EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Christian Ponder is more confident. He’s more comfortable in the Minnesota Vikings’ system. The second-year starting quarterback has grown since last season.
For months, Ponder and the Vikings have uttered those words and talked often about his progress this season after last year’s tough rookie year. They’ve talked about his leadership and how much he benefited from the offseason program this year.
Now, after a string of turnovers and misfired passes, Ponder will need to show how much he’s changed from the inexperienced, mistake-prone player he was last season.
Ponder, a first-round pick who quickly was anointed Minnesota’s franchise quarterback, also started his rookie year with a few impressive performances. But as the season continued and Ponder went through the expected growing pains, the hole he dug himself grew immensely deeper.
This season, he says, is different. Ponder claims his confidence doesn’t waver and that he’s better prepared to handle the ebbs and flows of a season – the latest ebb coming Sunday when he threw two more interceptions and finished just 8-of-17 for 58 yards passing.
“You obviously don’t want to get worse,” Ponder said. “Our object is to progress every week, and I know I need to make a big progression from Sunday to Thursday, and that’s what we try to do every week. That’s something I definitely need to do this week.”
Ponder demonstrated his improvement early this season as the Vikings, now 5-2, underwent a startling turnaround after a 3-13 mark in 2011. In the past four games, though — admittedly with Minnesota winning three of them — Ponder has started to regress in the same way he did as a rookie.
Against the Detroit Lions in Week 4, he didn’t commit any turnovers but was 16-of-26 for just 111 yards as the Vikings won with two special teams returns for touchdowns and another strong defensive effort.
Since then, he’s thrown two interceptions in each of the past three games and also lost a fumble.
Last season, Ponder got his first start at home and almost led Minnesota to an upset of the Green Bay Packers. The next week, he was 18-of-28 for 236 yards and a touchdown in a road win at Carolina.
He largely struggled the rest of the way, throwing 10 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions and dealing with a hip injury and a concussion while the team lost seven of its last eight games. The one win was a comeback engineered by backup Joe Webb against Washington after Ponder left with the concussion.
In that span, Ponder threw for more than 200 yards just twice, had only one game in which he had more touchdown passes than turnovers and didn’t finish three of the games either due to injury or poor play. His best effort, a 381-yard, three-touchdown outing against the Denver Broncos was undone by three turnovers.
This season, coaches aren’t worried Ponder will go through a similar slide.
“He’s so different than a year ago when it comes to negative plays,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “I’ve seen it, and we’ve all seen it, over these first seven games where he’s had some bad plays and he’s bounced back. … He’s done a good job. (Sunday) was a tough day against a very, very good defense, but he’s not the same Christian Ponder that he was a year ago. I’m convinced of it, and I’ve seen enough evidence of it in practice and even in games, where he’s bounced back from some tough plays and his teammates have seen it as well.”
This week’s short turnaround in anticipation of Thursday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has helped Ponder turn the page quickly from Sunday’s rough game. He said he watched the film but “buzzed” through it quickly in order to turn his attention to Tampa Bay.
Ponder blamed poor footwork for a three-turnover game against Washington two weeks ago. This week, he said one of the biggest lessons was moving on quickly from Sunday’s game, a forced circumstance due to the Thursday matchup.
“I don’t know if there really was a certain learning lesson,” Ponder said of Sunday. “But I think, kind of, this whole week in general is learning to put that behind us and move on to the next game. … I’ve just got to play better. We played against a good defense, and that’s something I’ve already moved on from. Learn from it, and now we’re going to use that to get better for Tampa.”
Ponder’s continued development must come quickly to give Minnesota the balance it will need offensively as the schedule toughens later this season. In the meantime, learning from and moving past mistakes are just more indications of growth.
“Those are signs that he’s maturing as a quarterback,” Frazier said. “He’s able to put bad plays behind him, and that’s what you have to be able to do at that position. It’s important to our team. It’s important to him. So I’m confident that he’ll continue to get better as time goes on.”