EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Four turnovers have placed the crosshairs directly on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder after Sunday’s 34-24 season-opening loss at Detroit.
Those sights aren’t from coach Leslie Frazier.
Frazier reinforced Ponder is the team’s starting quarterback, telling the Chicago media Ponder’s job is “not in jeopardy” during a conference call Wednesday. In Minnesota, Frazier told reporters he’s seen moments that show Ponder, in his third year, can be an effective starter in the NFL, particularly late last season when the Vikings won four straight games to advance to the playoffs.
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“We’ve seen him do it on repeated occasions and the consistent play is what we’re looking for,” Frazier said. “And we’ll need to have a good week this week. You don’t want to say that you can’t get this turned and going in the right direction after one week. I just don’t think that would be wise.”
Fans, analysts and armchair quarterbacks have lobbed plenty of criticism on Ponder following his performance Sunday in which he went 18-of-28, passing for 236 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He also was charged with a fourth turnover after a botched handoff with running back Adrian Peterson.
But confidence in Ponder, at least publicly, has not waned from Frazier or the rest of the team. In the Vikings’ eyes, blame for Sunday’s loss is shared.
“He doesn’t bear the whole load,” receiver Greg Jennings said. “Just like Adrian doesn’t bear the whole load, we’re a team of 53. We bear the load — not one man, not one person, not one individual. If that was the case, we would throw Adrian out there on the field and we would all watch him. We would throw Christian out there by himself and we would just watch. But that’s not the case, so it’s not fair for one person to get solely all the stones thrown at him when there was mistakes made by 11 guys that was out there on the field at some point throughout the game.”
The legitimacy of Ponder as the team’s long-term starter is one of the hot-button issues for Minnesota. Since being taken with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Ponder’s career has been filled with moments of hope and concern. Frazier points to the final week of the 2012 season against Green Bay when Ponder shined his brightest in perhaps his biggest game.
In a must-win game, Ponder was 16 of 28, passing for 234 yards and three touchdowns, and most importantly, no turnovers. But each instance of potential has been met with equally baffling moments.
Ponder tied a career high with three interceptions on Sunday. A quick pass to receiver Jerome Simpson went high and deflected off Simpson’s hands to linebacker DeAndre Levy. On the second interception, Ponder drifted to his left and tried to throw the ball out of bounds, but had his arm hit as he threw and the ball sailed high falling for an easy interception.
His missed handoff with Peterson occurred as he was tripped up by right guard Brandon Fusco after the snap. The third interception was a simple overthrow of tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Ponder said he doesn’t dwell on the bad moments, even when he has made similar mistakes in the past.
“I don’t think about it,” Ponder said. “It’s frustrating for a couple seconds after it happens and then you move on. That’s the necessity of playing the position and you forget about it. You get back out there and play like it didn’t happen.”
Ponder’s teammates tell him the same thing and still believe in him.
“It’s always frustrating, but you’ve just got to forget about it and move on to next week, the Chicago game,” receiver Jerome Simpson said. “And I believe in the guy, and he’s going to come back even stronger and more confident this next week.”
Ponder ranks 30th in the league in quarterback rating after one week. His 63.1 rating is better than only Cleveland’s second-year starter Brandon Weeden and Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert, who was taken two spots ahead of Ponder in the 2011 draft and is also in a prove-it third year after two down seasons.
Just like every week, Ponder came in Monday to look at the tape of the Detroit game and start the weekly process anew. He re-lives the game and feels the frustration all over again. Then he tries to learn from those moments.
“Sunday night, you get that bad feeling,” Ponder said. “Monday morning as you head into the film room you get that bad feeling and as you watch the game, you’re like, ‘Ah, man, that was something that was just dumb that could have easily just not happened.’ And as you watch it, it’s a bad taste in your mouth. But at the same time it gives you confidence because, ‘Hey, these things are easily correctable.’ After we watch that film Monday, right after that we watch Chicago tape, so that mindset transitions pretty quickly that it’s time to move on and you get excited that you’re going to be on the field again Wednesday to practice and forget about those things.”
Jennings said he talked to Ponder this week and stressed that the team’s success isn’t solely on him. Jennings said he knows the negative attention will come, so he focuses on the positive with his new quarterback and tries to build him up.
The criticism which comes from playing the quarterback position is tough to handle, but Jennings wants to make sure Ponder knows the weight isn’t his to shoulder alone.
“He can’t win the game for us. He can’t just lose the game for us, trust me. And that’s the tough role that he has,” Jennings said. “It’s not just Christian, it’s not just Greg, it’s not just Adrian, it’s not just the defense. It’s just as a team. We have to correct it. We have to take ownership and accountability in that.”
On Sunday, the Vikings started quickly with Peterson’s 78-yard touchdown run on the first offensive play from scrimmage. But Peterson had 15 yards on his final 17 carries with the offensive line struggling to open holes. Ponder himself didn’t have much time in the pocket to find receivers.
Frazier said Ponder returned to practice Wednesday focused and committed to improving. No mistaking, he has the support of his coach and teammates.
“As much as our quarterback can help us to win, for us on Sunday it was not all about Christian,” Frazier said. “He had some mistakes. The fact is that the quarterback position is much more magnified, but we had some other guys, if you study our tape, they didn’t play well either and it affected whether or not we could win that ballgame. It wasn’t just Christian. It just so happens that he plays the position that’s under the most scrutiny.
“We had other guys, trust me, that when we watched the tape, the scrutiny that needed to be had in those moments, they are well aware they have to play better. And they’re not looking only at our quarterback and saying, ‘If he had done this or that, we would have won that ballgame.’ We need to play better across the board.”