Pelissero: Vikings will be patient, but pressure's on Christian Ponder
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When Christian Ponder and Craig Johnson are together, last season doesn't exist.
They've watched every game. Broken down every pass. Identified every mistake (and there were plenty of them) and what Ponder must do to avoid making them again.
Now, the message is simple: the Minnesota Vikings' franchise quarterback and his position coach can't look back, no matter how difficult that might be for Ponder to do.
"He is so critical and tries to be so perfect," Johnson said after a recent training camp practice. "I can tell you, you're not going to be perfect. Let it go. Move on."
That goes not only for Ponder's strange rookie season, in which the NFL lockout brought him to camp with minimal knowledge of Bill Musgrave's offense and Donovan McNabb's six-start crash forced the No. 12 overall pick into action at midseason.
That goes for every pass Ponder makes, good or bad, during a process the Vikings know could take several years but are committed to seeing through.
"I feel like I am a lot better, and because of that, my confidence has gone up a lot," Ponder said. "They play off each other. If my confidence goes up, I get better, and if I get better, my confidence goes up."
But how long will that confidence last as Ponder continues to navigate the peaks and valleys Johnson says are "probably going to happen to all quarterbacks," resuming with Friday's preseason opener at San Francisco?
That's the question those within the Vikings organization acknowledge will go a long way towards determining the fate of general manager Rick Spielman's rebuilding plan, in 2012 and beyond.
A matter of ascension
In a backwards way, the performance that left NFL scouts most encouraged by Ponder's potential also left them perplexed by the time the 2011 season ended.
That was Ponder's first start against Green Bay on Nov. 23, one week after he'd relieved McNabb in the fourth quarter of a loss at Chicago. Ponder completed only 13 of 32 passes (40.6%) against the Packers, but 12 of those completions went for first downs or touchdowns and he was 7-of-13 for 93 yards on third down.
"From what I saw, that was probably one of his better games -- which is surprising," said a personnel man for another NFC team who has broken down all of Ponder's starts.
"You'd think the guy would continue to ascend. I thought he went the other way a little bit. I thought he wasn't really playing fast in some of the other games I watched. For a guy who's supposed to be really smart and all that stuff ... if I had been them, watching him after his first start, I would have been really encouraged and then he didn't do quite as well afterward."
Ponder threw for 219 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions that day. A week later at Carolina, Ponder was 18-of-28 passing (64.2%) for 236 yards, a touchdown and a 102.7 rating in a win over the Panthers.
Then came the bye week and a downward spiral for both Ponder and the team, which won only one of its last eight games -- with Joe Webb in relief of an injured Ponder on Dec. 24 at Washington -- to finish 3-13.
Ponder finished the season with as many interceptions (13) as touchdown passes, took 30 sacks and admittedly "stunk it up" for stretches as the losses and injuries mounted.
"I don't know why I didn't ascend," Ponder said. "Obviously, I took a couple steps back as the year went on -- which is never a good thing. But that's the stuff you've got to learn from and I get better from. That's what the fresh start for this new year is -- to watch that tape and learn from it, but now, just get better from it."
Harnessing his mobility
One repeated issue was Ponder's tendency to get off his spot in the pocket -- which isn't entirely surprising, given the protection unit's struggles and his ability to extend plays with his feet.
He ran for 219 yards on 28 carries (7.8 average) and made his share of throws outside the pocket. Overusing that ability, however, has a tendency to throw off an offense that relies on rhythm, timing and tempo in the passing game.
"He's absolutely able to throw on the spot," Johnson said. "As an athletic guy, that's probably the thing that takes the longest. Most of the athletic guys that can move around a little bit don't mind moving off the spot, because they can kind of create a little bit of a scattered type atmosphere and extend the play because it doesn't have to be so clean.
"The younger guys, what they learn how to do is when they get to the spot, they can sit back, know where they want to throw the ball, throw an accurate ball. That's where he's progressed a lot."
One focus through the offseason was increasing Ponder's efficiency on first and second down. Coaches have praised his work in that regard, and Johnson said Ponder has completed "numerous" throws in camp that show his improved knowledge of the scheme as he goes through his read and route progressions.
But there also have been stretches in which Ponder seems to be seeing ghosts, taking false steps and rushing too quickly to checkdown options, such as the 2-minute drill last week in which he completed seven passes for only 25 yards. On Wednesday, he floated a senseless interception directly to linebacker Chad Greenway.
"The mobility can be a positive," Ponder said. "When I get out of the pocket too early and do stuff like that, when there's plays to be made downfield and I miss those things (it's a problem). When I know I have to pass the ball, I'm not going to be able to make up a play, then maybe I can throw the ball better."
That mobility contributes to comparisons some scouts make to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, a three-time Pro Bowl pick who has a similar build (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) to Ponder (6-2, 229) and has made a career from creating plays outside the pocket.
"Also, when Romo was younger, I think some of the decision-making would kind of leave you to scratch your head on occasion," said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who was scouting for the Baltimore Ravens when Romo came out of Eastern Illinois in 2003 and the Philadelphia Eagles when Ponder came out of Florida State in 2011.
"I think that's a little bit of what you get with Christian. I think (Ponder) can develop into being what Romo has become, but I think that's something we're talking about a two- or three-year process of him growing, him making mistakes, learning from them and getting better."
Romo wasn't drafted and didn't start a game until seven games into his fourth NFL season, though. Ponder -- who said he has studied Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, but not Romo -- is the Vikings' unquestioned starter in his second season, meaning that multiyear process is unfolding on the field instead of the sideline.
In offseason studies, Spielman instead compared Ponder to the likes of Eli Manning, another first-round pick who took over as the starter during his rookie season and didn't come into his own until his fourth. That was 2007 and the New York Giants made a late-season surge to win the Super Bowl.
"The thing about Ponder that I saw is I think he's a better athlete than Romo," an AFC personnel director said. "Romo moves around well and all that stuff, granted. But (Ponder's) escape ability outside the pocket is a little bit better. I know he's probably got better ground foot speed, because I felt he ran well coming out.
"Maybe he's got that kind of potential. The size is there. The athleticism and speed to get outside the pocket and make throws -- which as you know, the thing about having a guy like that is you can take away things and you can still keep plays alive with his legs."
All that running also exposes Ponder to the injuries that remain a greater concern that some acknowledge, since the development he needs can't happen if he's not on the field.
He delivered another encouraging performance on Nov. 27 at Atlanta, posting his best passer rating (103.1) in a 24-14 loss to the Falcons, then suffered a hip pointer on Dec. 4 against Denver and never was himself again.
Limited to only a few snaps in practice the following week, Ponder nonetheless pushed for and got the start on Dec. 11 at Detroit -- only to get benched after four turnovers.
"You know what? I'm glad I started," Ponder said. "I learn from those situations and I want as many starts under my belt as possible. I don't regret that situation whatsoever."
Others within the Vikings organization disagree because of the obvious impact that game had on Ponder's confidence.
He started again the following week against New Orleans and played what he calls his worst game. Six days later, he was knocked out in the third quarter at Washington with a concussion. He returned to start the finale against Chicago, reinjured the hip and was finished.
None of that did much to dispel concerns about a player whose college career marred by several injuries, including a right forearm that needed to be drained repeatedly during his senior year. Ponder admits he has "to learn to protect myself better" but dismisses the suggestion he's injury-prone.
"I've just done some dumb things and I've had some freak deals like the forearm thing. That was just a weird injury," Ponder said. "A broken rib. It's not like I get a helmet into my ribs -- everyone's rib is going to break. I tackled a guy and separated my shoulder. I'm not a safety. I'm a quarterback. That's part of football and everyone plays with injuries at some point and you've just got to do it."
On the same page
No one doubts Ponder's intelligence for the position. His arm strength isn't considered an issue either, although the Vikings would like to see him fit the ball into some more tight spots and some scouts think he aims it too often.
"That's what we've made huge steps with in the offseason, and we're continuing to work through that in the preseason," Johnson said. "You have a receiver and he runs a specific route, and he's got maybe seven different coverages for a specific route where he might run it slightly -- slightly -- different against different coverages.
"That's also part of understanding the offense. It's not sometimes where the ball goes back shoulder, it goes away, and you're saying, 'That's just a bad pass.' They're just not on the same page and I haven't recognized the coverage fast enough or whatever it may be."
The Vikings' approach to the draft and free agency this year makes clear their No. 1 priority is accelerating Ponder's development by surrounding him with better pieces.
They saw a need for another pass-catching tight end to complement Kyle Rudolph and gave John Carlson $9.1 million in guarantees on a five-year contract. They saw a void at split end and signed Jerome Simpson. Then they used the No. 4 overall pick on the draft's top prospect at left tackle, Matt Kalil, for a major upgrade to the protection unit.
Ponder led that group through the offseason and seems to have support within the locker room, with teammates such as receiver Percy Harvin going out of their way to say he's "head over heels better" than he was as a rookie.
According to Harvin, the biggest difference with Ponder is "(c)onfidence. Just him having confidence in us, throwing the ball way before we get out of our breaks.
"Sometimes, you may see the ball hit us in our faces because we (weren't) quite used to him throwing before we're getting out of our breaks. As a receiver, that's what you want. You want, as soon as you come out your break, the ball's right on you. We couldn't get that rhythm last year, but I think we're heading that way this year."
Second year's first test
Ponder had a couple of rough days of practice this week, dropping his completion percentage in camp to 64.4% (94-of-146) with three interceptions in team (11-on-11) drills, according to unofficial statistics kept by 1500ESPN.com.
That's marked improvement from the 54.3% of passes (158 of 291) he completed last season. But wearing a red no-contact jersey while practicing against your own defense -- one that ranked 28th in the NFL against the pass last season -- is far different than going against an opponent's live rush, as Ponder will on Friday against the 49ers.
"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. It just is."
The Vikings are committed to seeing that process through. They're committed to focusing on the traits they see in Ponder through the rough times everyone acknowledges are far from over.
"He's got to go through a storm or two," Johnson said, "because I don't want him thinking he goes from, 'Oh, I'm struggling' to, 'I've got it made.'"
After two last-place seasons, though, fans may not be so forgiving. And there is an acute awareness within the organization of how poor performances at the Metrodome in the second and third preseason games could impact Ponder's psyche -- particularly if Webb is running circles around second-stringers.
That makes it all the more important for Ponder to get off on the right foot and stay on the field, even if more than a few people studying his rookie season from outside the building believe he's worth waiting for.
"Obviously, he had games where aiming the ball was an issue," the AFC personnel director said. "But I like his athleticism, and I thought for a young guy coming in -- you've got McNabb out there and then you get (Ponder) out there and you play him -- I like his upside. I really do. I think he's going to end up being a good football player."
Said the NFC personnel man, "How many games did he start? You can't make a career out of that. It's really too early to tell. That's tough, being a rookie quarterback and having to go play. I think he's going to be pretty good still. But we'll see."