Pelissero: Don't overlook signs Christian Ponder will 'get it' in time
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The ball sailed several feet over the heads of every player in the end zone. It met the crossbar with a resounding clunk. The quarterback dropped his head and shuffled slowly back to the huddle.
It was Tuesday afternoon, two days before the first preseason start of Christian Ponder's young NFL career, but it could have been just about any day since the Minnesota Vikings opened training camp.
For as smart and talented and relatively unflappable as Ponder is, he has looked every bit like a rookie in his first month in the NFL -- head spinning, feet flat, a handful of passes each day landing in places that leave observers nonplussed.
"Sometimes, it's being late, so I'm reacting to something and the ball sails," Ponder said shortly after that Tuesday practice. "I'm trying to speed up my mechanics, and when you're not mechanically sound, that's not a good thing. That's what I'm working through right now. It's an adjustment."
It's hard to fathom that five weeks ago, before the Vikings patched in veteran Donovan McNabb on a one-year contract, it appeared Ponder would enter training camp in a competition with second-year pro Joe Webb and perhaps some aging journeyman.
The prevailing thought was the No. 12 overall draft pick had a chance to earn the starting job, too, with his cerebral rep and experience in a system at Florida State that was similar to the offense new coordinator Bill Musgrave planned to install in Minnesota.
"I don't think we knew what to expect, because there's been no normalcy to this camp at all," Musgrave said. "He was pretty wide-eyed at first -- understandably, because you're trying to learn not only a new system, but learn about how NFL defenses react and attack a young quarterback. So, he's had a bunch on his plate and he's made progress."
The extent of that progress has been slow to show on the field, particularly when Ponder is in the pocket.
Sure, he got Musgrave's playbook when the NFL lockout was lifted briefly in April. But all the study and throwing sessions in Florida couldn't prepare him for how quickly things develop with 21 other NFL players on the field.
"That's kind of the learning thing I'm going through right now, is I'm thinking about everything," Ponder said. "And that's not good, when you're on the football field. You're always going to be one step behind."
Ponder has the physical tools to succeed in the NFL, not to mention the demeanor. Questions about his arm strength appear unfounded.
Look no further than the 22-yard dart he fired on the run to fellow rookie Stephen Burton while running an encouraging 2-minute drill in last week's exhibition against Dallas.
"As we've seen, he's a tremendous athlete," Musgrave said. "He can move around out there, create space and be a real threat when he pulls the ball down to run."
Ponder isn't Webb, whose knack for making something out nothing might end up giving him an upset win in the competition for the No. 2 job behind McNabb.
But get Ponder to the perimeter -- by design or necessity -- or get him in a hurry-up situation, and there are signs of the quarterback he has a chance to become once he's had more than a couple dozen practices to develop.
"Exactly," Ponder said. "That's a process I need to get to, is just all the thinking is done before a game, before a play, and it's just reacting. That's the game of football."
He'll start Thursday's preseason finale against Houston and probably play the first half. Barring an injury to McNabb, it could be the last extended game action Ponder sees until next August, when he'll have a season's worth of practice reps under his belt in addition to the OTAs and minicamps the lockouts wiped out this past spring.
"We just want to continue to see him improve," coach Leslie Frazier said, "get him some quality snaps and watch him continue to improve and get comfortable being an NFL quarterback."
When the Vikings traded for McNabb on July 27, Ponder welcomed McNabb via Twitter but cautioned the acquisition "doesn't mean I'm not still fighting to start week 1!"
In hindsight, Ponder said this week, "it's definitely for the better" the Vikings brought in McNabb -- and relieved their quarterback of the future from the pressure of becoming the quarterback of the present, before even Ponder believes he's truly ready.
"But that's the life of being a rookie quarterback," Ponder said. "I'm working through it. I'll get it."