EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Christian Ponder has had 23 starts to prove he is the Minnesota Vikings’ long-sought long-term answer as the franchise quarterback, during which he’s suffered the usual inconsistencies of a young player.
Ponder, drafted 12th overall last year to end the yearly questions about who will be Minnesota’s starter, has had highlights in which he’s shown he’s capable of ending the revolving door. He’s also had lowlights that have led to legitimate questions about his viability as a solution. This season has provided both. Now, with the Vikings still clinging to playoff hopes, the final three games this season could be as telling as any of the previous 23.
“He’s made some improvements, there’s no question about it,” coach Leslie Frazier said Wednesday. “And when you look at early in the season with some of the things he accomplished, he hit a bump in the road along the way, and now it’s a matter of just getting through some of those moments that most quarterbacks who are young go through.
“He’s got to continue to improve. You have a situation now that sometimes is unique for a second-year quarterback. You’re in the middle of a playoff race in December, so this will be, in a lot of ways, a defining moment for where he is in his development as a quarterback. I think he’s made progress. There’s still more progress to be made.”
Ponder is in a near two-month downward spiral from the efficient quarterback who led Minnesota to a 4-1 record and was among the league leaders in quarterback rating and completion percentage. Just as important, Ponder wasn’t committing turnovers back then. He was the final starting quarterback to throw an interception, going nearly four and half games before throwing his first.
Lately, his mistakes have been compounded by what seems like a lack of confidence and decisiveness. The Vikings are now last in the league in passing as a team, and Ponder has slipped to 27th in the NFL with a 78.3 quarterback rating. He ranks 13th with a 62.6 percent completion rate and has thrown only 14 touchdown passes with his12 interceptions. With running back Adrian Peterson working toward a potential 2,000-yard season, Ponder has, understandably, become secondary to Peterson. In the past seven games, Peterson has run for more yards (1,101) than Ponder has thrown for (962).
Minnesota is playing to its strengths with Peterson, but is it also trying to marginalize the effect Ponder has on games?
“When you’ve got the running back in the National Football League in your backfield, I just don’t know if you want to revolve around the passing game,” Frazier said, pointing out Ponder’s effectiveness Sunday on third downs (5 of 6, four first downs). “Having to drop back and throw it 30 times doesn’t necessarily have to be a part of your development. There are a lot of things that go into developing at that quarterback position. It just so happens that he’s in a situation where he’s playing with the best in the business at a position. And one day Adrian is going to retire, 10 years from now, and maybe Christian won’t have that same luxury and more will be on his shoulders, but in the time being, it’s going to revolve around 28.”
Ponder has benefited from Peterson’s presence, with defenses loaded up to stop the star running back and secondaries less worried about Ponder. Yet, he’s still thrown for fewer than 100 yards in three games this season and averages 5.98 yards per attempt, tied for the second-lowest total of any quarterback with at least 200 pass attempts this season.
Sunday, with Peterson rushing for 154 yards, including 104 in the first quarter, Ponder needed to pass only 17 times and completed 11 of them. But he doesn’t feel the lack of opportunity is hindering his development. In fact, if it means the Vikings are winning, he doesn’t mind the “game manager” tag.
“Every quarterback who ever played was a manager of the game,” Ponder said. “Obviously, there’s guys who create more plays than others, but to an extent a quarterback is always going to be managing the game. That’s fine. I don’t care. If we’re winning games and we’re making a run for the playoffs and we’re playing meaningful football in December, I’ll manage the game all I want. I don’t care.”
The next three games will be pivotal, not only for Minnesota but for Ponder. He knows this stretch is his chance to stake claim to the starting quarterback position for the long term.
The Vikings and Frazier have been patient with their choice as franchise quarterback. He’s had 23 starts to prove his worth and will get at least three more, conceivably. Despite the outward appearances, Frazier said his staff has been demanding with Ponder and his development.
“You guys aren’t privy to some of those meetings and what we get done, but we make it clear what has to happen at the quarterback position for us to be successful as a team,” Frazier said. “So, he’s well aware. We think we’re demanding to get the most and the best out of him, like we are with all of our players. It’s just not as overt sometimes, but he knows what’s expected of him at that position.”