Christian Ponder: Leading, learning

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 26, 2012 - 12:20 PM

Christian Ponder is growing into his role as an NFL QB. But his potential must translate into performance.

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Christian Ponder, shown during organized team activities, has the benefit of a full offseason. “You … can’t underestimate the rapport he’s been establishing with his targets,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune file

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For Christian Ponder, the setting felt, well, peculiar.

So much energy in the air, so much frenzy. So many fans packed together with purple jerseys and painted faces, even shields, fur pelts and Helga helmets.

All this in early May? In the rotunda of the State Capitol?

As the Vikings' push for a new stadium reached a feverish denouement, Ponder became part of the PR push.

That spring day in St. Paul he offered a rallying cry. No wonder the fans roared as the young quarterback stepped past teammates Kyle Rudolph, John Sullivan and Brian Robison and gripped a podium.

Remember that scene from "Varsity Blues" when Lance Harbor stands in the West Canaan High School gym, invigorating a pep rally by promising a blowout of Bingville? This was a little like that.

Ponder didn't talk long -- just long enough to praise his audience as "the greatest fans in the world."

And long enough to deliver this payoff:

"I want to be here in Minnesota for the rest of my life," he asserted. "I think it's time for the Vikings to win a Super Bowl. And we need a new stadium so we can do that here in Minneapolis!"

Predictably, another boisterous cheer followed, the onlookers not only desperate for that new stadium but also wanting to believe the affable 24-year-old quarterback addressing them was destined to create magic there.

Stay tuned. For while the stadium's future has crystallized, Ponder's outlook still is very much TBD.

As the Vikings report to training camp in Mankato on Thursday, Ponder will arrive with expectations stalking him like Clay Matthews on an all-out blitz.

In theory, he has the chance to emerge soon as the Vikings' franchise quarterback, a smart, athletic and likable leader who's on the rise. In reality, Ponder remains a green, unproven quarterback in an unforgiving league trying to revive a team that lost 13 times a year ago.

"I know there's a lot at stake," Ponder said. "But I'm excited about our potential to make great strides this season."

Growing pains

The Vikings have put their unrelenting trust in Ponder to catalyze a revival. Coach Leslie Frazier lauds Ponder's leadership skills, impressed with his contagious enthusiasm.

General Manager Rick Spielman gushes over the time investment Ponder made this offseason.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave speaks glowingly of Ponder's intelligence, his ability to quickly grasp every detail of the system.

"You also can't underestimate the rapport he's been establishing with his targets," Musgrave said. "I really believe Christian has had a chance to get his feet on the ground now before he gets into the action. That didn't happen last year.

"And I think the way he conducts himself in the huddle is impressive. He does an incredible job of conveying the play, knowing the checks and the audibles. He's always prepared. Not just for games but for every practice. And guys feed off that."

Still, at this point, such endorsements seem somewhat hollow. In 10 starts last season Ponder threw as many interceptions (13) as touchdown passes. He also fumbled six times, losing two.

Ponder couldn't finish games against Washington (concussion) and Chicago (hip injury). And he was benched in a Week 14 loss in Detroit after turning the ball over four times in 10 possessions, leading to 21 Lions points.

Overall, the Vikings lost five of Ponder's starts by six points or fewer.

Yes, he led a game-winning fourth-quarter field goal drive in a 24-21 victory at Carolina. But there was the fourth- quarter interception he threw in the end zone against Oakland, thwarting a late rally.

Worse, with less than 2 minutes left in a tie game with Denver, Ponder had the chance to punctuate a career afternoon in which he passed for 381 yards and three touchdowns. Instead, on first down from his own 20, he made the silliest throw of his rookie season, a force toward Percy Harvin on a route along the left sideline.

Denver's Andre Goodman picked it off, raced to the Vikings 15 and the Broncos left with a last-second 35-32 victory.

"My rookie year was pretty rough in a lot of ways," Ponder said. "But I'm definitely glad I got on the field. The biggest thing was getting all that film of myself and being able to watch the mistakes I made. Going back, there are so many blatantly dumb mistakes that are easily correctable. That's the kind of thing that makes me excited about this season."

Finding center under center

Sure, Ponder's 2011 struggles can be explained away with a handful of convenient alibis.

He was a rookie. And because of the NFL lockout, he had no structured offseason program to ease the transition. His receiving corps was mediocre. His offensive line was shoddy.

Yet in Year 2, none of those explanations is easily applied.

Now Ponder stands at the foot of a bridge, needing to cross from believing he can be a good NFL quarterback to proving it. And the biggest step, he admits, might come in getting right mentally.

"You have to exhale and understand that it will come in time," Ponder said. "I'm such a perfectionist. Too often, I expect changes to take root immediately. Obviously you want to continually push yourself to make strides. But I think I've struggled over time with always being too self-critical. When you're trying so hard to prove yourself, you can get in your own way."

Say this about Ponder: He always seems open to new ideas. So this offseason, in his quest to become a more complete quarterback, he showed a willingness to bend over backwards. And sideways. And into all sorts of Gumby-like positions.

At the suggestion of a friend, Ponder undertook yoga as a new hobby, bouncing between classes at Lifetime Fitness to CorePower in Edina to a studio in Uptown.

His primary objective was to increase flexibility. But the second-year quarterback admits he also used the sessions to clear his mind.

"Learning to breathe, learning to have greater control of your mind, I think there are some definite advantages," he said.

He laughed.

"You feel a little goofy at first. But for a guy like me who can be a harsh self-critic, I think it's helped my mindset. Just get in there and let the yoga take over. I definitely feel different when I walk out. Refocused. Calmer. Hopefully that can translate."

What's next?

Third-string quarterback Sage Rosenfels, entering his 12th NFL season, sees incredible promise in Ponder, impressed with his athleticism, drive and arm strength. Rosenfels also recognizes that one of Ponder's greatest strengths -- his surgeon-like attention to detail -- sometimes can be an Achilles' heel.

"He's a perfectionist. You can definitely tell that," Rosenfels said. "And sometimes I tell him, you need to just hose it. Sometimes he maybe tries to be too perfect with a throw. Well, sometimes you just have to let it rip, let it go. ... Because the game's not a perfect game."

With an understanding of Ponder's mental wiring, the coaching staff has worked hard on tailoring the offense. They've honed in on the plays that make Ponder most comfortable. They've worked on providing proper protections and giving their quarterback easy targets.

"You do try to continue to build his confidence up," Frazier said. "Because at that position, even if you throw two picks in a game, you've got to be able to bounce back and play well. So many people are watching you as the leader of the team. In our conversations after the season, that's one of the things we talked about, just being able to shake off tough days or a tough series. That's probably going to be the determining factor of whether Christian makes it or not. If he can get past that."

Added Musgrave: "True confidence only comes from one thing. And that's demonstrated performance. That's it."

So now, like that afternoon in St. Paul, Ponder has the stage and the attention of a vibrant fan base.

In one way or another, a decade from now, that scene inside the Capitol almost certainly will be revisited with laughter.

If Ponder realizes his goal of bringing a Lombardi Trophy to Minnesota, the chuckles will carry a nostalgic tone.

Remember when he was just a kid making those grand vows? The dream came true!

And if Ponder doesn't mature into the standout leader everyone hopes he can be? It's possible he might never play a down in that new stadium.

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