Vikings' Ponder reaches pivotal third year
FEB 09, 2013 4:00a ET
The longtime NFL personnel man entering his second offseason as the Minnesota Vikings' general manager believes he's right about starting quarterback Christian Ponder. It was Spielman who took the leap, choosing Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, a selection that was generally panned as a significant reach.
But Spielman believed in Ponder then just as he does now, with Ponder entering his second offseason sitting comfortably on the throne as Minnesota's starting quarterback. With the Vikings, Ponder might just be a prince to Adrian Peterson, the king of the team's offense. But Ponder is at Peterson's side — or more appropriately, front — as the anointed franchise quarterback, the appointed heir by title and by circumstance.
Ponder, 24, has completed two seasons in Minnesota that can be described, generously, as inconsistent. With Peterson, he helped guide the Vikings to a seven-win improvement in 2012, finishing 10-6 and getting to the playoffs. Ponder played an important role in the two biggest stretches that defined Minnesota's season. Limiting mistakes, he was a main factor in a 4-1 start and recovered late as the Vikings won four straight games to earn the NFC's final wild-card spot.
"We're pleased with the progress that he's made," coach Leslie Frazier said at his season-ending press conference. "We saw glimpses of what he can bring to our football team and the way he led us down the stretch, you feel like you've got a chance to win every game when your quarterback plays the way he played. So we're excited about his development and looking forward to him getting better this offseason."
Ponder is still an enigma. He has shown flashes of the ability that would prove Spielman right. He's also made mind-numbing mistakes that fuel Ponder's and Spielman's toughest critics. Spielman says his rule is to wait three years before fully judging a player. In regard to Ponder, it's a practice in patience and a smart wait.
Ponder has proven capable of making big plays and beating quality teams. He had perhaps his two best games against San Francisco, which advanced to the Super Bowl, and Green Bay, which won the NFC North. He accounted for three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) with no turnovers in a 23-14 win against the 49ers.
Recovering from his worst game as a pro at Green Bay earlier in the season, Ponder responded with 234 passing yards, three TD passes and a career-best, single-game quarterback rating of 120.2 while beating the Packers, 37-34, in the regular-season finale that earned the Vikings a spot in the playoffs. Ponder, who was the last starting quarterback in the NFL to throw an interception when he went the first four games without one, ended the season with three games without an interception. He was among the early-season leaders in quarterback rating and completion percentage, truer indications of his play than big passing numbers due to Minnesota's run-first philosophy.
Between those high points, Ponder looked nothing like a franchise quarterback. Once he did start committing turnovers, they came in droves (10 touchdown passes to 12 interceptions over nine weeks). During his midseason swoon, he finished with a quarterback rating under 60 four times in seven games. He had four games with less than 100 yards passing, and his confidence was especially shaken after that first Green Bay game.
"You have to judge all," Spielman said of evaluating Ponder and the team around him. "You have to put in the stats of the quarterback. You're evaluating the quarterback on how he's running the offense and how he's managing the offense. Is he doing what the coaches are asking him to do. ... Christian had a big part of us going 10-6 and getting in the playoffs as well."
He is the heir to the team's offense and it's most important leadership spot because of Spielman's belief and his lofty draft status. Rightly so, Minnesota is giving him the chance to prove himself, and he's entering a pivotal season. Ponder finished 2012 with an 81.2 quarterback rating (21st in the NFL). He completed 62.1 percent of his passes (13th) for 2,953 yards (25th), 18 touchdowns (23rd) and 12 interceptions (tied for 13th).
Spielman enjoys looking at the numbers. He has told reporters that he sat down before the season, based on research of other quarterbacks in their second year, and predicted Ponder's stats this season. Wearing that easy grin, Spielman, hiding his actual prediction, says he was right all along.
"I'm always right, whether you guys write it or not," Spielman joked. "At least in my mind."
Spielman's emphasis is to look at the second-year numbers of quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. Brees, in his second season and first full season as a starter just like Ponder, had a 60.8 percent completion rate, 3,284 passing yards a 17-16 touchdown pass-to-interception ratio and a 76.9 quarterback rating. Manning, in a his second season and first as a starter, had a 52.8 percent completion rate, 3,762 passing yards, 24 touchdown passes, 17 interceptions and a 75.9 QB rating. Ryan, playing only 14 games his second year, had a 58.3 percent completion rate, 2,916 passing yards, 22 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and an 80.9 quarterback rating.
Using those numbers, Spielman might have been able to predict Ponder's line, which held up or bested most of Brees', Manning's and Ryan's numbers.
Ponder has shown he can be the quarterback the Vikings have hoped for, just as each of those three developed into unquestioned franchise quarterbacks. Consistency and decision-making will decide if Ponder ever fulfills Spielman's convictions.
As for Spielman, he'll wait to hear he was right all along.
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