Nearly halfway through their 2012 NFL campaign, the Minnesota Vikings sit at 5-2, just behind the 5-1 Chicago Bears in the NFC North. There are many things that have played into this (let’s call a spade a spade) surprising start from Leslie Frazier’s club. From Adrian Peterson’s return to form less than a year after a devastating knee injury, to the improved play of the secondary, especially at the safety position, the entire roster has had a hand in helping stake the Vikings to five early-season victories in seven attempts.
But no single development has meant more to Minnesota’s start to the 2012 season than the jump in overall quality of play the Vikings are getting from second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. While the offense has undoubtedly used the ground attack and Peterson’s incredible ability as its engine, Ponder has made some incredibly important throws and done a great job of keeping the offense on track, both before and after the snap of the football.
However, not everything has been smooth for Ponder, as even a cursory look at the Vikings’ last three games will tell you.
More problematic is that the team seems to be limiting what it asks of its quarterback, going so far as to try and hide him in the second half of last Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals. In the last three weeks the sophomore quarterback has put his team in bad to downright terrible positions with errant throws that have resulted in interceptions, often made while fleeing the pocket.
Let's look at the most recent matchup. The Cardinals certainly boast a legit defense and secondary. The Vikings can't be faulted for wanting to lean on their running game. But even a team that wants to pound the football needs its quarterback to make a few big throws now and then. The first three weeks of the season, Ponder was up to the task. Since then, it's been hit and miss, with some awful thrown into the mix.
Both interceptions against the Cardinals came while Ponder was escaping pressure. The first throw, a flip on the run to tight end Kyle Rudolph, was just a poor throw. While not the world’s worst decision to try and make a play, as Rudolph was open right in front of him, Ponder’s throw was badly off target. It seemed as though he was throwing the ball where Rudolph was rather than where he was headed.
Obviously, you don’t want to kill a guy too badly for trying to make a play, but Ponder has to be smarter here. The Vikings have played well this season, but this is not a team that can overcome these mistakes when playing more explosive offensive squads. As it is, this play resulted in excellent field position for the offensively challenged Cardinals, which resulted in a Cardinals touchdown.
Ponder can’t regress back to the point where he’s a detriment to the offense, as he was for a good deal of the last month of the 2011 season. Earlier this year, when the San Francisco 49ers visited the Metrodome, Ponder played one of his best games as a pro. His decision-making was near-flawless, and when his team needed a stick throw, he saw his progressions clearly.
For whatever reason, since that game, you’ve seen some hesitation when Ponder goes through his reads and the extraneous movement at the top of his dropback from the line of scrimmage has resurfaced, a bad habit that he had done a good job of correcting earlier in the season.
This second interception he threw against the Cardinals was downright terrible. While I understand his attempt on the first interception, this second one completely baffles me.
Late in the first half, trying to put points on the board before halftime, Ponder is flushed out of the pocket when Paris Lenon blitzes up the A-gap; he races to his left and just throws a gut-wrenching interception that he has no business throwing. A pass intended for Adrian Peterson, who is clearly nowhere near in sync with what Ponder wants to do with the ball, simply had no business being throw. Ponder has to realize he can simply chuck the ball out of bounds (he is well outside the tackle box so as to avoid a grounding penalty) and live to fight another day.
The Cardinals could not capitalize on the gift when kicker Jay Feely missed the ensuing field-goal attempt, but the fact remains that Ponder can not make those kinds of throws if he is going to help this team get to the playoffs. And that is much more than just a realistic goal at this point for the Vikings. It should be an expectation.
One important person who seems to have Ponder's back is his head coach. More importantly, Leslie Frazier seems to recognize that his quarterback turning into something more than a nervous game manager is an ongoing process, not something that will happen overnight.
Asked the day after the Cardinals game about his quarterback's struggles, specifically if he was worried about Ponder's confidence being shaken after a rough stretch the last couple of weeks, Frazier said, via Vikings.com:
He’s so different than a year ago when it comes to negative plays. I’ve seen it and we’ve all seen it over these first seven games where he’s had some bad plays and he’s bounced back, whether it be the Detroit game or the Houston game. He’s done a good job. Yesterday was a tough game against a very very good defense but he’s not the same Christian Ponder that he was a year ago. I’m convinced of it, seen enough evidence of it in practice, even in games, where he’s bounced back from some tough plays and his teammates have seen it as well.
Count me among those who has seen it as well. Whereas things seemed to snowball on him at times late in the year during the 2011 season, Ponder seems much better equipped this year at handling the highs and lows that go into nearly every game.
Something else to remember while watching Ponder mature as a quarterback is what he has (and doesn't have) around him. While having Adrian Peterson and a running game that has teams playing with an extra defender in the box can be an advantage, it only becomes one if the offense has guys on the perimeter who can win one-on-one matchups.
For most of the 2012 season the Vikings have been missing that element on offense. Percy Harvin, while undoubtedly one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL, does his best work inside in the slot of out of the offensive backfield.
A return to form from both suspension and injury by wide receiver Jerome Simpson could start to provide some kind of spark in this regard.
Looking at the coaches tape from the Cardinals game, you can see there were a few missed opportunities on plays designed to get the ball in Simpson's hands. One such play seems to be the play that resulted in Ponder's second interception. As has often been the case, inside pressure ruined the rhythm of the play and caused Ponder to either miss the read of hold back on pulling the trigger. On the second interception above, he has to stay in the pocket and deliver the football. Yes, the offensive lineman is pushed back into the pocket. That's life in the NFL. There's no reason for Ponder to bail on the play there. Simply sidestepping and delivering a strike to Simpson is what you'd like to see there.
When Vikings fans look around the league, heck, even the division, it's understandable if they get a bit jealous when it comes to the quarterback play fans of other teams enjoy. But guys like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees didn't just arrive in the NFL and start playing at the level we get to enjoy every Sunday now. They paid their dues. They went through many of the same things Christian Ponder is going through now.
Also, their teams made sure to give them weapons as they grew within the organization. There's a reason Ted Thompson has drafted a wide receiver or tight end nearly every year he's been in charge of Green Bay's football operations. There's a reason the Patriots went out and got two freaks of nature at tight end and traded for a pesky slot receiver that they could never cover. There's a reason the Saints pounced on Darren Sproles in free agency and coveted tight end Jimmy Graham in the draft.
Yes, you have to protect the quarterback as well, and the Vikings were certainly mindful of that when they selected Matt Kalil fourth overall in last April's draft. But the next step in roster development for Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has to be getting more playmakers for his quarterback.
That, of course, is down the line. Right now, the best experience any quarterback gets is playing the game and Ponder is 17 games into his career as a starter in the NFL. So many franchises are impatient with their quarterbacks, giving them barely 20 to 30 starts before deciding to pull the plug, never allowing them to reach their full potential.
No one knows where Ponder's road through the NFL will lead, but it's pretty clear he has the tools to succeed. He throws a good ball, his motion is fluid and he has excellent mobility.
Now, he needs to make sure he's learning from the mistakes he's made over the course of the last few games. You worry when you see interceptions in bunches like we did Sunday against the Cardinals, especially when they are made on such similar plays in such similar ways.
One thing that should help get Ponder back on schedule is Thursday night's matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their 31st-ranked pass defense. Struggling on the road in Washington or at home against an excellent defense like the one currently employed by the Cardinals is understandable. It's part of the growth of a young quarterback. This game against the Bucs should be used to get Ponder back to making solid decisions and finding a rhythm within the passing offense.
The Vikings can win with Christian Ponder. How much and how far they can ultimately go in 2012 will rest largely on his ability to learn from his mistakes and to build on his successes. While the road may be bumpy at times, I think Vikings fans who stick around for the ride will enjoy watching their young quarterback grow into one of the better quarterbacks in the league over the course of the next few years.