Minnesota Vikings: Why 2013 Is a Make-or-Break Year for Christian Ponder

Bob GarmanAnalyst IApril 4, 2013

courtesy nfl.com
courtesy nfl.com

The 2012 NFL season was a successful one for the Minnesota Vikings.  The team improved from 3-13 in 2011 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2009 after compiling a 10-6 record.

The team is young and undeniably on the rise, but there are still questions to be answered. The biggest question on the minds of many Vikings fans is whether or not Christian Ponder is a franchise quarterback. A lot of those question should be answered during the upcoming season. 2013 is a make-or-break year for Christian Ponder.

Ponder, like the Vikings, had his ups and downs last year. He was remarkably efficient at the start of the season. In fact, Ponder was the last starting QB in the NFL to throw an interception last year, staying unblemished until he threw two picks during a win over Tennessee in Week 5. Partially as a result of Ponder's strong start, the Vikings jumped out to a 4-1 record.

Then, Ponder started to struggle, and the team's fortunes wavered too. Over the next seven games, the Vikings went 2-5, as Ponder threw nine interceptions while only recording eight touchdown passes. 

Then, the Vikings went on a tear, winning their final four games to earn a playoff berth. During that stretch, Ponder was efficient once again, throwing four touchdowns and just one interception. 

It's clear that even with Adrian Peterson running like a man possessed, it was Ponder's performance that determined the Vikings' fate in 2012. That won't change in 2013. If Christian Ponder continues to grow and improve, Minnesota will be a force to be reckoned with in the NFC North. If he falters, the team will likely return to the division basement.

Ponder must improve because no one can expect Adrian Peterson to perform like a superhero forever. Coming off of major knee surgery after the 2011 season, Peterson was simply unbelievable in 2012. The NFL MVP rushed for 2,097 yards and largely carried the Vikings to the playoffs by himself. While it's been proven that Peterson can do things regular humans can't, it's not logical to assume that he can repeat the type of year he had in 2012. 

Peterson is 28 years old. History shows that running backs typically lose a lot of productivity right around age 30. As much as Vikings fans might hate to admit it, the clock is ticking on AP. Without a reason to fear the Minnesota passing game, defenses stack the box against Peterson. He consistently faces eight and nine-man fronts. He also shoulders a massive work load, leading the NFC last season with 348 rushing attempts.

Peterson is often compared to Barry Sanders and Walter Payton. Sanders retired at age 30. Payton played until he was 33, but his productivity dropped sharply in his last few seasons. Unless Ponder can force defenses to respect the pass, Peterson will continue to face stacked defenses and will wear down more quickly than he needs to, particularly if he continues to carry the ball more than 300 times a year. Ponder needs to step up his game to take some of the weight off of his halfback.

Ponder needs to improve his play if he expects to stay on the field. Unlike 2011, his first season, and last year, his second, the Vikings have a viable backup option. In 2011, the team started the year with Donovan McNabb, with disastrous results. Ponder was inconsistent as a rookie but showed flashes of the potential that caused Minnesota to nab him in the first round of the draft.

Last season, Ponder started every game for the team until an injury forced him out of the Vikings' playoff contest with the Green Bay Packers. Part of the reason that Ponder was the starter every week, even during his ineffective stretch in the middle of the year, was that Minnesota didn't really have a viable backup. That became evident when Joe Webb was forced to start the playoff game. His performance was abysmal, and it underlined the Vikings' need for a reliable second quarterback.

Minnesota addressed that need during free agency, signing Matt Cassel hours after he was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs. Cassel, while not a standout for the Chiefs, at least presents the Vikings with a viable option at quarterback if Ponder should be injured or ineffective. While his last two seasons in Kansas City were horrific, Cassel does have some NFL pedigree. Over his first two seasons with the Chiefs, Cassel threw 43 touchdowns and only 23 interceptions, leading Kansas City to the playoffs in 2010. Unlike his predecessors in Minnesota, Cassel could actually prove a threat to Ponder's job security.

There are reasons to be optimistic that Ponder's performance will improve in 2013. 

He showed marked improvement in 2012. As a rookie, Ponder only completed 54.3 percent of his passes. That mark increased to 62.1percent in his second year. Another year of modest improvement could put him right about 65 or 66 percent, which would be a strong showing. Ponder tossed 13 interceptions in only 291 attempts as a rookie. In his second season, he was intercepted 12 times but threw the ball 483 times. His interception ratio dropped from 4.5 percent as a rookie to 2.5 percent as a sophomore. Continued improvement in that area would demonstrate that Ponder is the man to lead the Vikings for the foreseeable future.

Ponder supporters often cite his lack of targets for some of his struggles. There's some validity to that argument. When Percy Harvin went down with an injury against Seattle in the ninth game of the year, Ponder was left without his most dynamic receiver. Though tight end Kyle Rudolph is a blossoming star, the rest of Ponder's weapons weren't fearsome to NFL defenders. It's fair to say that when Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu and Jerome Simpson are your primary targets, you are lacking in firepower.

Harvin was also a distraction. According to NFL.com's Kevin Patra, Harvin constantly complained that Ponder simply wasn't good enough. We'll see how Percy likes Russell Wilson. 

The Vikings also signed Greg Jennings during free agency and are likely to further supplement the receiver position in this month's NFL Draft. The team has two first-round picks, and many think that one of those choices will be used to get Ponder another target. With more weapons at his disposal, there should be no reason that Ponder doesn't improve in 2013.

The Vikings are firmly behind Ponder. In an interview with ESPN1500.com's Tom Pelissero, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier stated that there is no doubt in his mind that Ponder will be the team's starter, and that he is capable of leading the Vikings to a championship.

It's important to have that position solidified more so than any position as you are setting your goals for that next season. I think we're solid at the starting quarterback position and maybe (need to) do some things to make sure we're solid at the backup position. But as long as Christian keeps improving, we feel like we've got what we need to bring a championship to Minnesota.

With the full confidence of his coach, some new weapons in his arsenal, and a history of steady improvement, Christian Ponder has every opportunity to succeed in 2013 and solidify himself as the Vikings' franchise quarterback. 

If Ponder continues his growth, the future looks very bright in Minnesota. If he doesn't, things could get ugly in a hurry. 2013 is a make-or-break year for both Ponder and the Vikings.

(all stats derived from pro-football-reference.com)

Think Ponder is the answer? Do the Vikings need to look elsewhere at the QB position? Have some thoughts of your own? Speak your mind in the comments section below.

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