MANKATO, Minn. — One year ago, Christian Ponder was a wide-eyed rookie trying to absorb as much as he could in his first training camp with the Minnesota Vikings.
Ponder, the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, wasn’t concerned about earning a starting spot. Minnesota had brought in veteran Donovan McNabb to give the rookie time to develop after an offseason cut short by the lockout hindered his ability to learn. The mistakes were plentiful for Ponder in his first NFL training camp.
Fast forward to this season, and Ponder is the Vikings’ unquestioned starting quarterback. Beyond that one certainty, though, there are many questions regarding the future of the franchise, who was thrust into a starting spot six games into his rookie season and was not fully prepared for what was ahead of him.
Ponder, even for all his remaining inconsistencies in this training camp, believes he’s ready to settle in as a starter after working this offseason with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, studying the playbook and watching a lot of film of his mistakes.
“Going through those OTAs and having time to meet with the coaches and being more comfortable with my teammates, knowing my teammates, being comfortable with my surroundings down here at training camp, I know what to expect,” Ponder said early in camp. “I just feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident.”
On the eve of the first preseason game, the mistakes still come for Ponder, such as Wednesday when the first-team offense struggled in 11-on-11 drills and Ponder threw two poor interceptions. This offense, in its second year under Musgrave, remains a work in progress — as does its starting quarterback.
“There’s some other things that we’ve just got to grow, but overall we’re further along than we were last year at this time,” Ponder said. “It’s a world of difference. It’s building blocks right now.”
How Ponder responds to days such as Wednesday might be the most important aspect of his development. His rookie season was defined by inconsistency.
In his first start, Ponder nearly helped Minnesota upset the Green Bay Packers. He threw two touchdowns but completed only 40.6 percent of his passes and had two interceptions. The following week, he was efficient and Minnesota won its first road game of the season. His season-high 381 passing yards and three touchdowns against Denver came with two interceptions. He had just 115 passing yards and three interceptions the following week at Detroit.
But Musgrave sees a difference in his quarterback this season, continued progress as Ponder becomes more confident and comfortable during his second year in the system.
“We think back to when he was here last year at this time or even when we were going through the season last year and we threw him in for the last 10 games with minimal preparation,” Musgrave said. “It’s night and day and it’s part of the process, which is a good thing, and we’ll keep working that process until we get to where we want to be. Every day is a step toward that goal.”
Ponder’s teammates have noticed his development. Running back Adrian Peterson said the difference is “just maturity. He’s definitely growing as a quarterback, (getting) smarter, he’s making better decisions.”
And the offense has seemed more in tune around Ponder — he’s not the only one who had to learn a new system last year without the benefit of OTAs or minicamp. Mistakes still happen, but the glimpses of a bright future are there as well — such as when Ponder connected with receiver Percy Harvin for a touchdown in Tuesday’s practice.
As he gains the coaches’ trust, Ponder is even able to talk with them about certain plays and to help make adjustments.
“The communication level is so much better than it was last year,” Ponder said of working with Musgrave. “I know what to ask for and everything. I think our relationship has got a lot stronger. He asks me, he openly asks me. (Quarterbacks coach Craig) Johnson asks me what I like, what I dislike, what I think. Like yesterday he asked me on a certain play if we want to change part of the route. I made a suggestion and it got changed. It’s been a good relationship, and we’re building and kind of bouncing ideas off each other and it’s been good.”
Ponder’s understanding of the system has allowed Musgrave to put more faith in what his quarterback sees on the field.
“Christian has a greater working knowledge of our system now than he did 12 months ago, hopefully more now than he did when we started in May getting on the field,” Musgrave said.
The coaches aren’t sure how much the first-team offense will play in Friday’s first preseason game at San Francisco. Ponder likely will get only a few series to show his progress. And Musgrave is even hoping Ponder will into a few tough spots to see his reaction and to prove he has developed since last season.
“We want to see him operate the offense and, when people are in his face, still be able to get rid of the ball when it’s not perfect and still be accurate,” Musgrave said. “He’s done a great job with our checks and audibles at the line of scrimmage, and we’re going to put him through some tough spots. We’re not just going to water it down to make it easy; we want to see if he can handle adverse situations, and that’s part of the growth process.”