, acts like a big-time quarterback and even throws like one in controlled drills. But when the proverbial lights turn on, Dilfer said, Ponder doesn't have the instincts and composure to play well.

Dilfer's words reverberated while I watched Ponder's botched throw-away and listened to him say he must develop a better feel in the pocket. But as long as we're using Fight Club -- er, OTA rules -- we won't draw any grand conclusions. We'll just say Christian Ponder is working hard to get better during a time that's designed for just that.

"He has a little chip on his shoulder this year," said receiver Percy Harvin, and for now that's a good thing.

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