Is Ponder the right QB for Vikings? The answer must wait

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2013 - 9:28 AM

Sure, everybody’s asking, “Will Christian Ponder finally become a standout Vikings QB?’’ Evidence so far suggests it’s just too early to tell.

– You’ve been asking for it. So here it is. A microanalysis of Christian Ponder’s training camp progress.

Check that. Make it a hyper-microanalysis of an hourlong portion of Wednesday’s practice.

At 4:47 p.m., during 11-on-11 action, Ponder shuffled right to evade pressure, planted and pinpointed a dart to Stephen Burton on a dig route.

It was the kind of play that spoke to a heightened level of composure and vision.

But eight minutes earlier, on an out-and-up ball to Joe Webb, Ponder didn’t put enough on his throw and Webb dropped it.

The timing was off slightly and a window of opportunity closed. For one play anyway.

So here we are, stuck in a cyclone of quarterback questions.

They swirl through the stands at practice. They’re discussed all over Twitter. They’re asked to Ponder himself.

Is he the long-term answer?

Are his confidence and comfort level in Year 3 of his union with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave catalyzing a breakthrough?

Or will those pronounced slumps of mediocrity, the ones that put a nasty whitehead on the complexion of Ponder’s 2012 season, remain a part of his identity?

The answers: Don’t know. Don’t know. And, oh yeah, we just don’t know.

Still, good luck sealing the dam of curiosity.

Even the experts at the NFL Network can’t stop talking circles around the issue. During a three-man discussion Monday, former Vikings safety Darren Sharper labeled Ponder more asset than liability to this year’s team, projecting a breakout season.

Charley Casserly, once the general manager for the Redskins and Texans, was less confident, wanting Ponder to show better ball protection, more consistency and an added level of mental toughness.

And then former scout Daniel Jeremiah voiced his worry about Ponder’s inability to take advantage of having the best player on the planet in his backfield.

“The one thing that’s frustrating when you watch the Minnesota Vikings on tape,” Jeremiah said, “is that they run the ball so well. Normally when you have a running game like that, it should pay off with some big plays over the top down the field. You see the safeties creep up. You have to be able to make defenses pay for trying to slow down Adrian Peterson.

“They weren’t able to do that last year.”

Closing argument

Obviously, this is a distressing place for the Vikings. They enter the season with plenty of promise but no guarantee that their starting quarterback is equipped to take them to the next level.

Such fears don’t exist in New England or Denver, New Orleans or Atlanta. Heck, those worries aren’t anywhere else in the NFC North.

So as a tonic for such confusion, the Vikings point to last December, specifically Week 17.

That was the last time we saw Ponder in game action. It was a high-stakes, rivalry clash against Green Bay with a playoff berth on the line for the Vikings — a more meaningful measure of moxie and potential than any training camp drill ever will be.

On that afternoon, with Aaron Rodgers in a zone, Ponder dialed in.

After Rodgers led a second-half rally to forge a 27-27 tie, Ponder uncorked his deepest completion of the season, a 65-yarder to Jarius Wright, followed soon after by a 3-yard pass TD to Michael Jenkins.

Then when Rodgers led another tying drive, Ponder responded with a clutch third-and-11 connection to Jenkins. For 25 yards. In the final 2 minutes. To propel a playoff-clinching field goal drive.

“For myself it was finding that right balance of making plays downfield and checking the ball down,” Ponder said Wednesday. “And not trying to force things that aren’t there. That was learning from those mistakes I had throughout midseason.”

It’s not just that Ponder aided an offensive eruption under obvious pressure. It’s that he had played so confidently over the final four weeks with the offense delivering 21 scoring drives with only two Ponder turnovers mixed in.

From a distressing 6-6 ledge, the Vikings stormed into the postseason.

Said coach Leslie Frazier: “It was so encouraging, just to see at a moment where our team could have gone either way at that 6-6 juncture, for him to step up and really begin to make some crucial plays for us and take more of a reign from a leadership standpoint. It gave me more confidence about the future.”

When will we know?

Of course, until such efforts become way more routine, Ponder will need the Vikings’ internal support as armor against the arrows of criticism continually shot at him.

He was asked Wednesday if it’s frustrating that so much preseason scrutiny comes at him.

“I think it’s the nature of the media,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the nature of the position.”

Ponder continues reminding himself to balance his detailed self-assessments with a view of the bigger picture.

“We’re throwing a lot of stuff into the offense and taking each day on its own,” Ponder said. “And these first few days are a lot of installation. We’re going in with new plays every practice. And we understand it is a process.”

In general terms, Ponder said he’s zeroed in during camp on improving his decisionmaking and accuracy. And surprise. During Wednesday’s practice, he looked solid in both areas. Except for when he didn’t.

So pick your telling moment. Was it the touch pass to John Carlson just over the head of linebacker Marvin Mitchell during 7-on-7? Or the shaky deep ball a couple of minutes later that Greg Jennings never had a chance to grab?

If training camp hyperventilation wasn’t so prevalent, it might be most prudent to table the Ponder debate until the Vikings return from London and stroll into a Week 5 bye. There will be so much more evidence to sort through then.

Right now, the questions are everywhere. Definitive answers are not.

Those hungry for an immediate Ponder verdict instead must simply accept this temporary state of perplexity.

 

Dan Wiederer dwiederer@startribune.com

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