How quickly a young core improves will determine if the Vikings can dig their way out of last year's 3-13 mess.
This one came from a Mankato radio reporter, offering a six-word hypothetical: "Would you take 8-8 right now?"
Ponder reacted as he's been taught to. While under pressure, he bought extra time. He repeated the question then paused to consider the scenario.
"Would I take 8-8 right now? Uhhhh ..."
Here's what Ponder likely would have said if primed with truth serum: "Would I take 8-8? Heck yeah! Of course I would. Do you remember how bad things got last season? Have you seen how tough the NFC North is? Man, 8-8 would be a blessing."
Here's how Ponder replied instead: "If 8-8 would take us to the playoffs ... I mean we want to make the playoffs. I don't know if 8-8 will do it in our division. Obviously, the main goal is to go 16-0. So I don't know. I don't know."
Yep, this is where the Vikings stand heading into the 2012 season, so far down the NFL pecking order that a rise toward mediocrity seems like a realistic aspiration.
That .500 record mightmay seem unappealing to a fan base starving for success. But 8-8 is also is a lofty goal for a franchise that lost 23 times in 32 games the past two seasons, then responded by overhauling its roster.
So for the Vikings this fall, the road back to relevance mightmay seem like a young family's 26-hour road trip to Disney World. By the minute, jumpy fans in the backseat will interrupt the peace with restless questioning.
Are we there yet? Are we there yet? How about now? Are we there yet?
Young at heart
Reaching the destination -- competing for a playoff berth by the end of 2013 -- will require obvious patience. But the Vikings also will also need significant growth from a nucleus of young players whose development will determine the franchise's direction.
Ponder mightmay shoulder the most pressure of the up-and-comers, needing to quickly prove he's worthy of the organization's unabashed confidence in him.
But the 25-and-youngerunder crowd also includes receiver Percy Harvin, left tackle Matt Kalil, cornerback Chris Cook and safety Harrison Smith, all starters being put in position to have breakthrough seasons.
Also not to be forgotten in the youth movement: running back Toby Gerhart, 25, who will shoulder a majority of the work out of the backfield early in the season; tight end Kyle Rudolph, 22, a potential match-up nightmare for defenses; and cornerback Josh Robinson, a 21-year-old rookie who has eye-opening speed and confidence.
The eagerness of the young players will be needed to fuel a revival.
Said Kalil: "You'd have no idea this was a 3-13 team last year. The attitude and the competitiveness have been great since I got here. I think there's a belief that we have a lot of talent and a chance to really build something special."
'No such thing as a young player'
Still, with so much talk centering onaround the rising youngsters, the Vikings will need their veteran stars to excel. That means Jared Allen will be relied on to do everything he did a year ago, when he set a team record with 22 sacks. It means Adrian Peterson will have to make good on his promise to be as good as he ever was, even after blowing out his left knee out in last season's penultimate game. It means Chad Greenway will need to step up as a leader in the linebacking corps. And it means Antoine Winfield, the oldest player on the roster at 35, must not let his gas light illuminate too quickly as the secondary experiences its inevitable growing pains.
Throughout the preseason, the established veterans have shown the tolerance that will be required, encouraged by the contagious drive that's been present from players young and old.
"Guys aren't only having fun," Winfield said, "but there's been a lot of work put in every time we get on the field. There's been an effort to take advantage of each day."
But who knows how long such serenity will last, especially if the Vikings get off to a bumpy start?.
Allen mightmay be particularly susceptible to impatience. He remembers all too vividly being a play away from the Super Bowl. That was onlyjust 31 months ago. Now he's 30, in his ninth NFL season and not much in the mood for baby steps.
"It's tough," Allen said. "Sometimes a lot of things are repetitive ... At some point, I wouldn't say your patience runs out. But at some point, the learning curve has to pick up and they need to catch up to where we're at. Because it's not our job [as veterans] to drop down because you're young. I'm a firm believer that there's no such thing as a young player. You're in the NFL and you're getting paid to do your job. And our job is up here at a high level. That's where we need to be, and everybody needs to get there."
Setting high standards will be important. But setting a timetable for the team's resuscitation is a much trickier matter.
During the preseason Ponder, head coach Leslie Frazier and owner Zygi Wilf all made minor headlines with their insistence that a playoff bid was within reach this season.
Allen chimed in with his own motivational sound bite.
"If you're not out here trying to win a championship, then there's no reason to be out here," he said. "If you're out here like, 'Oh, we're just going to try to win eight games here,' you're wasting everybody's time and you're wasting the Wilfs' money."
It's not so much that the Vikings are delusional with such chatter. Instead, they've adopted that rhetoric because they don't want last season's 3-13 unraveling and the accompanying low expectations to be an easy crutch, a fall back excuse for continued failure.
On the eve of the first training camp practice, Frazier gathered his players and demanded they ignore the outside perceptions which say, quite frankly, that this team will still will be pretty bad in 2012.
"We want to eradicate that type of thinking," Frazier said.
Instead, Frazier preached the value of self-belief and optimism.
So about that timetable for turning the corner ...
"This is all a process," Winfield said. "This is a first for me going through something like this where so many young players have been brought in to turn things around. The benefit of that, if there is one, is that guys are hungry and working hard and really competing to make this thing a success."
"I don't know if you set a timeline," the young quarterback said. "Obviously we want to win now. We're putting that pressure on ourselves. We want to do a lot better than 3-13. We want to make the playoffs. We want to be competitive in the NFC North. I don't know if you can really put a timeline on it."
But can't we attach a win-loss goal to things? For this young squad, 8-8 might just might be the top-end goal.
|Pittsburgh - WP: B. Morris||8||FINAL|
|Cincinnati - LP: S. LeCure||7|
|Washington - LP: S. Strasburg||2||FINAL|
|Miami - WP: T. Koehler||11|
|Pittsburgh - LP: G. Cole||5||FINAL|
|Cincinnati - WP: M. Leake||7|
|Seattle - LP: B. Beavan||0||FINAL|
|Texas - WP: R. Ross Jr.||5|
|St. Louis - WP: S. Miller||6||FINAL|
|Milwaukee - LP: M. Estrada||1|
|Boston - LP: B. Badenhop||1||FINAL|
|Chicago WSox - WP: D. Webb||2|
|Kansas City - WP: Y. Ventura||4||FINAL|
|Houston - LP: L. Harrell||2|
|Toronto - WP: A. Loup||9||FINAL|
|Minnesota - LP: P. Hughes||3|
|NY Mets||9||Bottom 9th Inning|
|Oakland||5||Top 8th Inning|
|Colorado||3||Top 7th Inning|
|Los Angeles||1||Bottom 6th Inning|
|Denver||70||3rd Qtr 2:33|
|Aug 9 - vs. Houston||7 pm||X||27-13|
|Aug 16 - at Buffalo||6 pm||X||20-16|
|Aug 25 - at San Francisco||7 pm||X||34-14|
|Aug 29 - vs. Tennessee||7 pm||X||24-23|
|2013 regular season|
|Sep 8 - at Detroit||Noon||X||34-24|
|Sep 15 - at Chicago||Noon||X||31-30|
|Sep 22 - vs. Cleveland||Noon||X||31-27|
|Sep 29 - vs. Pittsburgh (in London)||Noon||X||34-27|
|Oct 6 - Bye|
|Oct 13 - vs. Carolina||Noon||X||35-10|
|Oct 21 - at. NY Giants||7:40 pm||X||23-7|
|Oct 27 - vs. Green Bay||7:30 pm||X||44-31|
|Nov 3 - at Dallas||Noon||X||27-23|
|Nov 7 - vs. Washington||7:25 pm||X||34-27|
|Nov 17 - at Seattle||3:25 pm||X||41-20|
|Nov. 24 - at Green Bay||Noon||26-26|
|Dec 1 - vs. Chicago||Noon||X||23-20|
|Dec 8 - at Baltimore||Noon||X||29-26|
|Dec 15 - vs. Philadelphia||Noon||X||48-30|
|Dec 22 - at Cincinnati||Noon||X||42-14|
|Dec 29 - vs. Detroit||Noon||X||14-13|