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Updated: July 25th, 2012 6:34pm
Zulgad: What rebuilding project? Christian Ponder remains optimistic

Zulgad: What rebuilding project? Christian Ponder remains optimistic

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by Judd Zulgad

What else was Christian Ponder supposed to say?

There were a few eyebrows raised this week when the Minnesota Vikings quarterback said the team was "inches away from being a playoff team" last season because it had lost nine games that were "extremely close."

Ponder acknowledged the NFC North is a "very tough division" but added, "realistically, I think we have a chance to make the playoffs (in 2012),"

The Vikings, of course, finished 3-13 last season and went 2-8 in games started by Ponder.

Rick Spielman was given the general manager's title and control of the 53-man roster after the season and has gone about remolding the Vikings into a young team. This is clearly a rebuilding project.

But entering his second season and now the unquestioned starting quarterback for the Vikings, Ponder has little choice but to remain positive as he and his teammates get set to report to training camp Thursday afternoon in Mankato.

So during an appearance on "Judd & Phunn" on 1500 ESPN, Ponder played the role of optimist when talking about what this team can accomplish. "I kind of like being the underdog," he said. "I kind of like when people don't expect much of you because I think that can put me in an advantage and I think we can sneak up on a lot of people this year."

If that's going to happen - and some of this will be out of Ponder's control because of all the question marks on defense - the 12th-overall pick in the 2011 draft is going to have to make significant progress from the guy who threw as many interceptions as he did touchdowns last season (13).

So when Ponder declared he felt the 2012 Vikings could be a playoff team, the next logical question was what type of season he would need to have to make that happen.

"A good one," Ponder said. "A lot less turnovers, a lot more touchdowns, a lot better efficiency. I just have to play better. I have to put our team in a position to be successful and at the same time I can't put that pressure on myself to do that. I trust that my teammates are going to do their job and we have a lot of the right pieces in place. I've just got to trust it. I've just got to go out there and play and have fun and let everything take care of itself."

Ponder's progress will be a main storyline for the Vikings from the moment they take the field on Friday for their first practice until the season ends. Fans see the success that Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton had as rookies and wonder how patient Vikings coach Leslie Frazier will be with Ponder and whether Joe Webb should get the job.

But the suggestion for anyone waiting for that to happen is this: Don't hold your breath.

Ponder is going to get every chance to succeed and then some. Spielman is the guy who drafted Ponder, he's the guy in charge of the roster and he's the guy who is going to make sure that the Ponder plan isn't abandoned.

Ponder showed up last summer in Mankato not having had the benefit of any offseason due to the NFL lockout. Veteran Donovan McNabb had just been acquired from Washington and was awarded the starting job.

McNabb started the first six games and was finally yanked on Oct. 16 during a 39-10 loss in Chicago. The Vikings were 1-5 after that defeat.

On Thursday, Ponder will arrive in Mankato not as a raw rookie, but rather a guy who has spent the offseason working with his teammates not only on the field but also off of it in order to develop into a leader. If Ponder does fail, it isn't going to be because he attempted to cut corners.

"It's tremendously different," Ponder said when asked to compare reporting to camp last year versus what he will go through this year. "I'm just so much more comfortable. I know what to expect going down to Mankato. It's a world of difference.

"Last year was fun and it was great and it was a great first time down there. This time knowing that I'm going to be playing and I'm going to be starting. This is my team, I know my teammates, I know what Mankato is like, I know my surroundings. It's just going to be a lot more fun. I'm going to be a lot more confident going into this training camp and it will be good. It will be a great 21 days."

Ordinarily, the Vikings' three-week stay in Mankato is seen as a necessary evil and nothing more. But in the case of this Vikings team, and Ponder in particular, the importance of the time spent both on the field and in meetings will be extremely high.

The Vikings are 9-23 over the past two seasons, and if they are going to begin to turn that around it's going to have to start in Mankato.

Ponder began the process of trying to improve himself right after last season by spending time with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave looking at film of his performances from 2011. Much of it wasn't pretty.

But there comes a point when a player has to move on from the past and Ponder said he has gotten to that point. That 2011 film might get a look here and there but it's no longer regular viewing.

"I think the time now is to move past it and not really focus on last year," he said. "It's now time to focus on this year. I haven't been really watching that film. I'm sure we'll still bring up some tape during training camp when we're installing a certain play, we'll go back and watch some of that film from last year. But for the most part, we're past last year and it's now focused on this year."

Ponder has often pointed out that he showed great improvement in his second season playing quarterback both at Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas and at Florida State. He expects the same from himself this season and said he isn't concerned that in his second NFL season he will no longer have the crutch of people saying he's a rookie.

"I never used that," as an excuse, Ponder said. "I'm always expecting myself to play well in every game, whether I was a rookie or not. And that's the same thing this year. I don't like making excuses about any of my games, whether it is my first year or my 10th year. But I know there's pressure on me to perform.

"That pressure is not really coming from the outside, it's coming from internally, from myself. I want to play well, and I know from experiences in high school and in college the jump I've experienced from my first to second year has been pretty significant. It goes back to just getting that first experience under my belt and learning from all those mistakes. So, yeah, I know I've got to perform and I expect myself to do it."

That's impressive

Ponder was effusive in his praise when discussing how hard running back Adrian Peterson has worked to return after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee last Dec. 24 in a victory at Washington.

"It's unbelievably impressive," Ponder said. "Obviously, we know how big of a freak of an athlete Adrian is and how talented he is, but I don't think people outside of the Vikings, outside of the people that are close to the Vikings, they don't really understand how hard he works.

"For him to be so far ahead of schedule on his knee, it's unbelievable. ... It's unreal how far he's progressed. Obviously, we want him back for the first game. I'm sure in his mind he thinks he'll be back for the first game. We'll see.

"The good thing is that Eric Sugarman, our head trainer, is very good at what he does and he'll make that right call whether he's going to be ready or not. But he has put in a lot of time and he'll be playing at some point this season, if it's not the first game."

Asked what it's like to watch Peterson work that hard, Ponder said: "It motivates you to push yourself even harder. If only everyone worked as hard as Adrian did there would be so many great players out there.

"But a lot of people that grew up being so much more talented than everybody else, a lot of times those guys don't work that hard. That's just the great thing to see Adrian do. He sets such a great example for everyone else and we love him as a teammate. He's a great guy and he's obviously a great player." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 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.
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