Ponder's performance reveals more than a winless preseason
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The NFL preseason can bring enthusiasm and bore to paying fans, turn dreams into reality for players and even evaporate those dreams with season-ending, and potentially career-ending, injuries.
All for what?
The scores don't matter, the evaluations do. So before delving into what these preseason contests mean for the Minnesota Vikings and their young quarterback, here's a quick breakdown of why their potentially winless exhibition record doesn't matter.
In the past five seasons, the Vikings have three playoff appearances and two division championships. They are 5-7 in the preseason before those runs.
The Vikings finished 5-3 in two preseasons that produced a .28 win percentage and consecutive last-place finishes in their respective regular seasons.
Season Preseason Regular Place Playoffs
2012 1-3 10-6 2nd Yes
2011 2-2 3-13 4th No
2010 3-1 6-10 4th No
2009 3-1 12-4 1st Yes
2008 1-3 10-6 1st Yes
Typically a fun stat producer is the Detroit Lions, who have boasted the division's best preseason record in the past five years, finishing 16-4 in those contests. The success doesn't translate over well as the Lions are 22-58 in those regular seasons, they haven't won the division since it was called the NFC Central ('93 last title) and have one playoff appearance in the new millennium.
What does 0-3 mean for Ponder?
Quarterback Christian Ponder's three preseason starts inherently mean more because it's his first action since the best game of his career in the regular season finale against the Green Bay Packers. His performances in those games say more than the potential 0-4 mark awaiting the Vikings when the preseason ends tonight.
Coach Leslie Frazier will likely bench most, if not all, starters against the Tennessee Titans. So it's safe to assume Ponder's preseason is over.
After handing Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers his only loss when throwing for four touchdowns and no interceptions, like he did on Dec. 30, Ponder has looked out of sync with an Adrian Peterson-less offense and has shown no signs of progressing in his third year.
Selected 12th overall in the 2011 draft, the expectations on Ponder have never been higher than right now. After managing the offense to a postseason appearance in his second year, Ponder is expected to take a retooled receiving corps to new heights in 2013.
Fans and critics were robbed of the chance to see how Ponder would respond on the brightest stage of his career when he sat during the Jan. 6 playoff loss at the Green Bay Packers after a freak injury to his throwing arm landed him in the hospital.
So all we have are three preseason games and it's not what Ponder's done, but what he hasn't done that is alarming.
Ponder averaged six yards per completion last season with an injured Percy Harvin and lackluster receivers. But with the additions of receivers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, it was assumed the Vikings would stretch the field somewhat. That hasn't happened outside of a few failed attempts.
A vanilla game plan has produced an average of five yards per completion for Ponder, which is even lower than last season. Ponder's lone highlight on 37 throws remains an 18-yard completion to Jennings on a short seam route at San Francisco that should become a staple of the offense.
In 13 preseason drives with Ponder, the Vikings offense produced three scores (two TDs, one FG), three turnovers (two INT, one fumble), seven punts and just 184 yards through the air. Only the first interception can be pegged on Ponder and right tackle Phil Loadholt was at fault for the sack-fumble that opened the game at San Francisco.
Obviously, the return of Peterson will take a lot of pressure off Ponder. With fullback Jerome Felton out, the Vikings have still mixed in three-tight end sets and other backfield arrangements to show they're a run-first offense. The 2:1 run-to-pass ratio will surely come back with Peterson in the lineup.
But even so, Ponder's responsibilties naturally spike as he enters his third year under center, especially with new weapons to work with.
Whether it's his uneasiness in the pocket, hesitancy with throws or head-scratching inaccuracy at times -- it's uncertain what the Vikings will get out of Ponder this year.
We'll begin to find out on Sept. 8 at the Detroit Lions.
What to watch for Thursday
The fourth and final preseason game can provide meaningful position battles, single plays that win a spot on the roster, but mostly just backups making mistakes as they learn on the job.
Here are five things to watch for when the Vikings play the Tennessee Titans:
•Third-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson did not play against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday and should see his most extensive work on Thursday.
The Vikings have a key decision to make with Bethel-Thompson, who theoretically could be cut to make room for a sixth receiver in former quarterback Joe Webb, who also contributes on special teams.
Banyard posted a 38-yard run at the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 16, but will have to overcome Asiata's plays in pass protection and on special teams to make the roster.
Felder filled in for Sherels, who was attending a funeral, during Sunday's game at San Francisco and returned two punts, one for 30 yards. Felder has shown the ability to catch and control the ball, while providing a boost over Sherels on defense in coverage.
•Linebacker Desmond Bishop racked up eight tackles and one assist in San Francisco on Sunday as his first audition with the starting defense. Bishop will get another chance against the Titans to show why he should start over Marvin Mitchell at the weak-side linebacker.
In his seventh year, Bishop is a veteran starter in the NFL and was signed in June to compete for the starting job. Mitchell filled in as a starter for one game last season, but lacks the starting experience that Bishop brings to the table.
•Defensive tackle depth:
The Vikings will be without first-round pick Sharrif Floyd and veteran Kevin Williams until at least the season opener as both nurse injured knees. Not knowing how healthy either will be when they return, their replacements could be key in the early goings. Second-year defensive tackle Chase Baker was given an extended look on Sunday and registered two tackles and was flagged for a penalty. Rookies like Anthony McCloud and Everett Dawkins should be in line for more looks, but neither have shown much promise.