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Updated: October 22nd, 2012 5:15pm
Zulgad: Patience will be key when it comes to Christian Ponder's play

Zulgad: Patience will be key when it comes to Christian Ponder's play

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Picked to finish last in the NFC North this season by nearly everyone, the Minnesota Vikings have proven to be one of the NFL's biggest surprises.

Their 21-14 victory over Arizona on Sunday put the Vikings at 5-2, and there would appear to be an excellent chance they will be 6-2 after Thursday night's game against Tampa Bay (2-4) at the Metrodome.

So what possibly could have been a cause for a bit of internal concern Monday at Winter Park?

To find the answer to that question, you need only look at quarterback Christian Ponder's statistical performance against the Cardinals. The numbers told the ugly story.

Ponder completed 8 of 17 passes for 58 yards, had one completion in the second half, and finished with one touchdown and two interceptions. His 35.5 passer rating was the worst he has posted in a complete game in 17 NFL starts.

But if coach Leslie Frazier was worried by what he saw from his quarterback, he wasn't willing to share that information.

"When you look at moments when he's struggled and then you see him bounce back - even after the first interception, to come back and take us down for a score, when he threw the pass to Percy (Harvin) for a touchdown -- those are signs that he's maturing as a quarterback," Frazier said.

"He's able to put bad plays behind him. And that's what you have to be able to do at that position. It's important to our team. It's important to him. So I am. I'm confident that he'll continue to get better as time goes on."

Half of Ponder's completions went to Harvin but none gained more than 14 yards. The second-quarter touchdown pass to Harvin covered 3 yards.

Michael Jenkins and supposed vertical threat Jerome Simpson caught only one pass apiece. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who is supposed to be Ponder's security blanket in the passing game and was second on the Vikings with 25 receptions entering Sunday, had no catches, despite being the target on four passes.

One of those throws ended up in the hands of Cardinals linebacker Paris Lenon deep in Vikings territory and set-up Arizona's first touchdown of the game.

If this had been the first time Ponder had struggled at all this season, perhaps it could have been glossed over. But Sunday's performance capped a three-game stretch in which Ponder has committed seven turnovers, including six interceptions.

This came after Ponder did not throw a pick in his first four games.

At that time, the Ponder critics said he still wasn't doing enough and wasn't getting the ball down the field. Those who defended Ponder said that, at worst, he was doing a good job of managing the game and that with Simpson suspended for the first three games, throwing the ball downfield for the sake of it made little sense.

However, Simpson was on the field Sunday and played consistent snaps. He drew a 29-yard pass interference penalty in the first quarter that set up a 13-yard touchdown run by Adrian Peterson, but only caught one pass. And that went for only 8 yards. Making matters worse, Simpson was officially only the target of that one pass.

So much for stretching the field with any type of consistency.

"A lot of it had to do with what they were doing defensively," Frazier said, crediting the Cardinals and deflecting some of the criticism away from Ponder. "Some of the things they were able to take away from what we wanted to get accomplished in the passing game. ...

"As he evolves as an NFL quarterback, and our understanding the fact that he's only in his second season, there are going to be some tough days for him. He'll get better. He'll look at this tape from that ballgame on Sunday, learn from it and move on and prepare for this next ballgame. He'll keep learning from every situation."

Of course, this does not all fall on Ponder. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave also must take some of the heat for his play calling.

The Cardinals also became the latest team to attempt to get consistent pressure on Ponder and make him uncomfortable in the pocket.

The issue is that this further sets the blueprint for how to attack the Vikings' offense. Peterson had an excellent day, running for 153 yards, but the Cardinals also consistently sent eight and nine men toward the line of scrimmage in order to stop the run game.

Every team is going to continue to do this until Ponder proves he can make them pay. If not, they will sell out to try to stop Peterson and hope they can be successful.

And if Ponder's play doesn't improve?

The suggestion here is that patience will be the key for Vikings fans.

Ponder was the 12th-overall pick in the 2011 draft and is only 24 years old. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman is the man who drafted Ponder and he's going to stick with him every step of the way.

This is not a short-term experiment.

Remember, this was expected to be a rebuilding season for the Vikings in which the roster got younger and Ponder got every opportunity to prove he can do the job.

Almost nobody expected the Vikings would be three games over .500 and near the top of the division in late October.

Despite that success, Spielman has shown no signs that he is going to change course for 2012. The cries might come for Joe Webb to take over as the starter but unless Ponder is injured that won't happen. There is no veteran in place to come in and help save the day.

The observation has been made before that Ponder actually seemed to be at his best last season shortly after he replaced Donovan McNabb as the Vikings' starter. He then regressed, in part because of injuries and in part because he seemed to over think situations.

Ponder did his best to keep his chin up during his postgame press conference on Sunday but you could tell his performance was bothering him. Some quarterbacks would have been defiant, pointing out their team won and that's all that mattered. But Ponder did not hesitate to say the offense has to play better.

He's right about that. But did his demeanor indicate that his confidence again is a concern? Frazier didn't think so when asked about that Monday.

"He's so different from a year ago when it comes to negative plays," Frazier said. "I've seen it and we've all seen it over these first seven games where he's had some bad plays and he's bounced back. ... He's done a good job.

"(Sunday) was a tough day against a very, very good defense, but he's not the same Christian Ponder that he was a year ago. I'm convinced of it, and I've seen enough evidence of it in practice and even in games. Where he's bounced back from some tough plays and his teammates have seen it as well."

They certainly will be hoping to see that type of bounce back Thursday night against Tampa Bay at the Metrodome. 

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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