Christian Ponder walks into the coaches meeting room at Winter Park. The lights are dimmed, but the brightest moment of his young, enigmatic career is caught in freeze frame on the giant projection screen beyond the far end of a long table. ¶ Vikings 37, Packers 34. ¶ “That was a good game,” says Ponder, looking up at the scoreboard on the screen. “But I expect to play better games than that.”
Yes, expectations are high all around as the Vikings open their 2013 regular season at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday. That 37-34 victory over the Packers on Dec. 30, 2012, capped a team-record seven-win improvement, clinched an unexpected wild-card playoff berth and catapulted running back Adrian Peterson to a 2,097-yard season and the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, anything optimistic that’s said about the 2013 Vikings must be — and always is — followed by these four words: “If only Ponder can …”
“It’s really on Ponder,” said former Vikings receiver and current Fox Sports 1 NFL analyst Randy Moss. “If I could pick any of the three other teams in the [NFC North] to challenge Green Bay, it would be the Minnesota Vikings. Depending on the year Ponder has.”
Ponder seems unfazed by the questions and doubts that swirl about him. Told that ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski ranked him 27th among 32 NFL quarterbacks, right behind Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, Ponder shrugs and says, “I think a 27th ranking is probably rightfully so with how I’ve played.”
“Look,” Ponder says while seated in the coaches room at Winter Park. “My play last year was up and down. Started off well, middle of the season didn’t play so well and then played well at the end of the season to help us finish 4-0. I made a lot of mistakes, and when there’s a quarterback who people think is prone to a lot of mistakes, there are going to be a lot of questions about him.
“Hopefully, those questions will be answered this year because I think we have good chance to be a great team. Myself, with the pieces around me, this year, I expect progression. I plan on playing like I did in this [win over the Packers] for 16 games in the regular season and more after that.”
Let’s take a closer look at that Packers game. The Vikings needed to win to make the playoffs. The Packers needed to win to clinch a first-round bye. Despite injuring his throwing elbow while taking a hard hit on a delayed blitz by safety Morgan Burnett with 3 minutes, 53 seconds left in the second quarter, Ponder threw three touchdown passes, posted a career-high 120.2 passer rating and didn’t turn the ball over.
Here now are four plays that illustrate what Ponder has proved he can do as the quarterback in a run-oriented, ball-control offense built around Peterson. Obviously, he needs to do them on a more consistent basis, but he knows that. Right now, he has the remote and he is about to take us through these four situations in which he did something many of us have said he can’t do:
1. Ponder has no rhythm!
First-and-10 at the 50, 8:17 left in third quarter, Vikings lead 20-17
The play: Receiver Jerome Simpson, lined up to the right, runs a deep in route. Ponder executes the play-action to Peterson and, in perfect rhythm, laces the ball to Simpson in stride for 21 yards. Eight plays later, Ponder throws a 2-yard touchdown pass to Peterson.
Ponder says: “The play-action is the key, especially when Adrian is running for  yards. For us, this is a deep play-action pass. It’s kind of a standard route. We ran it in high school. It’s called Cadillac. Basically, we’re trying to isolate Jerome backside on an in cut and it ends up being zone coverage. We assumed that our guy is going to beat their guy. So, for me, it’s a timing route. Play-action and one to two hitches and get the ball out. Boom. … There was a lot of pressure in this game, but if you look at this play, there’s so much room in the pocket. Anybody can sit back there and throw the ball on this play.”
The obvious question: This was one of only 28 Ponder completions of 20 yards or more last season, by far a league low. So the obvious question is, “Why don’t we see more deep completions in this offense, especially when Peterson is running so well?”
Ponder says: “We call them. We really do. It’s just a matter of who’s coming open and who’s not coming open.”