Christian Ponder Can't Cut It for Minnesota Vikings, so What Comes Next?
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Christian Ponder looks to be another first-round draft bust, continuing a tradition of quarterbacks picked early who fail to meet expectations. The only quarterback with two of the ten worst games of the season, Ponder has invited questions about his viability as a starter in the National Football League.
With their Vikings hosting the division rival Chicago Bears this weekend, Minnesota fans have resigned themselves to a lost season, and it makes sense. At best, they have a seven percent chance of making the playoffs, and those efficiency metric-based scenarios require them to win at least three more games.
All that in mind, it makes sense that the Vikings need to evaluate what needs to be done to prepare for next year. Regardless of Ponder's performance in the Chicago game, his overall performance this year has been subpar. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, he ranks 25th among all quarterbacks in passer rating, and 31st in the much more useful "adjusted-net-yards-per-attempt" metric.
From there, it seems obvious that the Vikings should move on.
But nothing is quite as simple as it originally seems. Ponder's rookie year fits well within the normal range of successful quarterbacks. That is to say, successful quarterbacks often found themselves in similar or worse situations than Ponder, whose statistics were neither mind blowing nor depressing. As a rookie, he trailed the league's average completion rate by 6.23 percent—well within normal range for first-year signal-callers.
The rate at which he threw touchdowns was nearly identical to the league average, and his interception rate was only marginally worrisome. With an interception rate 1.69 percent higher than most passers in the league, his rookie performance in this statistic matches the bottom end of successful quarterbacks for their rookie year.
More revealing, however were his yards per attempt as a rookie. A full yard below league average, Ponder found himself in rare company among successful quarterbacks. Of the 98 successful quarterbacks surveyed, only one of them had a similar or worse yards per attempt (relative to league average) and could have been the biggest indicator that Ponder was a lost pick.
That quarterback? Donovan McNabb. It seems Ponder picked up habits quickly. Still, if Ponder's league trajectory is anything like McNabb's, Vikings fans shouldn't complain too much.
Most important, however, is whether or not Ponder has improved in a big way. McNabb's improvement was extraordinary in his second year—he improved in his relative passer rating by 20 percent, his relative yards per attempt by 23 percent and his completion rating by 31 percent. Only eight or nine quarterbacks improved more than McNabb did from year to year.
Ponder's improvement was not nearly so prodigious. With an uptick in passer rating of 12 percent, he nearly doubles the average improvement for quarterbacks (6.5 percent), but his change in yards per attempt was negative (negative eight percent compared to league average) and his adjusted net yards per attempt—which takes into account sack yards, interceptions and touchdowns—was below the average for second year quarterbacks, having increased by only six percent, compared to 9.3 percent overall.
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While Ponder's career matches Troy Aikman's early years in many ways (similar improvement scales and similar era-adjusted yards per attempt and passer rating), Ponder most closely matches the career of Kyle Boller.
Boller threw fewer interceptions per pass, but also fewer touchdowns. But after adjusting for era, they threw the exact same number of yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt, while also posting very similar passer ratings.
The question of whether or not Ponder's career is going to be successful is a hard one to answer, but if history is any guide, it doesn't seem likely. Only one quarterback who had a similar progression and went on to become successful was Troy Aikman. Ponder's trajectory more closely resembles that of Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller and Dan Pastorini.
Of all the passers who posted a similar progression rate to Ponder, only one ever went to the Pro Bowl (Neil Lomax), while four others were failures. Of the nine passers that posted similar overall numbers to his sophomore year, two went to the Hall of Fame, and an additional two were participants in at least two Pro Bowls. Only Bill Munson progressed at the same rate and posted similar numbers throughout his early career, and he wasn't too impressive.
The two Hall of Famers that matched Christian Ponder don't really have much more in common with him than base statistics. A 1970 scouting report of Terry Bradshaw could sound familiar to Vikings fans. He "couldn't read defenses" and scrambled too early out of the pocket.
But the similarities end there. Bradshaw slung the ball too often as a rookie, throwing six touchdowns to 24 interceptions. His improvement came from becoming more conservative, slightly decreasing his raw yards per attempt and massively increasing his adjusted net yards per attempt. He accomplished the latter by decreasing his interceptions in a big way—from throwing interceptions nearly three times as often as average to throwing at a league average rate.
Ponder's improvement in completion rate came from an inverse tendency—one that led him to be much more conservative than before. This difference might be a stark indicator that the Florida State alum isn't really progressing in a way that points to real improvement.
Troy Aikman is much more similar, having increased his completion rate and slightly decreasing his touchdown rate. He finished with a nearly identical era-adjusted net yards per attempt and a worse adjusted passer rating—one that would grade out to 73 this year, just above Brandon Weeden's rating.
The difference here is that Aikman progressed better than Ponder, matching Ponder's impressive improvement in interception rate while also increasing his yards per attempt—he notably did not increase his completion rate by decreasing his average yards per completion, unlike Ponder whose passing yardage decreased by a whopping two yards per reception.
The news is largely bad for Ponder. The list of unsuccessful quarterbacks who played two seasons is extensive. After adjusting for era, Ponder's early numbers also appear to match Joe Ferguson, Joey Harrington and Rick Mirer—a less than impressive list. While Ponder's numbers look better than Blaine Gabbert, Steve Fuller or David Carr's, he fares low on the list of rookie quarterbacks who had at least 160 pass attempts in their rookie and sophomore years (69th of 89).
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So while Ponder's improvement has generally been better than average, he started in a much worse spot than many others. Only five quarterbacks in the dataset performed worse than Ponder in adjusted yards per attempt his rookie year and still made the Pro Bowl, while 15 could safely be called failures. Of those quarterbacks performing similarly to him, six made at least one trip to the Pro Bowl, while twelve others floundered.
This would have given him a roughly 33 percent chance of doing well, if it's safe to project previous quarterback performance into the future.
Unfortunately, his sophomore year saw him fall relative to his peers, and only sixteen passers had fewer adjusted yards per attempt. Four of them made the Pro Bowl and one of them made the Hall of Fame—Troy Aikman.
But of those performing similarly to him, only two found their way to the Pro Bowl in their careers while fourteen were left behind in the dustbin of history. This would reduce his rough odds of being a success to 1-in-8, bleak odds indeed.
ESPN Insider went further, arguing that Christian Ponder is on an exclusive list of mediocrity. They used a metric called Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement, a measure created by Football Outsiders that combines first downs, sacks, interceptions and the strength of opposing defenses to come up with a comprehensive statistic that measures performance against a replacement-level player (in most cases, replacement-level players perform at about 75 percent of an average player).
Since 1991, every quarterback who has performed below replacement level (has a negative score) for two consecutive years ended up being a failure, with the exception of Alex Smith and Sam Bradford, who are still active.
Given that Ponder is hardly helped by his talent at wide receiver, there's a good chance that these statistics understate his ability—just like Troy Aikman was hurt by the relatively slow development of Michael Irvin, the departure of Herschel Walker and the quarterback controversy early in his career that saw him missing reps with the first team.
But there are more than just statistical arguments for why Ponder might be a failure; Ponder's qualitative weaknesses are glaring.
While the young Vikings passer has displayed excellent poise and pocket awareness in some games— like the home game against Detroit and against Tennessee—he for the most part scrambles too early and doesn't step up into the pocket.
More than that, the criticisms of his arm strength have come roaring back. While perhaps off when pointing to the depth of his passes—that is more likely a problem associated with decision-making and play-calling—the arc, spiral and velocity of the ball in air have all been called into question.
He continues to scramble unnecessarily, but is much more likely to step up in the pocket than he was last year. Still, his performance under pressure has been subpar. More than that, an extraordinary amount of his yards come after the catch—the most in the league by a significant margin, at 57.7 percent. The next closest quarterback is Ryan Fitzpatrick at 55.9 percent.
These weren't criticisms leveled against many of the quarterbacks putting up similar numbers to Ponder, and the fact that he's in the bottom fifth of passers who put up 160 attempts in their rookie and sophomore seasons speaks ill of him.
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There are a number of quarterbacks who have had a number of games with fewer than 100 yards passing with at least 15 attempts—Fran Tarkenton, Aikman and Bradshaw included. Most of these quarterbacks (Bradshaw excluded) looked much better, however. While not necessarily lauded for their decision-making ability, clippings about Fran Tarkenton and Troy Aikman were positive despite the down seasons both were having.
Jim Kelly and Steve Young entering the league with overwhelmingly optimistic expectations due to their very successful USFL careers, and subpar games early in their NFL careers did very little to diminish their luster.
It's not over for Ponder. Not only will he have the chance to redeem himself in the next four games against tough opposition, he'll reportedly have another year to show improvement as a quarterback. This sort of turnaround isn't unprecedented, but it's rare.
As it is, there is a very low likelihood that Ponder will perform at the level fans expect out of a franchise quarterback.
The next step for the Vikings, then, is to determine whether or not they have a better chance with any number of other options. The first option is to take a quarterback in the draft in the hope he pans out. While it's not necessarily a numbers game, the odds are generally in favor of the generic first-round quarterback.
In the dataset referenced above, 54 of the quarterbacks in the population were first-rounders. 26 of them were successes, and that accords well with other studies (via espn.com) that say first-round quarterbacks are successes half of the time. Similarly, half of all quarterbacks to have ever started the Super Bowl were first-round selections.
These odds almost certainly exceed the small likelihood that Ponder is a success, so it would initially seem that this would be a good avenue for the Vikings. But with a weak draft class for quarterbacks, there's a good chance that nobody worth a first-round pick will be around when the Vikings select around 19th or so in the draft.
And the Vikings may have learned their lesson about reaching.
Naturally, the Vikings could select a quarterback later in the draft, in hopes of hitting the next Tom Brady or Matt Hasselbeck, and that makes sense. It would be a good strategy to gamble on a late-round pick to push for a starting position in the off chance he outperforms Ponder and Webb.
The Vikings should know, however, that quarterbacks drafted after the 50th pick are rarely successes. Of the 148 quarterbacks selected after that pick, only nine have been full time starters for five years or more. A success rate like that (six percent) is probably much lower than Ponder's chances of turning into a starting-level quarterback, so the Vikings shouldn't rely on it.
So if the Vikings shouldn't fix their quarterback problem in the 2013 draft, what should they do?
They could certainly give him one more year of evaluation in order to fully eliminate (or finally reveal) the possibility that he's a franchise quarterback. Of every quarterback who threw for at least 160 attempts in their first three years, only Warren Moon ended up a success after posting three consecutive seasons of poor performance.
Those odds are small enough to encourage the Vikings to move on if Ponder's season mirrors his first two seasons in the NFL.
Another option for the Vikings would be to give the intriguing young Joe Webb a chance to lead the team for 2013. If he outperforms Ponder in the offseason and in the exhibition games, it certainly warrants consideration.
His ability to create plays with his legs would certainly add a dimension to the offense, a dimension that the Washington Redskins, Carolina Panthers and, now, the San Francisco 49ers are trying to prove can be effective. Webb's contract ends after the 2013 season, so it could be the Vikings' last chance to put him on the field and see what he can do.
He's hardly had enough time to put together an on-field resumé that screams "NFL passer": Webb has recorded only 152 pass attempts (and 41 runs). Still in those limited attempts, he's not been great. While it's easy to remember the exciting runs that wowed fans because sheer athletic ability, Webb's success rate has not been extraordinary.
On only 40.7 percent of dropbacks did Webb produce a successful play (defined by the win probability formula used by Advanced NFL Stats). Quarterbacks have typically produced successes on over 48 percent of plays, with the bottom-level passers struggling around 43 percent.
His passing has been subpar, even though the average depth of his passing targets has been much higher. With a total adjusted net yards per attempt of 3.8, Webb has produced numbers significantly worse than Ponder in every season he's attempted passes, and performs far worse than the field—only 76 percent the rate of other NFL signal-callers.
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He's a pretty dangerous runner, so that seems to not necessarily be a fair evaluation. But other running quarterbacks have had a higher pass yards per attempt, making their success more sustainable. Colin Kaepernick, who has had a similarly low number of attempts, has an adjusted net pass yards per attempt of 7.3. Robert Griffin III's ANY/A is 7.6, and Cam Newton's is 6.6. Webb's 3.8 seems pitiful in comparison.
Even if you add Webb's running yards to his pass attempts, his adjusted yards per play comes out to 5.8, which is not too impressive, even after the surprising boost given by his running.
Still, his time at quarterback has been limited, and he could reveal more. His mechanical and subjective problems vastly outpace Ponder's, and Webb's rhythm, timing, footwork and vision have all been called into question. Webb has never been immersed in an offense, which certainly should grant him some latitude, but other successful passers (including Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick this year) have overcome that limitation.
Roger Staubach had one of the most successful seasons in quarterback history after such a problem, and most successful passers in the NFL who have had similar situations have transcended them.
The real question, however, is not whether or not Webb will be a successful quarterback; it's whether or not the likelihood of Webb becoming a more successful quarterback than Ponder. Ponder's high volume of pass attempts decreases most of the uncertainty surrounding his ability, and Webb's low usage conversely creates a cloud of mystery surrounding his total capability.
If Ponder could be said to have less than a 1-in-8 shot of succeeding, Webb might be in a better spot. Because he's already outperformed many late-round quarterbacks, he could be in a spot to exceed the six percent shot he's been given as a sixth-round pick, and therefore surpass Ponder. Still, his odds are still very small and likely also isn't an answer for the future.
The successful late-round picks generally threw for more than 5.5 adjusted yards per pass attempt in their first season with over 100 pass attempts, with the exception of Matt Hasselbeck. This is probably one of many signs that Joe Webb's chances of being successful are extremely small, which indicates that his chances are probably below the six percent chance that a late-round pick could make an impact.
How should the Vikings approach the Christian Ponder problem?
This is a difficult process, fraught with uncertainty and hidden information—coaches and talent evaluators with the team always know more than the average fan—and the question of whether or not the Vikings should abandon Ponder will take more than an hour to decide.
Each option has its own drawbacks: an early draft pick would take a chance in a weak class and forgo surer prospects at other priorities, while a late pick would likely yield a very low prospect while preventing the Vikings from using the pick to fill other holes on the roster.
And naturally, the drawback to playing Christian Ponder or Joe Webb out for the rest of the season is losing football games. In this situation, the Vikings would at least be well served to substitute a flagging starter with the other passer, giving fans and the team the answer they need.
If the Vikings draft well, playing Ponder would answer the question of whether or not the issue was his surrounding talent as it was for several quarterbacks who struggled early.
As it is, it looks like the best option would be to play Ponder and ride out the season while gathering talent in other areas where the draft is stacked, a strategy that holds a similar philosophical premise as the Best Player Available strategy.
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