MANKATO, Minn. — Christian Ponder can look around the Minnesota Vikings locker room and see several faces of proud veteran players who’ve come close or reached the pinnacle of the NFL because they’ve played with great quarterbacks.
Brett Favre. Aaron Rodgers. Ponder has almost become linked to the two standouts simply because of his association with Minnesota and the older teammates that inhabit the Vikings’ locker room. In essence, minus a six-game run by Donovan McNabb at the start of the 2011 season, Ponder has been Favre’s replacement.
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Some of the veterans that now rely on Ponder once put their complete trust in Favre. He brought the likes of Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway as close to the Super Bowl as they’ve been in that fateful 2010 NFC Championship game. Even Ponder’s newest teammates, such as receiver Greg Jennings, bring a new comparison. Many want to know what Jennings see in Ponder after his years catching passes from Rodgers.
Ponder doesn’t mind hearing, from teammates at least, about Favre or Rodgers. There’s no sense of insecurity or weariness about having his name and game compared and contrasted with two of the biggest stars at his position in recent history.
“It’s not tiresome,” Ponder said. “They played with great quarterbacks and they understand what it takes to be a good quarterback. They understand success and I want to get to that point. I understand what I can do well and what others can do well, compared to myself. But I do want to be the best at what I can do and what I bring to the table. I’m finding that out as we go.”
Those comparisons have certainly taken on new life with Jennings’ arrival. Jennings thrived with Rodgers, becoming one of the league’s best receivers and winning a Super Bowl in the process. Jennings’ role as mentor on the Vikings’ is as much for Ponder as the young receivers.
“One of the big things he talked about is anticipating throws,” Ponder said of his communication with Jennings. “That’s something that Aaron does really well; just trusting myself and trusting receivers that they’re going to be where they’re supposed to be. And that’s one of those things, the whole trust factor kind of encompasses a big, especially the quarterback position, it’s a big aspect of the game. We need to keep building that trust and we’re going to keep doing that as we build this chemistry and we get more comfortable in this offense and with the guys that we have.”
Jennings is still building the trust with Ponder, though he has said he sees the potential in his new quarterback. Most of the Vikings have gone through Ponder’s growing pains and have started to trust as well.
Ponder’s NFL career has been, at best, inconsistent and void of some of many of the big moments Favre and Rodgers shared with their teammates. Even last year, with Minnesota playing in the playoffs, Ponder couldn’t be on the field because of a triceps contusion.
He missed his chance for a signature postseason snapshot like Favre and Rodgers. But Ponder did have his moments last year that has Minnesota believing in him entering his third NFL season.
Coming off perhaps his worst game as a pro and with his season spiraling downward, Ponder recovered to play his best as Minnesota won the final four games of the regular season to earn a playoff berth.
“It was so encouraging, just to see in a moment where our team could have gone either way at that 6-6 juncture, for him to step up and really begin to make some crucial plays and really take more of a rein from a leadership standpoint,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “It really kind of gave me more confidence about the future with him.
“It was just good to see. We needed him to play well at that point in the season. And you always need that from your quarterback at that point of the season, that month of December. He played at a very, very high level at a crucial time. So it was really encouraging for all of us.”
Those games, such as the regular-season finale when he had a career-best 120.2 quarterback rating with three touchdown passes, proved to his team he’s capable of leading the team on another, hopeful, playoff run. The final game of the regular season also resonated with Ponder.
“As a young team, I think we showed a lot of maturity,” Ponder said of the win over Green Bay. “For myself, finding that right balance of making plays downfield and checking the ball down, not trying to force things that aren’t there; I was learning from those mistakes I had throughout the midseason and that’s something I’ve got to keep carrying on through this season.”
Frazier and many of Ponder’s teammates have said he is more confident. Meanwhile, he says more confidence is a by-product of having more experience. He’s focused on two areas for improvement: decision-making and accuracy.
Ponder faces scrutiny from outside of the organization. His teammates know what they need from the quarterback position because of their experience with Favre and Rodgers. Ponder is OK with the attention he gets as the quarterback. He embraces it.
“That’s why I play the position,” Ponder said. “I want to be the guy that has the ball in his hands when it’s time to win the game.”