EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Christian Ponder dropped back on one 11-on-11 play during the Minnesota Vikings’ organized team activities on Wednesday and lofted the ball deep down the field for a receiver.
The long toss was the exact type of pass Ponder didn’t try often last year. The second-year quarterback admits he didn’t do well throwing the deep ball last year. Ponder didn’t have this type of receiver to throw to, either.
On the receiving end Wednesday was Jerome Simpson, signed in the offseason from the Cincinnati Bengals to supply a deep threat for a team that had none in 2011. The 6-foot-2 Simpson’s long strides allow him to get down the field in a hurry. Ponder said in April that he can’t overthrow Simpson, and on Wednesday, the wideout showed he’s more than just a runner.
Simpson leaped, adjusted in the air and used both hands to snatch the ball over 6-2 cornerback Chris Cook, who was step-for-step with Simpson. Ponder took notice.
“It was crazy,” Ponder said. “He plucked it right off the guy’s head. That shows me that I can trust him. I can throw it downfield and he’s going to go make a play.”
It’s no coincidence that Ponder found Simpson quite a few more times during Wednesday’s OTAs. With Percy Harvin still working to return from April shoulder surgery, Simpson is quickly becoming Ponder’s go-to receiver in practice.
Ponder and Simpson have only five OTA practices together, but the connection between the two is growing.
“He finds ways to get open and he’s so fast and runs great routes,” Ponder said. “I think he’s really starting to understand what he’s doing, and we’re definitely building chemistry. He’s definitely a guy I look for downfield, and he looks good.”
Simpson, 26, is coming off a career-best season in 2011, catching 50 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns in 14 starts for Cincinnati. But an indictment for marijuana trafficking had teams keeping their distance from the Bengals’ 2008 second-round pick in free agency. Simpson had received a shipment of about two pounds of marijuana at his home in Kentucky. A plea agreement reduced his charges to a prohibited act relating to controlled substances, and he spent 15 days in jail.
The Vikings signed Simpson to a one-year, make-good deal in April, and he has worked to gain the trust of his new coaches and teammates. He’s been present for the voluntary workouts and OTAs and has seems remorseful about the legal troubles and genuinely happy to be on the field again. More plays like he made Wednesday will only add to Ponder’s trust in his new target.
“Christian just threw a great ball, and I just did what I supposed to do and catch it,” Simpson said. “It feels good just to be on the same page with him and catching his balls. It’s just making plays, man. It just feels good to just be out here and running around making plays.”
Simpson is no stranger to highlights on the field. He had one of the lasting images from the 2011 season when he flipped head-over-feet over a defender to score a touchdown. Teammates cheered Wednesday after he made the circus catch over Cook. Receiver Michael Jenkins greeted Simpson after he came down with the ball one-handed and Ponder was quick to congratulate the receiver on his catch.
Even mild-mannered coach Leslie Frazier could hardly contain his enthusiasm.
“Anybody that witnessed that play, you’re going to get jacked up,” Frazier said. “That was an incredible play and one of the reasons we get excited about him. We’re hoping to see that on Sunday afternoons, plays like that. That will really help our team, help our quarterback’s confidence, and we need that.”
There is a long way to go before catches like that will matter, but Ponder already seems to have confidence in Simpson.
“I just put some air under the ball and let him go get it,” Ponder said.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, the connection between Ponder and Simpson will be put on hold at the end of the preseason. Simpson is suspended for the first three games of 2012 because of his legal trouble. He is able to participate in everything leading up to the season opener on Sept. 9, but will need to stay away from the team while serving his suspension.
“It’s kind of frustrating,” Simpson said of missing the first three games. “Yeah it is, because I won’t be out there with my guys playing the game I love, but it’s the technicality of my situation.”
So Simpson and his quarterback are working to make the most of their time together now, one long pass at a time.