Zulgad: Christian Ponder demonstrates progress with late-game success
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Athletes don't normally like to engage in hypotheticals, but in this case the always affable Christian Ponder was willing to play along.
So on Monday the Minnesota Vikings quarterback was asked what would have happened last year if he had been given the football with his team trailing by three points, 14 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the ball at his own 31-yard line?
"Honestly, I don't know if I would have been able to do it," Ponder said. "I'm so much more comfortable (than I was), more confident (than I was)."
Fortunately for Ponder, what might have happened during his rookie season no longer matters.
The important thing was that when he did get the ball Sunday in the identical situation as described above, he was able to complete two passes (to Devin Aromashodu and Kyle Rudolph) for a combined 32 yards and set up a 55-yard field goal by Blair Walsh that tied the score against Jacksonville as time expired in regulation.
The Vikings beat the Jaguars by getting a 38-yard field goal from Walsh on the opening drive of overtime that came during a series in which Ponder completed three passes for 28 yards.
Ponder talked all though the offseason and training camp about how much more comfortable he was in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's scheme and how he now saw himself as a leader of this team.
But Sunday was the first real chance to see if this was lip service or reality.
Ponder did not take an, "I told you so," approach to his comments on Monday, but he was matter of fact about the success he had a day earlier in leading the Vikings to a 1-0 start for the first time since 2009.
"I truly believe we can overcome anything and if we execute the right way, that we can make plays when we need to," Ponder said. "We've got so many good players on this team that have so much more confidence in what I'm doing that I'm able to overcome those situations. It makes it more fun."
The most impressive thing about Ponder's performance on Sunday might have been the fact that he overcame a start that a year ago almost certainly would have set him up for a forgettable afternoon.
Ponder, the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, completed a 15-yard pass to Rudolph to open the game but then proceeded to connect on only two of his next six passes. This led to a chorus of boos from a fan base inside the Metrodome that never has been known for its patience when it comes to the Vikings quarterback.
"I heard them, but it doesn't bother me," Ponder said. "Obviously, we weren't playing well, so I deserve to get booed, I guess."
Things changed for Ponder near the end of the first half when he completed three consecutive screen passes for wide receiver Percy Harvin. Harvin, who has a knack for making something out of nothing, gained 11, 8 and 14 yards on those receptions to spark a drive that ended with Adrian Peterson's 3-yard touchdown run that pulled the Vikings within two points at the half.
Starting with that drive, Ponder completed 17 of 20 passes for 238 yards. The only negative was the fumble he lost in the third quarter at his own 16-yard line while taking a sack.
"I think that 2-minute sequence right before the half was big for him and for our team," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "We were able to get points on the board. We were struggling early on to get first downs on offense, but that sequence really gave him some confidence and we got the ball to the end zone. ... That's a good sign for us that he worked through some tough moments early on and finished as well as he finished."
Ponder, who went 2-8 in 10 starts last season and threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (13), was asked Monday exactly what did change for him.
"I changed my whole mindset," he said. "(I said), 'I'm just going to go out and throw the ball and not be hesitant.' Create that sense of urgency where we need to score, otherwise we're not going to win this game.
"The defense did a such a great job of keeping us in that game that it could have gotten out of hand pretty early. ... But it was just a mindset of we need to score, we need to pick this up."
The key for Ponder going forward, and beginning with Sunday's game against the Colts in Indianapolis, will be coming out with that mindset instead of having to flip a switch. This, however, is all part of the process for a young quarterback who is trying to learn on the job.
The reality for the Vikings is that they remain a rebuilding team that is very much a work in progress and Ponder is a big part of that.
That's why Frazier was so happy to see Ponder succeed in the 2-minute drill on Sunday. Just as Ponder admitted he wasn't sure he could have guided the game-tying drive if put in a similar situation a year ago, Frazier also had his doubts the then-rookie quarterback could have come away with the same results.
"There were a number of moments like that a season ago where we needed just one play that could have turned the game in our favor in the fourth quarter and we couldn't find a way to make that play," Frazier said. "For Christian to make that throw to Devin Aromashodu, the first play to get us in the position to get it to Kyle to get out of bounds ... the poise that was needed in that sequence and the leadership that was needed. That's good stuff.
"That's what this league is made of when you have a quarterback that can take you down the last two minutes of a game and put you in a position to win a game. He did something we hadn't seen very much of recently so it was good for us."