Ponder confident heading into make-or-break season
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP)
Christian Ponder stepped to the podium for his first press conference of the 2013 regular season and, truth be told, kind of started to ramble.
''This is awesome. I know the whole team is excited, the whole organization is excited for this week,'' he said before catching himself with a chuckle. ''I sound like Tim Tebow. I'm excited!''
Side-stepping blitzes from reporters and calmly deflecting scrutiny with some well-timed self-awareness has never been a problem for Ponder. It's on the field where his job as Minnesota Vikings quarterback has at times appeared to overwhelm him. And that's why his second full season as a starter could be considered make or break.
The Vikings are relying on Ponder to make big strides in 2013, from an inconsistent and mistake-prone youngster to a reliable and cocksure veteran worthy of sharing the same backfield with MVP running back Adrian Peterson. General manager Rick Spielman has said often that the Vikings expected there to be some tough times early in Ponder's development and that Year 3 was always going to be the season where it all came together.
Ponder begins Year 3 on Sunday in Detroit. After an inconclusive preseason, the time for talk is nearly over. Now it's up to him to prove the support from Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier is justified.
The Vikings added veteran Greg Jennings and rookie first-rounder Cordarrelle Patterson in the offseason to bolster a nondescript receiving corps. Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph is back as well as the entire offensive line and, of course, Peterson, who is coming off a remarkable season in which he finished nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.
There appear to be no more excuses for Ponder, and he is offering none.
''I'm just fully confident in what I'm doing,'' Ponder said. ''With the pieces that we brought in around me this year, it's going to make my job easier. ... I just expect to be overall a better quarterback.''
That's what the Vikings need. Peterson dragged the offense on his broad shoulders for most of last season, turning Minnesota into a throwback-style philosophy that relied almost exclusively on the run for big plays. It was enough to get the Vikings to a surprising 10-6 and into the playoffs, where they lost to Green Bay in the wild card round.
''With another year under his belt, I think he's definitely gotten, I wouldn't say smarter as a quarterback, but his decision making is definitely getting better and he's growing as a player just like the rest of us are trying to grow as a player,'' receiver Jarius Wright said.
Anxious fans watched each snap he took in the preseason hoping to see an indicator that Ponder was ready to make a leap. In an uneven preseason that included almost no time with Peterson behind him, that didn't happen. He completed 62 percent of his passes for 184 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Ponder averaged only 5.0 yards per pass attempt and never really looked fully comfortable with his new-look receiving corps.
Frazier insists he's seen Ponder make big strides in practice that warrant his optimism.
''The command in the huddle, that shows up,'' Frazier said. ''His leadership has improved, which is important going into his third season leading our offense. Also just the decision making.''
With Peterson back there to take the bulk of the defense's focus, Frazier said, there should be plenty of opportunities for Ponder and the passing game. But he was also quick to point out that the identity of the team is clear. It's Peterson's offense, and the Vikings aren't asking Ponder to be Tom Brady. If fans were thinking offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was holding things back in the preseason and is ready to unleash some high-flying plays in Detroit on Sunday, they should think again.
''We were vanilla in some respects. But the way we're set up, we're not going to be very exotic in the passing game,'' Frazier said. ''We put a heavy emphasis on what we do in the run game.''
If Ponder should falter or get injured, the Vikings can turn to a more experienced and capable backup in Matt Cassel. That would seem to ramp up the urgency surrounding Ponder as he heads into the season, but he doesn't see it that way.
''For me, if anything it takes less pressure,'' he said. ''I know those guys are going to make plays. It's my job just to get the ball to them and let them do their thing.''
Notes: Vikings DT Kevin Williams (knee) did not practice on Wednesday. Frazier said the team would evaluate him through the week and hopes to make a decision on his availability against the Lions by Friday. ... The Vikings released RB Joe Banyard from the practice squad and signed RB Bradley Randle.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org