Since Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson began working with Christian Ponder as a rookie, he's been singing a repetitive refrain.
"It's a process," Johnson said again this week.
Which serves as an acknowledgement that the ups and downs in Ponder's development promise to continue. Yet now there's a feeling at Winter Park that the process is further along than it's been and that Ponder is in position to make big strides soon.
Sunday's rally to beat Jacksonville 26-23 in overtime provided plenty to build on. So we asked Johnson to break down Ponder's recent growth.
Here's what he had to say.
Ponder can't afford to get off to another slow start in Indianapolis.
What's the story? The Vikings' offense was downright lethargic for most of the first half in the opener. With less than 3 minutes left before halftime, their longest drive was a six-play, 24-yarder that ended with a punt. Similar sluggishness had been evident in the first half of the third preseason game when the Vikings needed eight possessions to register their first points. So does Ponder need to heighten his sense of urgency earlier? Or was there something more at work last Sunday?
What Johnson said: "I thought, if anything, he might have been playing a little too fast. That's probably the easiest way I can put it. Christian understands the game, understands where to go with the ball. Sometimes early, though, he's going through his progressions so fast that he's not letting it slow down and come to him. I thought once he got into a rhythm right before halftime, that was huge. He slowed it down just a little. And then he hit a few passes and it's amazing what a confidence booster like that can do to a young guy. He was so good late in the game. But it started at the end of the first half because he started to feel good and get into his rhythm."
Ponder's shaky pocket presence in his final preseason action Aug. 24 may have been a well-timed hiccup.
What's the story? The Chargers sacked Ponder five times that night with the second-year quarterback admitting he was too stagnant in the pocket, failing to slide up and around to create throwing lanes. Ponder spent part of the offseason studying film of Drew Brees, noting how the Saints quarterback moves away from pressure. Since the opening of training camp, Ponder has been pretty solid in that department. Except against San Diego.
What Johnson said: "Christian never could get a rhythm going in that game. Was it nerves? Could it be something else? Who knows? I don't know the answer. I just know that game he didn't have it that game ... And maybe that was good too. Because I know this: as a quarterback you don't want to get a false impression or false confidence. And in those first two preseason games, Christian had played really well. Yet with a young guy specifically, they need to learn how to come back from some adversity too. So those struggles I think were a valuable part of the process. "
Sunday's rally to beat Jacksonville will give Ponder a huge confidence boost.
What's the story? Down three and at their own 31 with 14 seconds to go? Dealing with the obvious misery spreading across the Metrodome? Trying to finish an afternoon during which he was booed early by the home fans? Ponder wasn't rattled. Two completions for 32 yards on his final two passes of regulation, including a 26-yard strike to Devin Aromashodu, gave Blair Walsh a shot at a game-tying 55-yard field goal. The Vikings followed with a 55-yard march for a field goal in overtime, finishing with scores on six of their last eight possessions.
What Johnson said: "The pass to Devin, that's the play I'm going to keep hanging on to. Big, big play. Because of the timing. He threw the ball with great anticipation. Their coverage wasn't too bad. But Christian threw his guy open. He hit Devin coming right out of the cut. And under the pressure he was under, that's a huge leap forward. When the pressure is on, the emotion has just changed, the momentum has shifted, for him to come back and rally his team, that is huge ... We talk in our quarterback room all the time of always expecting victory. Put the thought of defeat out of your head. And I think Christian really believed that even when we went behind. He wasn't going to panic and he was going to find a way to win that game. That's when you really earn your spurs -- when you can bring your team back [after] it was looking pretty bleak. For him, it was just, 'I want a chance. Give me a chance. I got that chance. And I made it happen.' I can't calculate for you just how big that is."