Christian Ponder: Man on an island

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 4, 2012 - 6:25 AM

The Vikings quarterback struggled mightily against Green Bay, and that's prompting a big question: Is he the right man for the job?

Stop us if this tale sounds familiar.

It's early December. And the Vikings find themselves in the middle of an entertaining Week 13 clash with a playoff-bound team.

Victory is right there for the taking in a game that easily could become a confidence springboard.

But, alas, two interceptions thrown by Christian Ponder prove crushing in another maddening loss.

Afterward, Ponder steps to a podium and expresses disappointment, wishing he could make amends for his costly turnovers.

"Can't win ballgames that way," he says. "I've got to do a lot better job of getting myself better. I'm disappointed in myself. But I'm even more disappointed that I let down the veteran guys. ... I've had way too many turnovers since I stepped on the field in a Vikings uniform."

As expected, that apology is packaged with Leslie Frazier's reiteration of the Vikings' reality.

"We're not good enough right now to overcome certain mistakes," he says.

So here's the twist: We are not recapping Sunday's 23-14 stumble in Green Bay.

All of the above details were tied instead to the Vikings' 2011 loss to Denver. In Week 13. One full year ago. When inexperience and system unfamiliarity were much more viable explanations for Ponder's struggles.

Eventually, the Vikings reasoned, the growing pains would lessen and Ponder's intelligence, athleticism and leadership ability would propel the offense forward.

But now, it appears, Ponder's errors might be habitual -- all the ill-advised interceptions, that skittishness in the pocket, the apparent lack of confidence in both himself and his receivers.

So where do the Vikings go from here?

Suddenly, a squad that barged into the playoff picture with a 5-2 start is left facing a finishing stretch that's quickly losing significance.

As always has been the plan, Ponder likely will finish this season as the starter. But can he truly get past his recent regression and mature into a difference-maker? Or is the Vikings' trust in the second-year quarterback nothing but blind faith?

As the debate heats up, here are seven things to consider about No. 7:

Team support could dwindle

Once again Sunday, Ponder threw two crucial interceptions and apologized for doing so. Once again, Frazier stood in front of reporters afterward professing confidence in his quarterback but doing so with a blank stare and another declaration that it's hard to win in the NFL when the offense shows less balance than Snooki walking a tight rope.

Frazier cited a need for more production from the receivers, better protection from the line and, yes, more consistency from Ponder.

"I sound like a broken record," he confessed.

So now the Vikings have to take an honest look at the guy they're endorsing as the quarterback of the future and determine how long they can sell that hope not just to an increasingly disgruntled fan base but to the other players.

Frazier foresees few difficulties in keeping the locker room united, even as a potential playoff berth floats out the window.

"I don't think it'll be a tough sell," he said. "These guys are teammates that want the same things. They know that we can win with the personnel we have. We've shown that we can."

Wrong time for turnovers

Frazier has yet to seriously consider a Ponder-for-Joe Webb change in big part, he said, because he doesn't want to stimulate controversy.

"In my mind," Frazier explained, "you don't want to get into a situation where you're not sure who your No. 1 is. We believe Christian is our No. 1."

The great Ponder paradox is that the Vikings drafted him believing his brain would accelerate his growth. Ponder is at once astute, driven and coachable. He can quickly grasp the big-picture concepts and minute details of the offense.

Yet when it comes to applying the knowledge, Ponder continues to blunder far too often. He has 30 turnovers in 22 starts.

Sunday's two red zone interceptions were hard to excuse. Ponder has been hounded since April to understand this season's success hinged on his ability to avoid miscues like those. Still, they keep happening at inopportune times.

Hesitation means losses

Given time to review Sunday's loss, Frazier acknowledged Ponder's difficulties stemmed in part from his inability to pull the trigger when receivers broke open.

Sure, it's fair to say that without Percy Harvin the Vikings have a receiving corps more ordinary than any other in the NFL. And maybe all those dropped passes during the Week 12 loss in Chicago still had Ponder spooked. But on several occasions, Frazier noticed a worrisome hesitation.

"Sometimes you have to throw the ball when guys come out of their breaks," Frazier said. "In our league, it's not very often guys are going to be wide open. So when we say throw it on time, on time means when the guy comes out of his break, deliver the football."

Falling behind is fatal

This just in: Ponder can't seem to lead any sort of rally.

After 22 starts, the sample size has grown large enough to fret.

Since Ponder became the starter in Week 7 of 2011, the Vikings are 1-11 when they trail at halftime.

In those 22 starts, the Vikings have not won after falling behind by more than a touchdown.

In fact, the only time they trailed by more than seven points and rallied to take the lead was Sunday, when they turned a 10-0 first-quarter deficit into a 14-10 halftime advantage.

What about the offensive line's inconsistency?

No, the Vikings' pass protection hasn't been perfect. But have you seen the patched together offensive lines of their past two opponents? On Sunday, Aaron Rodgers bought his own time. By the second half, the Packers were onto their third right tackle this season -- a converted rookie guard named Don Barclay. Yet Rod- gers used his mobility and savvy to keep plays alive until openings materialized.

A week earlier, Chicago's Jay Cutler also moved around without getting flustered, didn't hold the ball too long and flourished by firing bullets into tight windows.

Were the Packers really better?

Understand this: Green Bay has a shaky offensive line, an ordinary running attack and a defense that played without Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and Sam Shields on Sunday.

Yet the Packers likely will play into January because they have a quarterback who wins them games.

On Sunday, Rodgers passed for 46 yards on Green Bay's opening touchdown drive.

Ponder? He didn't surpass 40 yards until barely 3 minutes remained in the game.

Rodgers was drafted 24th overall in 2005 after the Vikings used pick numbers 7 and 18 on Troy Williamson and Erasmus James. Including postseason, Rodgers is 53-27 as an NFL starter.

See how pivotal it can be when you hit on a legitimate franchise quarterback?

It's getting late early

It's still too early to definitively tattoo Ponder as a bust. But statistically, his recent production would be modest for a high school quarterback.

In the past six games, Adrian Peterson has accounted for more rushing yardage (947) than Ponder has passing yards (871).

In Green Bay, Ponder didn't complete a pass to a wide receiver until the Vikings' 10th possession.

With 4 minutes left, he had only five completions for 36 yards. All this with Peterson (210 rushing yards) having one of the most spectacular days of his career to help loosen the defense. All this, a week after the Giants quickly established their ground attack early against Green Bay, then turned Eli Manning loose to pass for 243 yards and three touchdowns.

Frazier admits the coverages the Vikings continue to see aren't complicated. Defenses are wisely using a lot of man-to-man looks with only one deep safety.

Still, the Vikings' passing attack has been lifeless, now ranking last in the NFL with 180.6 yards per game.

RATHER FORGETTABLE

In what might have been his most disappointing game as a Viking, Christian Ponder threw two red zone interceptions in a 23-14 loss to the Packers. Through 56 minutes of Sunday's game, Ponder had five completions for only 36 yards.

Star Tribune photo illustration and photo

COACH'S VOICE

"In my mind, you don't want to get into a situation where you're not sure who your No. 1 is. We believe Christian is our No. 1."

-- Leslie Frazier, Vikings coach

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