Christian Ponder walks into the coaches meeting room at Winter Park. The lights are dimmed, but the brightest moment of his young, enigmatic career is caught in freeze frame on the giant projection screen beyond the far end of a long table. ¶ Vikings 37, Packers 34. ¶ “That was a good game,” says Ponder, looking up at the scoreboard on the screen. “But I expect to play better games than that.”
Yes, expectations are high all around as the Vikings open their 2013 regular season at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday. That 37-34 victory over the Packers on Dec. 30, 2012, capped a team-record seven-win improvement, clinched an unexpected wild-card playoff berth and catapulted running back Adrian Peterson to a 2,097-yard season and the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, anything optimistic that’s said about the 2013 Vikings must be — and always is — followed by these four words: “If only Ponder can …”
“It’s really on Ponder,” said former Vikings receiver and current Fox Sports 1 NFL analyst Randy Moss. “If I could pick any of the three other teams in the [NFC North] to challenge Green Bay, it would be the Minnesota Vikings. Depending on the year Ponder has.”
Ponder seems unfazed by the questions and doubts that swirl about him. Told that ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski ranked him 27th among 32 NFL quarterbacks, right behind Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, Ponder shrugs and says, “I think a 27th ranking is probably rightfully so with how I’ve played.”
“Look,” Ponder says while seated in the coaches room at Winter Park. “My play last year was up and down. Started off well, middle of the season didn’t play so well and then played well at the end of the season to help us finish 4-0. I made a lot of mistakes, and when there’s a quarterback who people think is prone to a lot of mistakes, there are going to be a lot of questions about him.
“Hopefully, those questions will be answered this year because I think we have good chance to be a great team. Myself, with the pieces around me, this year, I expect progression. I plan on playing like I did in this [win over the Packers] for 16 games in the regular season and more after that.”
Let’s take a closer look at that Packers game. The Vikings needed to win to make the playoffs. The Packers needed to win to clinch a first-round bye. Despite injuring his throwing elbow while taking a hard hit on a delayed blitz by safety Morgan Burnett with 3 minutes, 53 seconds left in the second quarter, Ponder threw three touchdown passes, posted a career-high 120.2 passer rating and didn’t turn the ball over.
Here now are four plays that illustrate what Ponder has proved he can do as the quarterback in a run-oriented, ball-control offense built around Peterson. Obviously, he needs to do them on a more consistent basis, but he knows that. Right now, he has the remote and he is about to take us through these four situations in which he did something many of us have said he can’t do:
1. Ponder has no rhythm!
First-and-10 at the 50, 8:17 left in third quarter, Vikings lead 20-17
The play: Receiver Jerome Simpson, lined up to the right, runs a deep in route. Ponder executes the play-action to Peterson and, in perfect rhythm, laces the ball to Simpson in stride for 21 yards. Eight plays later, Ponder throws a 2-yard touchdown pass to Peterson.
Ponder says: “The play-action is the key, especially when Adrian is running for  yards. For us, this is a deep play-action pass. It’s kind of a standard route. We ran it in high school. It’s called Cadillac. Basically, we’re trying to isolate Jerome backside on an in cut and it ends up being zone coverage. We assumed that our guy is going to beat their guy. So, for me, it’s a timing route. Play-action and one to two hitches and get the ball out. Boom. … There was a lot of pressure in this game, but if you look at this play, there’s so much room in the pocket. Anybody can sit back there and throw the ball on this play.”
The obvious question: This was one of only 28 Ponder completions of 20 yards or more last season, by far a league low. So the obvious question is, “Why don’t we see more deep completions in this offense, especially when Peterson is running so well?”
Ponder says: “We call them. We really do. It’s just a matter of who’s coming open and who’s not coming open.”
2. He isn’t accurate!!
First-and-10 at Vikings 21, 12:14 left in game, score tied 27-27
The play: One snap after the Packers tied the score, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave sent out three tight ends but called for the sneaky-fast Jarius Wright to run a deep double move on the numbers down the left side. Ponder, whose arm was stiffening from the Burnett hit, again executed the play-action to Peterson. Against a three-man rush, Ponder hits Wright on his fingertips in stride, half a step behind the defender, from 52 yards away. It went for a season-long 65 yards. Six plays later, Ponder hit Michael Jenkins on a 3-yard touchdown pass.
Ponder says: “Again, look at the protection. I have all day back there. And Jarius runs great routes. He’s a guy who you know exactly where he’s going to be. And he’s got the speed to get downfield. With this route, I think it was off the in cut. So he was going to sell the in cut and then get back and run straight up the numbers. If you look, the ball is caught right on the numbers.”
Wright says: “That play shows what a great play looks like when two guys really trust each other. And, if you ask me, with Adrian running the way he was running that day, this is what’s supposed to happen.”
The obvious question: On his next pass attempt, Ponder rolls right on second-and-goal from the 12. Jenkins is wide open in the end zone, but the ball sailed right and was incomplete. Question: “How can you hit Wright’s fingertips in stride from over half a field away, yet miss badly on a short pass to a wide-open receiver?”
Ponder says: “It’s all fundamentals. Whether it’s overextending or I get too wide with my feet, it’s fundamentals that cause accuracy problems. The one to Jenkins, I was moving right and really didn’t set my feet and I missed him. It’s something I continue to work on.”
3. He won’t just let loose!!!
Third-and-goal at the 3, 8:06 left, scored tied 27-27
The play: Protection breaks down this time as Ponder scrambles to his left. He’s ad-libbing and off-balance when he throws a rope through a small window to Jenkins for a 3-yard touchdown. Free safety M.D. Jennings reads the play, closes quickly and nearly intercepts the ball.
Ponder says: “We’re trying to isolate our tight end [Kyle Rudolph] here on what we call a Zoar route [over the middle]. But they’re in man coverage and we weren’t able to win the route. So I’m thinking, OK, no one is open. Buy time and let someone try to get open. We practice this a lot. It’s the scramble drill. Everyone sees me working left, so Jenkins does a good job. He knows I’m running left and even though his route is to the right, he works back around and finds an open space. [Jennings] is not in my sight when I make the throw, and I think he takes the ball if I hadn’t thrown it in there hard and Jenkins hadn’t come back for it.”
QB coach Craig Johnson says: “That’s one of those plays where Christian stepped up and said, ‘You know what, I’m ready to face the music if something bad happens,’ which it very well could have on that play. He was inches away from being the hero or the goat. I don’t want any player ever playing scared. If you trust that that’s your proper read and that’s where the ball needs to go, you go for it. That’s the fine line for every quarterback. It’s throwing with conviction as opposed to being reckless and throwing and just hoping. He let loose and threw the ball exactly where he wanted it.”
4. He won’t let plays develop!!!!
Third-and-11 at Vikings 27, 2:00 left in game, score tied 34-34
The play: Ponder slide-steps in the pocket and resists the check-down while waiting for Jenkins to find a soft spot in the prevent defense. With eight defenders in coverage, Ponder manages to coax one more throw out of his right elbow. Jenkins catches the ball for a 25-yard gain. Four Peterson runs later, Blair Walsh kicks the game-winning 29-yard field goal as time expires.
Ponder says: “This is a play that we schemed against them. We knew that on third-and-long situations, they run this coverage, so great call by Bill Musgrave. They have three safeties. It turns into a prevent Cover 3. This guy [on the left] always fell inside, opening up that hole. … [Laughing] What am I thinking? My arm was aching at this point. The short throw to Adrian two plays earlier, it was incomplete. I couldn’t even put it on Adrian just because my motion was limited. So I was just lucky to get enough on this ball to get it out there to Jenkins.”
Ponder’s fourth-quarter numbers: 3-for-5 for 93 yards and one touchdown. Twice, he started drives with the score tied and Rodgers playing at his best (365 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, 131.8 passer rating). Twice, Ponder helped put points on the board.
But we all know how the tale ultimately ended. That right elbow wouldn’t allow Ponder to play the following week’s wild-card game at Green Bay. Then-backup Joe Webb, who hadn’t thrown a pass all season, was overwhelmed in a lopsided loss, while Ponder’s encore had to wait until Sunday when he opens his second full season as a starter with his 27th career start.
Naturally, without a playoff appearance to try and validate his 4-0 regular-season finish, Ponder, a 59.2 percent career passer, still faces a lot of questions and doubts in what most people assume is a make-or-break year for him.
“You ask, ‘Will he take the next step?’ ” said Fox analyst and two-time Super Bowl winning coach Jimmy Johnson. “I don’t know if it’s possible, to tell you the truth.”
Aikman said Ponder better take the next step. Or else.
“This season for the Vikings depends on that,” Aikman said. “It’s hard to imagine them being able to have the year they had last year and do it the same way. … I’m looking forward to seeing how he does.”