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Updated: December 6th, 2012 8:59pm
Zulgad: QB coach says Christian Ponder must 'learn to be tough-minded'

Zulgad: QB coach says Christian Ponder must 'learn to be tough-minded'

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Craig Johnson has coached quarterbacks at the collegiate and pro level for 21 seasons and has spent the past 13 years working in the NFL.

That means Johnson has seen plenty of highs and lows from a position that is constantly under the microscope.

Right now, the Minnesota Vikings' quarterbacks coach is trying to get Christian Ponder out of a funk that saw him play one of his worst games in 22 career starts over two seasons.

Ponder completed only 12 of 25 passes for 119 yards with a touchdown and two costly interceptions in a 24-13 loss last Sunday at Green Bay. He had a brutal 41.9 passer rating. The Vikings have lost four of their past five games to fall to 6-6 on the season.

So, how does Ponder's position coach feel about his quarterback's play? I had a conversation with Johnson on Thursday about that very issue.

Q. Where do you see Ponder at in terms of progress right now?

A. "I think that he has probably done, like through all my 20 years of coaching, about the same as a lot of young guys. He's had some highs when he's playing and he's hitting on all cylinders, he's had some times that he definitely needs to player better. He's going through the same growth process that a lot of guys have had. You play at a high level, then you don't quite play as well as you want to. You have to learn how to be tough-minded.

"You've got to be tough and get through the stretches when you're not playing at your 'A' game and find a way to get back. Get yourself back on rhythm. Deal with having a negative play or two, deal with having the stats not there. But the bottom line is, as I tell him, when you lose a game, the first thing your coach says, which I'll tell anybody, 'I've got to do a better job.' Coaching first, second, you lose a game you have to do a better job. Som most of the time it comes back to the small details.

"We don't give excuses for anybody, anywhere, anyhow. The bottom line is if you don't win a game you haven't done a good enough job and we've got to go back. We didn't win a week ago, so we have to do a good job.

"(Ponder) specifically, if you're talking specifics, where he needs to get better is he's got to be more consistent. Right now, sometimes he's playing at a very high level, sometimes he's not. Young players sometimes do that. He needs to grow older and play more consistent."

Q. Ponder is 22 starts into his career. Is there a magic number you have found for when a light  does start to go off?

A. "It's really hard to say because I really think it's different for every guy. Some guys get it right away. Some guys may not get it for the first couple of years. There's been a couple of guys who really had great careers that haven't got it until about their third year. I think it's really different for every guy. The bottom line is, and Christian understands this, everybody's impatient. I'm impatient, every fan is impatient, they want it right now. That's just part of the deal.

"Fans have no patience. So you understand they want it, you have to pick it up, you have to battle through. If you have a tough stretch, you're going to get called out. You've got to be tough. You've got to be a tough minded guy. So the bottom line is if you're not tough, you shouldn't be in my (quarterbacks) room. You should be in somebody else's room.

"And when the criticism comes that comes along with the position, as I told Christian, when I had an MVP (Steve McNair with the Titans in 2003) to guys who you haven't heard of, when the criticism comes, and my MVP got criticized and people weren't sure he should be the guy, the bottom line is you've got to be tough enough to fight through that. Show the confidence you have and keep on playing and get through the tough stretches because I guarantee they're coming."

Q. Do you see that toughness from Ponder, given that he does seem to think about a lot of the mistakes he makes and they do seem to bother him?

A. "I see that it's a work in progress for him, and I think that toughness and the tough mindedness all comes with confidence. ... I didn't see many problems in the first month of the season when everything was clicking. But the bottom line is when the tough time comes you just have to go back. ...

"He is such a perfectionist and that sometimes is not always the best thing because if anything goes wrong, 'Well, I'm not perfect.' I keep telling him, 'Christian, when you have the perfect passing game,' and I used that for an example a while ago, 'the perfect passing game by the rating system, you're still not perfect.'

"(A quarterback) may have had a perfect rating but they didn't complete every pass. I haven't seen a quarterback that's thrown every pass that's been completed. There's always something. We strive for excellence but if something doesn't go right, which is always going to happen, let it go and move on. The younger guys sometimes hang on that. The older you get, the less you worry about it. ... We had a tough stretch, we certainly want to play better, but there's nothing you can do to change the past except to learn from it and be better in the future.

"I don't think I have to boost up his confidence because it's on tape for him already. It's not like (I say), 'Christian, I'd love to see you do such and such and really play at a high level.' He's already done it. It's already there. It's on tape, it has shown up multiple times this year. But he needs to be able to do that more consistently. That's always the fight with the young guys. They've got to get better and keep going."

Q. Does that consistency come from playing, does it come from a mindset? What develops it?

A. "The mix of chemistry is this. You go out, you get yourself into a rhythm, you protect the football, you have success on what you're doing running and passing. He is blessed because he's got great feet and he can extend the play. But like with some young guys, while that's a positive, don't make it a negative that every time something happens you're just going to flush out and try to scramble and make it a scramble drill.

"So go back, sit back in your progressions, go through all your progressions in the pocket and then run and scramble as a last resort. Then everything will come clearer, the game will slow down and then he'll be able to play. So right now, sometimes when everything is not coming together for him, he's sometimes reaching, or, 'Maybe I'm just going to scramble and try to make something happen.' You want to go the other way. Don't try to make something happen, let it happen. ... It's small, but it's a huge deal.

"Go back, be careful, take your time, take what the defense gives you. When they come up, then your big plays and the shots and all that will happen. But sometimes for guys, they'll come out and go, 'I've got to make a big play.' No you don't. Just go play and keep hammering them and throwing completions and staying within the rhythm of the offense. Then big plays will come."

Q. Where are Ponder's mechanics at right now?

A. "Mechanically, we always try to work on those all the time. I've talked to him about being steady in the pocket and doing his thing. But I don't go crazy because in the games we don't talk a lot about mechanics, we talk a lot about production. We try to work on that on the field. So, that's a work in progress as it always will be.

"If I go back, anytime a quarterback gets into a situation where again he's not playing quite where he wants to for a game or two, the first thing we go back to is, 'Are we throwing the ball to who we think is open?' The second thing is, 'How are we in the pocket?'

"Since I've been in coaching, you always go back, look at yourself and judge yourself to see how you're doing all the time. So, to me, his mechanics are just like his reads, are just like his ability to be good in the red zone, third down, first down. It is a work in progress."

Q. Ponder seems to repeat mistakes at times. Is that a normal thing in your mind for a young quarterback or is that case by case when it comes to guys?

A. "I think it's a case by case, but the bottom line is as you go back through, and I think he would tell you this, if you go back and make a mistake, OK. But if you make a mistake a couple of times, that's probably not too good. If you continually make the same mistakes then the first thing I say as a coach is, 'I need to make sure I get that nipped in the bud.' The second thing is you need to learn from that because you do not want to make repeat mistakes over and over.

"That does not allow your team to function at the highest point. So when he sees there's a mistake out there, I try to make sure we go out and we get it corrected. There's a fine line because if you are a quarterback and all you do is go out to try to make sure that you don't make mistakes, you're not going to be a very good quarterback. That's where when to turn it loose and take a risk and when to (say), 'I don't need that play, let me take care and protect the ball and go on,' (must be learned).

"It's nothing I can quantify other than it comes through experience. (A guy has to say), 'I can't do that anymore. If I make that mistake that's crazy because my team doesn't need that for us to win.' That's where he has to continue to (learn)."

Q. Do you see Ponder repeating mistakes?

A. "I think it's probably true of a lot of guys. I hope that I would say that when he's making mistakes we are trying to make sure he's not making the same mistakes often. ... I would hope that him going and throwing across his body late in the red zone (last Sunday against the Packers) is a mistake that he's probably going to have burned in his mind that, 'I don't want to do that anymore.' Especially when you have all the momentum. It's mistakes like that that you hope that are critical that you want to make sure, 'I want to erase that because that's not going to help our team win.' I'm sure he gets that and understands that."

Q. In fairness to Ponder, he has little work with at wide receiver, especially now that Percy Harvin is on injured reserve, so how difficult is it to judge him based on some elements that he can't control?

A. "As a quarterback all you can control is what you can. But one thing I will tell you and he will tell you, and he better tell you this because this is what his coach preaches (is this): There are no excuses and there are no explanations for why either the quarterback gets the job done or the quarterback doesn't get the job done.

"And if he doesn't get the job done it starts with me and I have to do a better job. I have to do a better job and he's got to do a better job. I don't care who is out there because it's the next man up. I've had that all the way through my career and that includes the quarterback position.

"You've got to do the job and I don't want to hear because this guy wasn't in here or he didn't practice enough. If everybody is not quite where they want to be the best thing to do is to hear from the quarterback, 'This is where I need you, so I can be successful.' That's part of the process."

Q. What's your confidence as we talk today that Ponder will be the long-term starting quarterback for the Vikings?

A. "The reason I think there's a positive there is because I try to coach him positively and what I talk to him about is, 'This is what I have seen you do. I have seen you bring a team from behind. I have seen you have high passing yards. I have seen you have high-percentage quarterback ratings. I have seen you extend long runs for big plays. I have seen you throw on the run, I have seen you pull up, I have seen you throw the ball 60 yards down the field and I have seen you make tight throws.'

"All those things I have seen on tape. That shows me you have the tools to get the job done. What I have yet to see, and that's what I think everybody out there wants to see, is more consistency in doing that. So the challenge is going to be, 'Are you going to consistently play at a high level like that?'

"That's what we're striving for, that's what we're going to get. When he plays at that level, I think he can play with a lot of guys in this league. But he's got to be able to do that, so I have to do the job to get him to do that."

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
In this story: Percy Harvin, Christian Ponder
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