(Eds: Updates with quotes from Ponder, Simpson, Rudolph. Adds background, details. With AP Photos.)By CHAD COURRIERAssociated Press
The scrutiny Christian Ponder endured last season could pale next to what he’ll encounter this year as Minnesota’s quarterback.
Ponder improved statistically from his rookie season, and the Vikings won seven more games to make the playoffs. But those developments didn’t quiet the questions about whether the former first-round draft pick fits the franchise’s plans.
”I have more confidence,” Ponder said. ”It comes with experience. Last year, we were a playoff team. That gave everybody confidence.”
The third year of Ponder’s career will determine whether he’s the answer or not. With Adrian Peterson coming off a 2,000-yard rushing season, an offensive line intact from the year before and upgraded group of receivers, Ponder should have more support than he did last season.
There is clearly plenty of pressure on him, particularly with Peterson in his prime at the one of the game’s most punishing positions and several defensive starters in the final year of their contracts. But Ponder brushed off the subject the way the Vikings want him to evade pass rushers this season.
”Well, you can say that about any quarterback in the league,” Ponder said. ”I think quarterback kind of dictates what the success of the team is going to be, and I’m not putting more pressure on myself. It’s already a high-pressure job. This year is no different than any other year. My approach is the same.”
Last season, Ponder improved his completion percentage from 54.3 to 62.1. He threw 18 touchdown passes and had 12 interceptions after totaling 13 of each as a rookie. His quarterback rating rose from 70.1 to 81.2.
But the Vikings still ranked next to last in the league with 171.9 yards passing per game while the offense was fueled by Peterson’s historic season. Hence the persistent skepticism about whether Ponder will be a long-term starter in the NFL.
”It’s tough to be in that position because there’s so much spotlight and pressure,” said tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has developed a close friendship with Ponder. ”It’s not fair to single him out. There’s a lot of moving parts with this team, and we all have to do our part for this offense and team to be successful.”
Ponder, who missed the playoff game because of an elbow injury, helped the Vikings finish the season with four straight wins.
Over the first four games and the last four, the Vikings went 7-1. Ponder completed 64.9 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and only one interception in that stretch. But in the middle eight games of the season, the Vikings were 3-5. Ponder’s completion percentage was 59.8 with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In two of those games, he failed to pass for more than 65 yards. In four of those games, he threw two interceptions.
This offseason, the Vikings upgraded the backup spot by signing Matt Cassel as insurance against Ponder’s struggles.
”I want to be the guy with the ball in my hand and a chance to win the game,” Ponder said, adding: ”The biggest thing is my decision-making. I want to play smart football.”
During training camp so far, Ponder has done little so far to quash concerns. On one play, he’ll zip a pass down the middle as a receiver breaks clear. On another, he’ll sail a short throw well over the targeted out route. Most of his passes in team drills still travel less than 10 yards downfield, as the Vikings experiment with their playbook.
Wide receiver Jerome Simpson said it’s not fair to place all of the burden on the quarterback. Simpson said Ponder seems more confident in his ability this summer.
”It’s not a one-man team,” Simpson said. ”We all have to pull our weight and help him out.”