Christian Ponder dropped back in the pocket, fired a pass too far in front of his intended target and watched the ball riccochet off Jerome Simpson’s hand and into the arms of a defender for an interception.
Welcome to the 2013 season, folks.
An ominous start on the second play of the Vikings preseason opener Friday night did nothing to quell concerns about Ponder’s development. The guy on the other end of the miscue didn’t exactly help matters, and Simpson should realize that a repeat of last season won’t be good enough.
The Vikings brought a dozen receivers to training camp. Only three caught passes for them last season for a combined total of 53 receptions. This is a good thing, a reason for optimism, a textbook case of addition by subtraction.
This ensemble is no longer Percy Harvin and a bunch of guys. Their receiving corps looks deeper and more talented, which should provide a more realistic evaluation of Ponder and eliminate a common excuse if he struggles.
A front-line quartet of Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright and Simpson is not a bad starting point when paired with tight end Kyle Rudolph, who led the team in touchdown catches (nine) and finished second in catches (53) last season.
Their receivers still have some unknowns and unproven young talent — is Stephen Burton legit or a training camp mirage? — but that group represents a significant upgrade in terms of talent from the cast of characters the Vikings trotted out in recent seasons, excluding Harvin, of course.
The success of that group will hinge largely on the degree to which a rookie (Patterson) and a second-year player (Wright) can mitigate their growing pains. But their upside far exceeds the obvious limitations at that position the past few seasons.
“The ceiling is high,” Ponder said. “It’s time for us to make plays in the passing game.”
That’s stating the obvious. The Vikings ranked 31st in passing offense last season, averaging 171.9 yards per game. They finished 28th in 2011.
Those numbers largely reflect Ponder’s ineffectiveness, but, in fairness, his struggles also require a caveat: His receivers, minus Harvin, were mediocre at best, and that’s probably being overly generous.
In 2011, Harvin caught 87 passes, which was twice as many as the next-closest receiver. The Vikings were the only team that had one receiver finish with twice as many receptions as anyone else in the roster. Harvin led the Vikings again with 62 catches last season despite missing seven games.
The Vikings surrounded Harvin with a hodgepodge of receivers who offered little more than a warm body. The lack of viable alternatives hamstrung the passing game and provided a built-in retort in any discussion about Ponder’s struggles.
Fan 1: Ponder stinks!
Fan 2: Yeah, well look who he’s throwing to!
Good quarterbacks make receivers better, which Brett Favre demonstrated in 2009 with Sidney Rice and Tom Brady proves just about every season. Ponder still must prove he’s capable of doing that, but the changes the Vikings made in his targets should improve his chance to succeed.
Jennings seems to make headlines every time he opens his mouth, but the former Packer brings a proven track record and should be motivated to show he can still be productive with a lesser quarterback in a run-heavy system. If healthy, pencil Jennings in for 60-plus catches.
Simpson returns in what amounts to a prove-it season after a three-game suspension and back injury ruined his debut season with the Vikings. Wright showed flashes once Harvin got injured last season, and his play in camp has created a positive buzz. He could be a wild card.
Patterson remains raw as a route runner, but he gave a glimpse of his big-play potential Friday. He opened the game with a 50-yard kickoff return and caught four passes for 54 yards in the first half.
The Vikings will keep things simple for Patterson initially, but he provides hope that a vertical passing game can become more than a foreign concept that only other teams employ.
This receiving corps still must develop chemistry and identify roles. And stay healthy. But at least the Vikings have something to work with now.
It’s up to Ponder to take advantage of it.