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Updated: January 8th, 2012 3:41pm
Zulgad's Roundup: Christian Ponder knows work has only begun

Zulgad's Roundup: Christian Ponder knows work has only begun

Audio Clip
1/4/2012
New Vikings GM Rick Spielman Talks About His New Role
Rick Spielman joins Judd & Phunn the day after he's promoted to Vikings GM to talk about how his role has changed and what exactly his job description entails.
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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

This will be a busy offseason for Christian Ponder, but in the days following the Minnesota Vikings' 3-13 finish the rookie quarterback did his best to get away from it all.

At least mentally.

"I've been kind of a couch potato the past few days," Ponder said Friday while appearing on "Judd & Phunn" on 1500 ESPN. "I go in (to Winter Park in) the mornings to get treatment on my hip and come home and sit around. I took down the Christmas decorations the other day finally and have been doing stuff around the house. But usually just sitting down and watching TV."

Ponder's respite won't last long.

The 12th-overall pick in last April's draft will be expected to make significant strides in the coming months after starting the final 10 games of the season. The Vikings went 2-8 in that time, although it was Joe Webb who rallied the team to a 33-26 victory over Washington on Dec. 24.

"It's going to be huge," Ponder said of getting those starts. "You've seen firsthand the speed of the game and getting that experience under my belt is going to be big. I think the more experience you have, the game starts to really slow down.

"The biggest thing for me is getting film of myself and being able to watch those things and watch those mistakes that I made and figuring out what the heck I was thinking on certain plays. That really helps me out.

"It's kind of been the same way when I had my first start in high school, my first year starting, and my first year starting at Florida State. I tend to turn the ball over a little too much. I made dumb mistakes. When I went back in those offseasons and watched those films, it really opened my eyes to certain things I was doing and the next year I improved tremendously. So I think that's really going to help me."

Ponder, who suffered a hip pointer in early December and aggravated it against Chicago in the regular-season finale, completed 158 of 291 passes for 1,853 yards with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He had a passer rating of 70.1. Veteran Donovan McNabb, who was replaced by Ponder in Week 7, had an 82.9 passer rating and threw two interceptions in 156 attempts.

Despite Ponder's struggles, new Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said he remains convinced Ponder will be a successful starting quarterback in the NFL.

"How do (we) have so much confidence that Christian is going to be the guy?" said Spielman, who had been the Vikings vice president of player personnel before being promoted last week. "Because of all the extra work that we did before the draft.

"From the psychological testing, from the mental aptitude test, from all of those things that we have statistical analysis and data on that are going to say, 'Hey, he has that makeup to be a successful quarterback.' Not only from what he does physically on the field, but all those other things that we weigh into our decision-making process."

Spielman, who compared Ponder's starts as a rookie to those of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Jay Cutler, said Ponder likely looked better in his early starts because he caught team's off guard.

"I think when he first came in and started playing, it was almost (as if) teams didn't know how to game plan for him," Spielman said. "It was all new to him so he was just going out there playing. All of a sudden there were some turnovers that started (happening).

"Then you see him take a step back and become more conservative. Then even though he got dinged up in these last two games, what you saw him do and some of the throws he made in the Washington game and some he even made this past week against Chicago, you were like, 'Wow.'"

Ponder's focus

Ponder said he will work hard to improve his pre-snap reads, something that can only come with time and experience.

"When you can eliminate a lot of things pre-snap in your reads then you're able to get the ball out so much faster," he said. "And that's the huge difference between the NFL and college. You've got to get the ball out really quick and you can't be late with your reads, otherwise the guy's not open. I've come to notice that."

Ponder plans to spend plenty of time at Winter Park with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson. The nice thing for all three is they can work together this offseason, something that wasn't possible last year because of the NFL lockout.

The lockout was lifted briefly after Ponder was drafted so he was able to get a playbook. But when the work stoppage went back into effect, all Ponder could do was take that playbook to Brandenton, Fla., and work with former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke at the IMG Madden Football Academy.

Without having the author of the playbook nearby, Ponder could only guess how Musgrave would run things. That no longer will be the case and now Ponder will have time to study, ask questions and not have to worry about turning around and playing right away.

"I think it's diving fully into the playbook for so many months without having the pressure of learning it so quickly to go into a game," he said of how this time will help. "Then having the offensive coordinator sit down and talk to you every day about what he's thinking. That's hard to do in the season.

"You've got so much you're focused on. You're just trying to get ready for a game. I don't know if you're really fully absorbing that information. It's hard to do. Especially with the lockout last summer. ... I think that's really going to help. Just getting more comfortable in it and knowing exactly what I should be doing on those reads and everything."

Learning experience

Ponder was lifted from the Vikings victory in Washington because of a concussion and from the season-ending defeat to Chicago because of the hip pointer.

But he also was removed from the Vikings' loss at Detroit on Dec. 11 partially for performance-based reasons. Ponder was battling a hip pointer and hadn't had much practice time that week.

While there were some at Winter Park who didn't agree with the decision, Ponder said he understood why he was yanked. But the decision did damage his pride a bit.

"It hurt. For me or anybody, it's difficult to be taken out when you're not playing well," said Ponder, who threw three interceptions before coming out in the third quarter. "Coach said basically when he took me out and after the game, he thought it was due to my performance because of my injury. I didn't practice all week and everything.

"But obviously I was hurting the team more than helping them, and I agreed. I should have been taken out. I never want to be the person that is hurting the team and I was at that point. But that's difficult for me to handle. Being the person that isn't helping your team. I was always a player that did well and was one that was always helping the team, not hurting them.

"For me that's just used as motivation this offseason to get better. I want to be one of those guys that when we win games I'm the reason. I'm not the reason why we're losing. It's a little chip on my shoulder that I'll use and it will help to my benefit."

Dunbar's exit no surprise

Karl Dunbar had been telling people for weeks that he would not return as the Vikings defensive line coach, so it came as no shock Friday when he parted company with the club.

Perhaps the only mild surprise was that it was painted as if Dunbar was simply let go by the team.

Dunbar had talked to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last offseason about coaching their defensive line and had other opportunities to look elsewhere in recent years.

If you are looking for fault with one of the defensive position coaches employed by the Vikings in 2011, Dunbar would be the last guy you would look at.

End Jared Allen finished with 22 sacks, a half-sack off Michael Strahan's single-season NFL record, and the Vikings tied for the NFL lead with 50 sacks.

The shakeup of the Vikings' defensive staff was expected and clearly coordinator Fred Pagac is either going to be fired or reassigned after one year in that position.

The Vikings already have interviewed former Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris about becoming their defensive coordinator, and the CBS Sports website reported Saturday that former St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo; interim Jacksonville Jaguars coach Mel Tucker; and Vikings linebackers coach and assistant head coach Mike Singletary are lined up to interview for the coordinator's job.

The fact that Pagac is left to twist in the wind shouldn't surprise anyone who follows the Vikings. The same thing happened last year to former offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and former special teams coordinator Brian Murphy. Both men saw potential replacements brought into Winter Park while they remained on the job.

Brinkley ready to return

Linebacker Jasper Brinkley spent the 2011 season rehabbing after having surgery on his hip in late August and being placed on injured reserve.

Brinkley, a fifth-round pick of the Vikings in 2009, would have served as E.J. Henderson's backup at middle linebacker, if he had been healthy. Brinkley also got some reps at weak-side linebacker in training camp.

"It was definitely frustrating because of the fact that I couldn't play," Brinkley said. "I definitely wanted to be out there with the guys and just being shut down for the whole year was very difficult."

Brinkley said if he hadn't been on injured reserve that he could have played in the last couple of games. That, of course, wouldn't have made sense because Brinkley would have been taking up a roster spot for the entire year.

Brinkley, in fact, said he watched all of the Vikings games at his home until the final two at the Metrodome when he was able to get off crutches and stand on the sideline.

His rehab took about four hours a day.

"I've definitely been putting in the time to get back on the field," he said. "When I do get back on the field, there shouldn't be any issues with any injury or anything."

Brinkley expects to be ready to go when the offseason camps start.

"It's going to be great," he said. "Just to be able to show the coaches that I am back healed fully from my injury and they don't have anything to worry about. It's going to be great, just for my comfort level and for theirs."

Henderson will be an unrestricted free agent in March and there would appear a good chance the veteran won't be back. That could mean Brinkley will come in as the front-runner for the starting job at middle linebacker.

Brinkley, though, isn't best suited for the Tampa-2 scheme the Vikings have used since the 2006 season. Even before the surgery, Brinkley was a guy who was a big hitter but wasn't great at dropping into coverage.

Brinkley isn't worried about that right now.

"I've seen new horizons just because I had to look at the game from a different perspective, " he said of having grown during this past season. "I have to be the guy that's on the outside looking in instead of being on the inside looking out. So it's definitely made me look at the game a different way. I have a greater respect for it now."

Brinkley, by the way, said he did undergo microfracture hip surgery, which is the same thing wide receiver Sidney Rice had done before the 2010 season.

Initially, Brinkley thought he had a hip pointer. "It came out not to be a hip pointer," he said. "So that was the biggest thing."

Odds and ends

• Former Vikings coach Mike Tice might be in a position to get a second shot as an NFL head coach if he has success as the Chicago Bears new offensive coordinator. Tice was promoted from offenisve line coach last week. It sounds like the Bears want to give Tice some help with an assistant when it comes to the passing game but it will be Tice who will call the plays. That is something he hasn't done on a regular basis in his coaching career. If Tice proves himself in his new role, it could get him another look. The Jets, by the way, had real interest in Tice shortly after he left the Vikings following the 2005 season.

• Another former Vikings coach, Brad Childress, reportedly will interview with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers about their vacant head coaching job on Monday.

• The NHL's Players Association isn't going for the owners' realignment plan and that means the previously announced decision to redo the divisions and playoff format will be put on hold. This does not come as a surprise considering the NHL's collective bargaining agreement expires in September and former baseball union head Donald Fehr now holds the same job in the NHL. Fehr isn't exactly a pushover. This is a bargaining chip. Let's see now if both sides are short-sighted enough to have another work stoppage.

• With the Washington Wizards falling to 0-8 after Sunday's loss to the Timberwolves, it's likely or a matter of time before former Wolves coach Flip Saunders is shown the door. When that happens, there will be plenty of speculation about Saunders returning to coach the Gophers, especially if Tubby Smith's team doesn't turn around things in Big Ten play. If Saunders ever does coach the Gophers, don't be surprised if he pushes for the program to get a new home arena. That's right, not practice facility, but arena.

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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