There wasn’t a lot to ask. And there wasn’t a lot to explain. So during Sunday’s obligatory postgame session at Mall of America Field, Christian Ponder was barely on the podium for 4 minutes when reporters ran out of questions and the second-year quarterback ran out of explanations.
Why belabor the issue? For a Vikings team that has so many things to be encouraged about, Ponder remains the biggest concern.
As Mark Craig wrote after the game:
In the critical game that could have defined his season and established the arc that his young career will follow, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was ... A nonfactor.
Which is what made Sunday’s feel-good 21-14 win over Chicago feel so awkward. The Vikings won a game in which they failed to pass for 100 yards. They won a game in which top tight end Kyle Rudolph went without a catch.
They somehow won a game without needing their quarterback to produce like all NFL quarterbacks are supposed to.
So just what are we to make of Ponder’s performance against the Bears? He certainly was not a driving force in the Vikings’ season-salvaging upset. But he also didn’t lose the game, either. And for now, that’s a big deal to the Vikings coaching staff and a point they made sure to get across after two inexplicable interceptions in Green Bay in Week 13 delivered the most upsetting and agonizing of the team’s six losses.
Ponder’s final stats Sunday against Chicago: 11-for-17, 91 yards, no touchdowns, one interception.
Here’s a possession by possession look at what the second-year QB did and didn’t do.
Began: At Vikings 20
Ended: With an Adrian Peterson 1-yard touchdown run
Duration: 6 plays, 80 yards, 3:07
Ponder stats: 1-for-1, 11 yards
Most notable Ponder play: The Vikings only asked Ponder to throw once on the game’s opening series -- on third-and-9 from the Chicago 28. Ponder responded by hitting Michael Jenkins with a bullet underneath the coverage. Jenkins caught the pass at a standstill 5 yards short of the first down, but split between Kelvin Hayden and Lance Briggs on his run after the catch to pick up the first down.
Just a thought: At this stage, the Vikings’ game plan should not be too difficult to understand. It’s hand the ball to Peterson until someone figures out how to stop him. Peterson carried the ball on five of the six plays. On the first snap, the Vikings used not one, not two, but three tight ends, all on the right side of the line to clear the way for what turned out to be the game’s biggest play – by yardage and significance. Peterson went 51 yards with that handoff, the immediate tone-setter in a game in which the Vikings needed to alleviate the pressure on Ponder. Mission: accomplished.
Began: At Chicago 5
Ended: With a Peterson 1-yard touchdown run
Duration: 3 plays, 5 yards, 1:07
Ponder stats: Zero passes
Most notable Ponder play: Josh Robinson’s interception and 44 yard return to the Bears 5 provided the Vikings a gimme scoring drive. On third-and-goal and from the 1, Ponder simply turned, stuck the ball in the gut of the NFL’s best back and watched Peterson ram over Nick Roach and Chris Conte for his second score.
Just a thought: This time, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave didn’t try to get overly cute with his play calling in close. Peterson, Peterson, Peterson. Touchdown. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just like that, the Vikings had a 14-0 lead before Ponder had even thrown his second pass. That’s a nice formula to keep a struggling quarterback from pressing.
Began: At Vikings 16
Ended: At Vikings 16 with Chris Kluwe out to deliver a 50-yard punt
Duration: 4 plays, 0 yards, 2:29
Ponder stats: 1-for-1, 13 yards
Most notable Ponder play: On a second-and-8 play from the 31, the Bears blitzed and sent six rushers. End Corey Wootton looped right around right tackle Phil Loadholt to apply the heat. Ponder, in a panic as he was being sacked by Wootton, tried to throw the ball away even with his right arm grabbed. It was an absolutely inexplicable decision. From a guy who’s praised as brilliant in the classroom, Ponder’s brain too often short circuits in the heat of competition. Fortunately, officials ruled Ponder down for a 14-yard sack. And his silly throw actually traveled a yard forward and would have been incomplete. But with a 14-0 lead and the directive to avoid tide-turning mistakes at all costs, Ponder once again provided evidence that his decision making can be dangerously suspect.
Just a thought: Two plays before that near disaster, Ponder’s second completion of the day was a slant bullet to Jerome Simpson against Hayden for a 13-yard gain. Good throw, good catch.
Began: At Vikings 9 (with 1:02 left in the first quarter)
Ended: At Vikings 43, with Kluwe on to deliver a 54-yard punt
Duration: 5 plays, 34 yards, 2:18
Ponder stats: 0-for-1, 0 yards
Most notable Ponder play: Ponder’s only throw of the series was a first-and-10 short toss to Jarius Wright. But the rookie couldn’t hold on to the pass as he was being hit by linebacker Geno Hayes. Incomplete.
Just a thought: On third-and-8 from the Vikings 40, Julius Peppers quickly beat Loadholt and Ponder took off. He picked up 3 yards but never had the chance to set in the pocket and make a throw downfield.
Began: At Vikings 13
Ended: At Bears 48, with Kluwe out to punt for the third consecutive series
Duration: 8 plays, 39 yards, 3:58
Ponder stats: 3-for-4, 28 yards
Most notable Ponder play: Peterson already had 16 carries midway through the second quarter when the Vikings dialed up their first deep shot. Fortunately, Bears linebacker Lance Briggs couldn’t yank Ponder down despite coming through untouched on the snap. Ponder then delivered a pump fake to his right and threw deep back to Devin Aromashodu on a post. The Vikings kept Aromashodu around this season with a belief he could deliver on what receivers coach George Stewart calls “moment of truth catches.” In this instance, Aromashodu had what could have been a 45-yard TD grab bounce off his right shoulder pad. With Charles Tillman providing solid coverage, Aromashodu appeared to stumble a bit an instant before the ball arrived. And instead of going up to get a catch that would have given the Vikings a 21-0 lead, his inability to deliver in the moment of truth cost the Vikings.
Just a thought: Wright had two receptions on the drive, the first a 13-yarder on a nifty little play stolen Wright from the Percy Harvin Collection. Wright also had a 16-yard grab to convert on third-and-2. Again, like Harvin so often did, Wright motioned into the backfield, then used his quickness to gain separation from Briggs. Easy pitch and catch.
Began: At Vikings 23
Ended: At Chicago 20, after a Ponder interception
Duration: 4 plays, 16 yards, 1:20
Stats: 1-for-2, 2 yards, interception
Most notable Ponder play: Want evidence that Ponder’s poise needs improving and his mechanics need sharpening? Look no further than his interception on a deep ball to Wright. It’s hard to fault Ponder for liking the mismatch he saw with Wright streaking down the middle of the field with a linebacker (Nick Roach) closest in coverage. But with no pocket to step up into, Ponder was leaning backwards when he put way too much air and not enough oomph under his long ball. Safety Major Wright looked like a catcher camping under a pop foul when he made the pick. Ponder needed the ball about 8-10 yards further down the field to hit Wright in stride. But that’s hard to do when you’re throwing off your back foot with little assertiveness. Justifiably, the boos began.
Just a thought: After Alshon Jeffery’s TD grab pulled Chicago within 14-7, the Vikings could have used a steadying scoring drive to finish the half. But as has been the trend all season, they were shaky in the final 2 minutes of the first half. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier tried to find a positive spin on Ponder’s interception, noting that it was “like a punt.” But it came on first-and-5, not exactly the time you’re looking for a punt equivalent.
Began: At Vikings 11
Ended: At Vikings 19, with Kluwe out to deliver a 55-yard punt
Duration: 4 plays, 8 yards, 2:24
Ponder stats: 0-for-1
Most notable Ponder play: Ponder’s incompletion on an overthrown pass to tight end John Carlson was negated by a defensive holding penalty. His only official throw, on third-and-11 toward Michael Jenkins, never had a chance. Neither Loadholt nor Peterson laid a finger on Wootton coming off the edge and both players wound up barking at each other for the entire walk back to the sideline.
Just a thought: Two false start penalties on Loadholt put the brakes on this drive. No other way around it. In Loadholt’s defense, the first flag probably should have been on Charlie Johnson.
Began: At Vikings 20
Ended: At Vikings 34
Duration: 4 plays, 14 yards, 2:35
Ponder stats: 2-for-2, 21 yards
Most notable Ponder play: A checkdown to Peterson on the first play of the drive went for 14 yards. Nothing fancy. Still effective.
Just a thought: Peterson was stopped for a loss on two consecutive plays as the Bears continued to load up against the run with little respect for the Vikings’ passing attack. At this point, the Vikings are fully one-dimensional. Those losses put the Vikings in an unwinnable third-and-17 situation with Ponder throwing only 4 yards past the line of scrimmage to connect with Jenkins on a meaningless completion.
Began: At Vikings 1 (with 0:48 left in the third quarter)
Ended: At Bears 41, with Kluwe again out to punt
Duration: 12 plays, 58 yards, 6:35
Ponder stats: 3-for-5, 16 yards
Most notable Ponder play: After Zack Bowman downed a Chicago punt at the 1, you could feel the anxiety elevate at Mall of America Field. And yet Ponder’s best series of the day was kept alive first thanks to his 8-yard completion to Jenkins on third-and-7 from the 4. It came out of a shotgun with Jenkins beating Tillman on a slant just a yard beyond the sticks. Ponder looked at ease on the throw. One more third down completion – again to Jenkins for 10 yards on third-and-6 – allowed the Vikings to eat up valuable time while flipping the field. Kluwe’s punt was eventually downed at the Chicago 3, a huge swing in field position at a key point in the game.
Just a thought: Amazingly, this may have been the Vikings’ most important drive all day. And it ended with a punt with the quarterback throwing for only 16 yards on the possession. Ponder drew raves from the coaching staff for converting those two key third downs. Again, that tells you where the Vikings’ passing attack is if they are so enthusiastic about celebrating such tiny victories.
Began: At Vikings 23
Ended: At Vikings 30, with yet another Kluwe punt
Duration: 3 plays, 7 yards, 0:37
Ponder stats: None
Most notable Ponder play: With a 14-point lead and less than 5 minutes to play, Ponder had one chore and one chore only: stick the ball in Peterson’s gut and don’t drop the ball.
Just a thought: After taking a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter, the Vikings punted on seven of their next eight possessions. Lucky for them, Harrison Smith’s interception return touchdown late in the third quarter provided enough cushion to divert attention away from the continuing offensive struggles.
Began: At Chicago 48
Ended: At Vikings 49
Duration: 3 plays, minus-3 yards, 1:48
Stats: Three rushes, minus-3 yards
Most notable Ponder play: Three kneel downs, a seventh win secured.
Just a thought: Ponder’s day had few fireworks. But there were no fatal errors either. And so the Vikings will celebrate any time they can end the game in “Victory” formation. That said, if this chase of a playoff berth is to become serious, eventually the Vikings will have to discover something, anything in the passing game to aid their cause.