Pelissero: 'Sixth sense' of Christian Ponder will help him stay alive
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Six weeks ago, a preseason survey of NFL scouts in this space turned up two recurring predictions:
The former looks like a better bet than ever after last weekend's dismantling in Chicago dropped the Vikings to 1-5, two games behind the third-place Bears entering Sunday's home game against the unbeaten Green Bay Packers.
The latter is coming true in part because of veteran Donovan McNabb's precipitous decline. But it's worth remembering the high opinion scouts had of Ponder after watching the No. 12 overall draft pick in the preseason.
"He's as good as all the guys I've seen," an NFC personnel man said, referring to the rest of the rookie quarterback class. "Hopefully, he's gotten it well enough where he can sit for a while."
A while ended up being less than six weeks.
Ponder made his NFL debut in the fourth quarter against the Bears and put on display the same skills that were evident even as he misfired plenty of passes in training camp and exhibition games.
"I was very impressed with the quarterback, Ponder," an AFC executive said. "We knew from the workouts and all that stuff that he was athletic, but he's very athletic."
That's precisely why the Vikings are comfortable letting Ponder make his first start against the best team in the NFL on Sunday.
It would be one thing if he were strictly a pocket passer who needs to time to pace through his reads and set his feet to deliver the ball.
But Ponder has what offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has accurately dubbed "the sixth sense" for feeling pressure, extending the play with his feet and keeping his eyes down the field.
"Those guys are born with that," Musgrave said on Thursday. "John Elway had that. Steve Young had that. It's just something that keeps those guys alive on the field and extend the down and ad lib somewhat."
Ponder's deceptive speed is an asset, too, particularly given the Vikings' heavy reliance on naked bootlegs that can open the perimeter if the defense doesn't contain.
Against Chicago, Ponder was blitzed seven times and pressured on nine of 20 designed pass plays. But he didn't take a sack, scrambled twice and finished 9-of-17 (52.9%) for 99 yards, including a "hot" completion to Visanthe Shiancoe on fourth-and-10.
"That's hard to coach," Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson said. "That's a feeling that you kind of know your time is running out in the pocket and it's time to move on. He's been very gifted as an athlete. He's done that through his college career."
There are similarities to the offense Ponder directed at Florida State and the one Musgrave installed with the Vikings. The checks, reads and terminology are more complicated here, though, and the way Ponder's throws kept sailing high and behind receivers in camp made it obvious he wasn't yet up to speed.
It wasn't too different on Sunday, as six of Ponder's throws missed the mark. Still, six weeks as the scout-team quarterback and "ERW" guy -- Eat, Ride and Warm-up -- on game days appeared to have him feeling more comfortable within the scheme.
"The whole game is slowed down, which is big," Ponder said. "It comes from being here, spending time here and competing against the scout team defense has helped. Trying to figure out certain throws, what I can fit in and what I can't, that has really helped a lot."
Musgrave has a sense for that now, too, and must set about tweaking the system to fit Ponder's strengths -- probably beginning with the base installs the rookie got to run with the No. 1 offense back in August.
Arm strength isn't a concern, but that doesn't mean Ponder is going to take the Vikings' offense vertical.
"You're talking about the short, intermediate pass game, occasional deep stuff," an AFC personnel director said. "He's one of those guys whose skills could be incrementally transferable to a pro-style, down-the-field passing offense. However, if you had to pick your poison, I think preferably he's probably more suited for a West Coast-style system."
None of the scouts interviewed before the season saw Ponder as a polished, NFL-ready quarterback who should have started over Day 1. But the game didn't look too big for a self-described perfectionist whose smarts and demeanor elevated his stock during the pre-draft process.
The Vikings are prepared for the rough moments that lie ahead. They have no illusions about Ponder becoming an overnight star, even if coach Leslie Frazier is adamant playing the rookie over McNabb gives them the best chance to win on Sunday.
"The bottom line is, learn from it," Johnson said. "Try not to make the same mistake twice, move on and when you have that storm or that slump -- it's coming -- guess what? We'll get through it."
And until they do, at least Ponder has a chance to stay alive.