EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Christian Ponder was the last starting quarterback in the NFL this season to throw an interception, part of the growth he’s shown in his short career as the Minnesota Vikings’ cornerstone.
Ponder has spoken repeatedly since the offseason of the development he’s made in his second year in the league and second year in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s system. He’s more comfortable, more confident and understands what’s being asked of him.
Yet, perhaps the most important aspect of his maturation has been the ability to stay confident when facing adversity, something he and coach Leslie Frazier admit wasn’t always the case last season. Ponder has thrown four interceptions and lost a fumble in the past two weeks, including three turnovers in Sunday’s 38-26 loss to the Washington Redskins.
There he was Wednesday, though, facing the media as confident as ever. Now with a season’s worth of starts under his belt, Ponder doesn’t go through the same ebbs and flows in confidence he might have last year when he had 15 turnovers in his 11 games.
“I think I got through that all last year,” Ponder said of maintaining his confidence after poor performances. “Week to week last year, it probably fluctuated. That’s out of my system. Now that it’s my second year, I’m completely confident in what I’m doing.”
Being pressed into action last season earlier than expected has started to pay dividends for Ponder. Last year, he was able to show some of the ability that led Minnesota to draft him with the No. 12 overall pick. But he experienced extreme highs and lows during a season in which he completed only 54.3 percent of his passes, threw as many interceptions as touchdown passes (13) and lost two fumbles while also dealing with a concussion and hip injury in 11 games and 10 starts.
The Vikings put their trust in Ponder, committing to him as the starter for 2012. He embraced the role as leader and worked diligently in the offseason with Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson and looked every bit the hope for a long-term answer at the position while leading Minnesota to a 4-1 record before the Redskins loss. Ponder ranks ninth in the league with a 92.4 quarterback rating. He’s thrown eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
“Just my whole comfort level, my whole confidence level, it’s just different,” Ponder said. “I really feel like this is my team and I’m a part of this team. … A year makes a big difference for sure.”
Against Washington, the 16th start of his career, Ponder completed 35 of a career-high 52 passes for 352 yards in a comeback attempt. He threw two TDs but also had a fumble that led directly to a touchdown and an interception returned for a six points. His final interception was in the end zone with 31 seconds left as the Vikings tried to rally.
“Even though things weren’t perfect for us on Sunday, by no means, to see him bounce back and help us get back in that ballgame in the fourth quarter, that’s what you like to see in your quarterback … just the resiliency that’s necessary to lead your team back, and I saw that in him,” Frazier said.
“He never got down on himself. Never took himself out of the game mentally, and that’s a sign of his maturation as a player. You see it in his command of our offense. But at the same time, we know that this is his second year in our offense, second year in the National Football League, and there are going to be some bumps in the road. That’s part of the process. But he’s come so far in a short time, and he’ll only get better.”
Instead of needing to take major mental steps, Ponder is now focused on fine-tuning aspects that will make him a more complete player. Ponder, who is second in the league with a 68.6 percent completion rate, misfired on several throws against the Redskins, a problem he equates to poor footwork.
He claims the interceptions the past two weeks were more of an issue of poor throws than bad decisions. In the Washington loss, Ponder jumped in the air immediately after letting go of a pass intended for receiver Michael Jenkins, knowing he had overthrown an open receiver on the interception that was returned for a touchdown.
“It’s not really decision-making,” Ponder said. “I’m not making bad decisions. It’s something that’s easily correctable. I think a lot of it has to do with my footwork and something I’ll work on this week.”
Following that missed pass to Jenkins, which put Washington ahead 31-12 early in the fourth quarter, Ponder connected on 20 of his final 28 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns and the last-minute interception. He said he embraces the chance to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line.
Frazier felt the workload Sunday against the Redskins as another step in Ponder’s development despite conditions neither hoped would arise.
“We always talk about there’s going to be some games where you have to be able to win different ways, and Sunday was one of those where we needed to score and score fast,” Frazier said. “He showed he can help us to get that done when the game falls back almost entirely on him. So, that’s encouraging.”