Zulgad: Pressure is on Christian Ponder, even when it comes to practice
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Outsider expectations were extremely low for the Minnesota Vikings last summer when they arrived in Mankato for training camp. A three-victory season in 2011 and a reshuffling of the roster meant there were far more question marks than answers when it came to Leslie Frazier's team.
Fast forward a year and things couldn't be more different. Coming off a 10-6 finish and a wild card playoff berth, the Vikings are now seen as an up-and-coming team in the NFC.
There is, however, one thing that remains the same. That's the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position and whether Christian Ponder can take a firm hold of the job.
Ponder was unable to do this in 2012, despite being given every opportunity. He helped the Vikings get off to a 3-1 start by throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions, but then went through an eight-game stretch where he threw one more interception than touchdown (11-10).
Ponder rebounded to help the Vikings get into the playoffs by leading them to four consecutive victories to end the regular season. He threw four touchdowns, including three in the finale against Green Bay, and only one pick in that stretch.
That proved to be an encouraging sign - Ponder missed the playoff loss at Green Bay because of a bruised triceps on his throwing arm - but many remained skeptical that he is the long-term solution for the Vikings.
That skepticism is now following Ponder around Mankato on a daily basis. Dispatches being filed by various media outlets haven't painted a pretty picture of his play three days into practice.
On one hand, there is a temptation to laugh at this and say, "It's three practices in July. Why does anybody care?"
But the reality is that Ponder hasn't done enough in his two NFL seasons, and 20 starts, to get the benefit of the doubt for poor showings.
The Star Tribune had Ponder completing only four of 12 passes in 11-on-11 competition Monday as the Vikings practiced in pads for the first time. Ponder, who also was shaky on Friday and Saturday, had one pass batted down at the line of scrimmage and a deep pass he threw for Jerome Simpson went 4 yards out of bounds.
Meanwhile, Matt Cassel hit on eight of 11 passes during 11-on-11 work and also had a ball dropped.
Cassel, who signed a $7.4 million, two-year contract with the Vikings in March after spending the previous four seasons in Kansas City, was brought in to be Ponder's backup.
That means there is a big difference between 2012 and 2013 when it comes to the Vikings' quarterback situation. The suspicion from this corner a year ago was that Joe Webb was kept as Ponder's backup because the Vikings did not want to put any pressure on the 12th-overall pick in the 2011 draft.
The job was Ponder's from the day the regular season opened.
Even when he was playing his worst, Ponder was never in jeopardy of losing his spot to Webb. When Webb was forced to run the Vikings offense against the Packers in the playoff loss, it became clear why he wasn't a threat.
Webb is now trying to win a roster spot as a wide receiver, and Ponder could face some serious competition if he struggles. Cassel started 45 games from 2008 to 2010 and has 17 starts the past two seasons.
Last season, Cassel started eight of the nine games in which he appeared, completing 161 of 277 passes for 1,796 yards with six touchdowns and 12 interceptions for the 2-14 Chiefs.
Yes, this is far from impressive, but the Vikings do feel that Cassel can run coordinator Bill Musgrave's offense. Cassel has thrown for more than 3,000 yards twice in eight seasons.
The most interesting thing to come out of the early portion of training camp will be the realization that Ponder's performance is going to be picked apart on a daily basis by the team, the media and the fans.
This might seem silly, but it's also not a bad thing.
Ideally, you want as much pressure put on Ponder as possible to find out how he handles it. The Vikings can't go much longer wondering if Ponder is their guy.
They need an answer as soon as possible and putting Ponder under the microscope might help provide one.