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Christian Ponder

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Souhan: There's a lot to like about Ponder as a QB, but ...

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • September 1, 2012 - 11:49 PM

If Christian Ponder looked any more like an elite NFL quarterback, he'd be married to Giselle or doing commercials for a brand of car no multimillionaire would ever drive.

If Ponder acted any more like an elite NFL quarterback, he'd be practicing touchdown gestures mimicking the donning of a fashion accessory, or hosting "Saturday Night Live."

As he prepares to start his second season with the Vikings, the franchise is desperate for him to span the gap between what he appears to be and what he needs to be.

A week from today, he'll start the season that could describe or determine his career arc. If Ponder is what he seems to be, even a losing season will prove worthwhile. If he's not, the rebuilding process in which the Vikings currently take such pride could wind up like the Metrodome, a once-interesting concept awaiting demolition.

If appearances mattered in football as much as they matter in Celebrity America, Ponder could set a reminder to polish the Lombardi Trophy in February.

He's big. He's strong, a point he seemed to want to emphasize on Thursday night, as he kept rolling up his sleeves on the sideline, stopping just short of flexing while pointing the way to the nearest beach.

He's fast. He throws a tight spiral with sufficient zip. He's smart. He's diligent. He's likeable. He is, according to those who know him best, a leader.

He's also dangerous for a franchise committed to him, because too often in his brief NFL career Ponder has displayed every trait you would want in a starting quarterback other than the one that might matter the most: pocket presence.

A talented quarterback lacking pocket presence is like an ambitious politician who's afraid of cameras. In both cases, anxiousness erases résumés.

At Florida State and after taking over the Vikings' starting job last season, Ponder thrived on third downs and in the red zone, indicating that poise is not a problem. When he has an open receiver, he tends to pass quickly and accurately. He displays the arm strength to throw the toughest pass in football, the deep out, and the touch to complete long passes.

What remains troubling is how he reacts under duress. He regressed last season once he began anticipating pressure in the pocket, and after two impressive performances this preseason, he regressed again when the Chargers began swarming.

On one third down, he bolted toward the line of scrimmage, getting tackled shy of the first down, abandoning any pretense of passing after his first step.

All quarterbacks are vulnerable to pressure. The good ones parry it like an Olympic fencer, by sliding minutely in the pocket, or hanging tough and releasing the ball just before getting hit. For all of his talent, Ponder has yet to master those split seconds that make the difference between a sack and a first down.

He has also yet to master one of the most important aspects of his position: the demonstration of athletic arrogance.

Ponder's body language should tell everyone in the stadium that the Vikings are his team. Often, instead, he slumps his shoulders after a bad play and slinks off the field as if his parents are about to ground him.

The NFL's best quarterbacks chew the scenery. They, like the best candidates, possess gravitas. On those rare occasions when Brett Favre sat out a play, or a series, or a game, he attracted the eye more than the action on the field. For all of Jay Cutler's quirks, he leaves no doubts about his confidence, or his command of the Bears offense.

Ponder is hard to pick on. You can understand how the Vikings' braintrust fell for him after visiting Florida State. He possesses few glaring flaws.

NFL quarterbacks, though, face the toughest set of job requirements in sport, and the most difficult task of all is making the right decision as the pocket begins to collapse. Those split seconds can determine the direction of a season, and of a career.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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