What Should Minnesota Vikings Fans Expect from Christian Ponder in 2013?

Matthew Stensrud@@MattStensrudContributor IIIAugust 8, 2013

Jun 11, 2013; Eden Prairie, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder (7) passes in drills at the Minnesota Vikings minicamp at Winter Park. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

As the Minnesota Vikings prepare for the upcoming 2013 NFL season, many unanswered questions still linger within the organization, ranging from injury recovery to final roster spots.

But few questions have received such a spotlight as the one cast brightly on the Vikings signal-caller.

How will Christian Ponder perform in 2013?

Many fans will tell you they're expecting improved play at the quarterback position, finally balancing the best running back in football in Adrian Peterson. Considering some of Ponder's best weeks in 2012, one can understand the optimism.

On the other hand, more cynical fans are less confident in Ponder's ability to make significant strides this season. With Matt Cassel signing as the backup quarterback, whispers of Ponder getting the hook halfway through the season seem to be present.

With such a divide from an understandably excited fanbase, we'll examine what Vikings fans should realistically expect from third-year quarterback Christian Ponder.

But in order to do so, let's evaluate Ponder's career leading up to this point.

College Years

Ponder played in his first game at Florida State University in 2007, after redshirting the prior year. He replaced injured quarterback Drew Weatherford and went 8-for-18 for 105 yards, including one touchdown and two interceptions.

The more mobile Ponder replaced Weatherford as the starting quarterback in 2008 and had a respectable season, going 177-for-318 for 2,006 yards and throwing 14 touchdown and 13 interceptions.

He led the team to nine wins and became the first FSU quarterback since Charlie Ward in 1992 to run for over 400 yards. His six touchdown passes in the first two games were also an FSU first since Ward.

In 2009, Ponder had his best completion percentage of his college career, recording 68.8 percent on 227-for-330 passing. The 2,717 yards were also his highest and he posted a better touchdown-to-interception ratio with 14-to-7.

What's impressive about Ponder's junior season—and somewhat disappointing—was that he missed the final three games of the year with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Before being sidelined, Ponder tied an FSU and ACC record with a 98-yard touchdown pass and also threw for five touchdowns in one game.

Ponder continued to battle his shoulder injury in 2010, missing two games throughout the season. However, after going 184-for-299 for 2,044 yards, with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions, Ponder finished in the top five of several FSU offensive categories.

He was fourth in passing yards (6,866), third in completions (595), third in total offense (7,696), second in completion percentage (62.0) and tied for fifth in touchdown passes (49). 


Courtesy of Sports-Reference.com

After winning MVP honors at the Senior Bowl, Ponder impressed scouts at the NFL combine with an impressive throwing session, as well as a 4.65 40-yard dash and 34-inch vertical, via NFL.com. His stock continued to rise following Florida State's pro day and Ponder appeared to be fully recovering from the shoulder injury that kept him out of five games in college.

In addition to his physical attributes, Ponder's intelligence on and off the field were another strong suit when appealing to NFL teams. According to CBSSports.com, Ponder reiterated his competitive advantage:

I really think I'm the whole package at quarterback. I have great accuracy and can make all the throws. Intelligence is a huge advantage for me, being able to comprehend offenses and defenses. We ran a complex offense at Florida State and I think it will carry over well to the NFL. I'm athletic enough to move in the pocket and make plays with my feet.

All things told, general manager Rick Spielman and the Vikings front office were impressed with Ponder enough to make him their first-round selection in 2011 with the 12th overall pick.

While many saw the FSU standout as a second-round prospect, the Vikings took Ponder with three quarterbacks already selected ahead of them (Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert) and watched two more (Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick) come off the board before their next pick in the second round.

Christian Ponder was clearly being tagged as the quarterback of the future, a designation fans had been demanding for years with so many veteran stop-gaps along the way.

Minnesota Vikings

Upon joining the Vikings in 2011, Ponder assumed the backup role behind quarterback Donovan McNabb. However, it didn't take long for the former Seminole to take the field, as he saw action in Week 6 against the Chicago Bears and made his first start the following week.

Although playing in every game from that point, Ponder struggled with injuries late in the season. He finished with a 2-8 record, throwing for 1,853 yards on 158-of-291 passing. His 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions were about average for a rookie campaign, one that saw the Vikings finish 3-13.

In 2012, Ponder was named the starter for the season and looked to improve on the team's poor performance from one year prior.

Although few critics gave the Vikings a chance for success in 2012, Ponder started the season with zero interceptions in his first four games. He helped lead the team to a 4-1 start in their first five games.

Even in the team's loss against the Washington Redskins the following week, Ponder completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns.

During that six-game stretch, Ponder was 144-for-210 for 1,434 yards. His 68.6 completion percentage ranked No. 1 among all quarterbacks in the NFL with at least 200 pass attempts. As a comparison, Aaron Rodgers was No. 2 with 68.0 percent and Peyton Manning was No. 3 with 67.8 percent.

Up until that point, Ponder had helped lead the Vikings to a 4-2 start on eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

To put that further into perspective, Joe Flacco, the quarterback who recently signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens, had a very similar stat line through the same period of the season. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP had a completion percentage of 61.7 on 129-of-209 passing, with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

But as they say, the NFL season is a marathon not a sprint, and Ponder tripped badly midway through the year.

Over the next three games, the Vikings were 1-2 and Ponder was downright miserable. He had games of 58 and 63 total yards, resulting in a passer rating of 35.5 and 37.3, respectively. He managed two touchdowns with four interceptions during this period.

Ponder rebounded in Week 10 against the Detroit Lions, throwing 221 yards with a completion percentage of 75.0. He had two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 114.2.

Although providing hope to Vikings fans with a record of 6-4, Ponder could not lead the team to victory in the following two road games against divisional foes. His performance in Green Bay was especially difficult, turning the ball over twice in the red zone and only posting 119 yards and one touchdown.

With four must-win games left for Minnesota, the team finished undefeated in this stretch and made the playoffs with a wild-card berth at 10-6.

However, to say that Christian Ponder played like an elite quarterback during all four of these games would be incorrect.

In the Week 14 game against Chicago, he was 11-for-17 for 91 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. One could easily say the Vikings won that game despite the poor play of Ponder.

The following game against the St. Louis Rams was slightly better, as Ponder threw for 131 yards, zero touchdowns and no interceptions. His legs helped score a first-quarter touchdown, only his second of the year, something more commonly seen during his college days.

The final two games of the 2012 season were truly where Ponder stood out, and optimistic Vikings fans should point to these contests as the trend heading into the 2013 season.

During this final stretch, he threw for a combined 408 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. The final game against the Packers was especially dominant, as Ponder posted his best passer rating of the season at 120.2 and showed signs of a downfield attack when he completed a 65-yard pass to Jarius Wright.

2013 Expectations

When predicting the performance of Christian Ponder for this upcoming season, fans should take his entire body of work into consideration.

Removed from injury in Florida State, he was one of the school's most successful quarterbacks, demonstrating mobility in the pocket and good decision-making skills to deliver a timely and accurate pass.

The 2011 season with the Vikings is difficult to judge for Ponder, as he performed at an average level for a rookie being thrown into a difficult situation. Continued injury concerns did not help his case, but he had flashes of success, even in losing efforts.

Last year provides the richest sample of plays to evaluate, but it was admittedly an up-and-down season for Ponder. If you combine the first six games of the season with the last two contests, the Vikings first-round draft pick could go toe-to-toe with any of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

But if you were to provide someone only video of the middle eight games of the season, it would be hard to justify such an investment in a quarterback intended to lead your franchise.

My recommendation to fans for the 2013 season is to be cautiously optimistic about the quarterback play of Ponder.

The Vikings still have the league's best running back in Adrian Peterson, a player that should make any quarterback better. In addition, the receiving corps in Minnesota has significantly improved with Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson joining the fold—not to mention progress from second-year player Jarius Wright.

When the Vikings take the field on Sept. 8 in the Motor City for their first regular-season game, expect Christian Ponder to be focused and well prepared to deliver a strong performance. There should be plenty of additional opportunities for such success as the season progresses.

But let's try not to overreact if Ponder stumbles a few times during the season as he approaches the finish line. 

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