The Vikings offense: Some goals for fans to ponder

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2012 - 6:16 PM

Christian Ponder's progression is the major factor in making the Vikings offense run more efficiently.

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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With no hesitance whatsoever, Christian Ponder made his vow -- he will be better this season than he was as a mistake- and injury- prone newcomer in 2011. And from what the 24-year-old quarterback has shown throughout training camp and the preseason, there's ample reason to take him at his word.

But now come the natural follow-up questions. Just how good is better? And on the journey from being a green and inconsistent rookie to becoming a top-tier NFL quarterback, doesn't there have to be a stop at middle-of-the-road?

Welcome to Ponder's 2012, where his growth will be measured weekly, like a 10-year-old etching pencil markings on the bedroom wall.

So here are the expectations offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is setting for Ponder's growth chart:

Goal: Ponder should aim to complete 75 percent of his first-down passes.

That means moving the football at every opportunity and understanding the value of avoiding third-and-long situations.

In 14 possessions during the preseason, Ponder was 5-for-9 passing on first down for 69 yards. Of the 12 third downs he faced, seven were longer than third-and-6. The Vikings converted only one of those. Yep, improvement in that area still is needed.

Goal: Ponder should achieve a better grasp on how to avoid negative plays.

In 10 starts in 2011, Ponder was sacked 30 times and had 15 turnovers. Three of his giveaways occurred in the red zone and four others led directly to defensive touchdowns. In his final preseason action against San Diego, he was sacked five times and threw an ill-advised interception.

The frequency of such mistakes needs to be greatly reduced. If that means scrambling for a gain of a yard or two, so be it. Heck, Ponder received a showering of praise after a pair of throwaways during the preseason opener in San Francisco.

"That's the way winning football teams play," Musgrave said. "They may have poor plays, but they are not so poor that the team has a tough time overcoming them."

Goal: Ponder should understand the difference between making smart, low-risk decisions and being so overly cautious that he inadvertently pulls back too much.

"You want to make big plays, which sometimes means taking risks," Ponder said. "But you can't take too big of risks. You still have to be efficient with the ball. We want completions. But we still need to throw the ball downfield. If you don't throw the ball downfield, you won't have the shorter routes open. Somehow, you have to find the right balance."

Since Ponder's rookie season ended, the Vikings have done everything they can to set the young quarterback up for success.

They drafted stud left tackle Matt Kalil to solidify the line and signed free-agent speedster Jerome Simpson to stretch the field.

Coach Leslie Frazier also has lessened the pressure, saying he wants his offense "to really center on what we can do running the football." The coaches also have reminded Ponder that he has a pair of headliners in his huddle in running back Adrian Peterson and receiver Percy Harvin. Throw in emerging tight end Kyle Rudolph and there is no shortage of proven playmakers.

In other words, Ponder must remember he doesn't have to do it alone.

And the all-important catalyst to what the Vikings believe will be a significant 2012 growth spurt?

"Christian's confidence and ownership of the offense is so much better," center John Sullivan said. "He's making his reads and knows where he's going with the ball."

Sullivan is Ponder's close friend, so his endorsement is no surprise. But when asked if Ponder's second season should be judged on how well he executes ordinary tasks, Sullivan shakes his head.

"In today's NFL, you need your quarterback to be a great player," he said. "Ordinary doesn't get it done. Personally I think we have a great quarterback. But now Christian needs to prove that during the season."

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