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Updated: September 5th, 2012 8:46pm
Zulgad: Christian Ponder's progress will be on display starting Sunday

Zulgad: Christian Ponder's progress will be on display starting Sunday

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - As Christian Ponder went through the Minnesota Vikings' offseason program this spring the questions posed to him where often similar in nature.

They went something like this: A year ago the NFL lockout meant you had no offseason workouts, Organized Team Activities or minicamps. So how much do you think the ability to get work in the offseason this time will help you?

Each time, Ponder spoke about what an advantage it was to be able to spend this extra time working in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's system.

The real answer to that question, however, will begin to be revealed on Sunday afternoon in the Metrodome when the Vikings play host to Jacksonville in their regular-season opener.

Although they won't directly face each other, the game will pit Ponder against Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Ponder was taken with the 12th selection in the 2011 NFL draft. Gabbert went two picks earlier to the Jaguars after sliding down the draft board.

Ponder and Gabbert are friends - they trained together in getting ready for the NFL Scouting Combine - but Ponder said Wednesday he did not see much of Gabbert from his rookie season.

"We didn't play any similar teams so I didn't see him on film," Ponder said Wednesday. "I didn't pay much attention to him."

If he had paid attention to his buddy, Ponder would have seen a quarterback who went through many of the same struggles that he did in 2011.

Gabbert established a Jaguars franchise record for a rookie quarterback with 14 starts. He went 4-10. That made him the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start at least 13 games. He completed 210 of 413 passes for 2,214 yards with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions for a 65.4 passer rating.

The Jaguars finished 5-11 and in third place in the AFC South.

Ponder, meanwhile, went 2-8 in 10 starts, completing 158 of 291 passes for 1,853 yards with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He had a passer rating of 70.1. While Ponder started two games the Vikings won, he did not finish the second victory.

He left the Vikings' 33-26 victory at Washington on Dec. 24 because of a concussion and it was backup Joe Webb who led the team to the win. The Vikings finished 3-13 and last in the NFC North.

"It's obvious that neither one of us had as good of years as we wanted to have," Ponder said. "I think we're both competitors and both confident in our abilities and we're looking to bounce back from last year.

"I saw some stats from his preseason, he had a great preseason and he looks like he's ready to go. Last year is probably a year we wish we would have done better, but we both accept it and know that it's going to make us better."

Gabbert, who played college football at Missouri, completed 36 of 59 passes for 355 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in four preseason games. He finished with a 95.0 rating.

Ponder, a product of Florida State, went 23 of 38 for 331 yards with one touchdown and one interception in three preseason games. His rating was 86.6.

Ponder should have an advantage over Gabbert in that he returned to a system with which he became familiar during the 2011 season. Mike Mularkey was hired as the Jaguars coach in January after spending the previous four seasons as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons.

That means Gabbert spent his offseason having to absorb a new offensive system. The advantage Gabbert will have is working with a guy who was the coordinator for Matt Ryan, who made an extremely smooth transition to the NFL in 2008 after being the third overall selection. (Musgrave had been the Falcons' quarterbacks coach before joining Leslie Frazier's coaching staff in 2011.)

Mularkey went out of his way Wednesday to point out the uphill battle the 22-year-old Gabbert faced last season.

"First of all he was a young player," Mularkey said. "He was a third-year junior. I had Matt Ryan as a fifth-year senior, so I just thought even looking at it from the outside, this would be Blaine's fifth year at Missouri. And then to come in with no OTAs, no minicamps, no nothing. It was very similar to Ponder. Blaine wasn't getting the reps because he was literally the third quarterback during training camp."

Ponder and Gabbert did not open last season as the starters for their teams but in the modern day NFL it's no surprise they both ended it that way. That's the way the league operates. Gone are the days when teams would draft a quarterback and then stash him on the sideline for an indefinite time period so he could learn behind a veteran.

Five rookies will open this season as starters. The list includes Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Washington Robert Griffin III, the top two picks in the April draft, as well as Miami's Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland's Brandon Weeden and Seattle's Russell Wilson.

Asked about this trend, Mularkey said: "It might be the year that Matt and (Baltimore's) Joe Flacco had (in 2008). They had successful years, they took their teams to the playoffs and they were thrown right into the fire.

"Nothing is greater than experience and some teams just feel like that's the best way to (go) even if they have to take some lumps. It just happens to be that way this time around because everybody is looking at how the quarterback is changing today's game."

But the success of guys like Ryan and Flacco, as well as Carolina's Cam Newton and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, doesn't mean that all young quarterbacks will have a positive impact.

Ponder is well aware of this. The on-the-job training is constant. Prime example: Ponder was sacked seven times in the preseason, including five times in the third game against San Diego.

Afterward, Ponder and his coaches talked about the need for him to step up in the pocket.

"I think that up to a point you accept it," Ponder said of young quarterbacks having to go through growing pains. "I know there's a lot for me to learn as a quarterback and there's a lot for me to grow, but I don't want to make mistakes.

"I don't expect myself to make mistakes ever. I do know and I do realize that even the greatest make mistakes at times and those are just learning moments that you have to learn from and grow from. I expect to have a lot of improvement on what I did last year."

So does Gabbert.

It's likely whichever one shows the most improvement on Sunday will leave the Metrodome with a victory.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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