EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Christian Ponder arrived at the Metrodome for the Minnesota Vikings’ game Sunday against the Detroit Lions in the kind of slump that would perplex even the most veteran quarterbacks.
Ponder, though, isn’t a veteran — far from it. He was making his 20th NFL start and likely was prepared for criticism from home fans if he got off to another sluggish start. Boos would predictably rain down. Calls for backup quarterback Joe Webb would be loud. The rumblings from the Vikings faithful had already begun during the previous week’s road loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Then, on the fifth offensive play against Detroit, Ponder escaped a bit of pressure in the pocket with awareness he hadn’t shown in several weeks. He stepped forward to buy time and lofted a deep pass for rookie receiver Jarius Wright. The outcome was a 54-yard catch, the longest of the season for Minnesota, but the result was far wider-reaching than one early play in a midseason game.
This was what Vikings fans had been waiting to see: the bomb, the big play from the franchise’s hope for a long-term answer at the most important position in all of sports. Ponder seemed invigorated, and Vikings fans finally were supportive.
“Some of the throws he made, this is what you want to see out of your quarterback,” coach Leslie Frazier said, adding Ponder had “conviction” in his throws Sunday. “It just raises everybody else’s confidence level. He took control of our offense, moved the ball around, got everybody involved and did a great job of leading us throughout the day. His pocket presence and the decisions that he made with the football, he did a great job all day decision-making wise. No turnovers. Just did a great job of leading us.”
Ponder never did hear those boos. Completing 24 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns got fans back on his side and made him look more like the developing second-year starter he appeared to be earlier this season than the hesitant, mistake-prone sophomore jinx who showed up in October.
In truth, even if Ponder had struggled again – and even if he backslides later this season – putting him on the bench is the wrong move. Despite all the early success this season from both Ponder and the Vikings, it’s important to remember that evaluating their quarterback – not making the playoffs, even though that seems a surprise possibility with the Vikings at 6-4 – has always been at the top of the 2012 must-do list. The Vikings need to ascertain whether their chosen one, selected 12th overall in last year’s draft, can be the franchise quarterback Minnesota has been searching for since Daunte Culpepper’s claim to that title flamed out because of injuries in 2005.
Minnesota’s braintrust seems to understand this. No doubt, the Vikings would like to win and make the postseason. But coach Leslie Frazier knows Ponder’s growth is of utmost importance this year, and general manager Rick Spielman surely wants to see if he has the quarterback position locked down for years – and playoff berths – to come.
Frazier could have replaced Ponder last week at Seattle when he completed only 11 of 22 passes for 63 yards. Webb has shown the ability to energize the Vikings in a reserve role, and his insertion against the Seahawks may have caught them by surprise and led to a win. But a comeback victory with a backup quarterback would only have increased the chatter to make that backup the starter, and creating more doubt surrounding Ponder won’t get the Vikings the answers they need.
Pulling him, even for one game, would lead to questions in the offseason of whether he was given a full chance, and then more time would be needed to evaluate him in 2013. Why not get all the answers on Ponder now, when no one was expecting a playoff run in the first place?
Ponder has had his struggles in 2012, but he also has demonstrated some of the characteristics the Vikings believe will allow him to develop into a strong starting quarterback and franchise leader. In the season’s first four weeks, Ponder wasn’t spectacular, but he was efficient. He was the last starting quarterback in the NFL to throw an interception. His completion percentage and quarterback rating ranked among the
He led a comeback in the final minute for an overtime win in Week 1. In beating the San Francisco 49ers two weeks later, he threw two touchdown passes and avoided mistakes against a defense that has made quarterbacks look bad all season. Through 10 games, he has an 85.2 quarterback rating (21s in the NFL) and has completed 65.2 percent of his passes (ninth) for 2,027 yards (20th), 12 touchdowns (tied for 16th) and eight interceptions (tied for 16th).
As the turnovers and sacks piled up after those first four games, Ponder appeared to lose confidence while losing three of four games and twice passing for fewer than 100 yards, an obscenely low total in what is considered a passing league. But these are the types of situations he has to learn from and pull himself out of, and he proved he could do that Sunday when he got the Vikings a much-needed win before the bye week.
A few more games like that and the Vikings will have all the answers they need on Ponder, and he won’t ever have to think about being booed – or benched – at home again.