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Updated: July 2nd, 2012 5:30pm
Zulgad's Roundup: QB coach pleased with Christian Ponder's progress

Zulgad's Roundup: QB coach pleased with Christian Ponder's progress

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

This was an extremely important offseason for Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, and no one was more aware of this fact than his position coach, Craig Johnson.

The veteran coach joined the Vikings in 2011 after working with Steve McNair, Kerry Collins and Vince Young during a stint with the Tennessee Titans from 2000 to '10. Last season, Johnson saw Ponder, the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, take over for Donovan McNabb seven games into the season and throw 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

With the Vikings having wrapped up minicamp and set to report to training camp on July 26 in Mankato, Johnson is pleased with what Ponder was able to get done during the first NFL offseason in which he could work with his coaches.

Remember, Ponder was prohibited from doing anything at Winter Park last offseason because of the NFL lockout. We recently discussed Ponder's progress, and the expectations for the second-year quarterback, with Johnson.

Q. How far has Ponder come from the end of last season until now?

A. "I think there's no question, he's come light years. Obviously getting a chance to work out a lot of the kinks, a lot of the problems that you find out as a young player, that's when you get a chance to work on them is usually in the first offseason afterwards. Having been through this with a couple of other quarterbacks, I kind of know how it goes.

"They go back (and say), 'I can't believe I did this,' or, 'Oh my God, this is so clear now.' You kind of have to put them through the paces for them to understand what's good and bad about each play. I think he's really done a good job with that. ... He's making the mistakes like other guys do, but as he's going through them he learns how to work through them and he's making many fewer mistakes because the game is starting to slow down. That's what you look for."

Q. How much did he miss in retrospect not having an offseason in 2011 because of the NFL lockout?

A. "I would probably answer this for every quarterback I've been with: Most of your improvement is in the offseason because that's when you get a chance to work on all the details of all the plays. So if you don't have it, it's kind of a little bit more like a team that goes out and plays without practicing. It makes it a little bit difficult. With all that being said, young players learn by going out and making good plays and having some not so good plays.

"They must have a short-term memory regardless of what it is. If you have a good play, you have to come back and do it again. If you don't have such a good play, you have to learn how to get over it. That's one of the hardest things for young guys. They keep worrying about the last play and they can't get forward to the next play.

"That's part of the thing that you get a chance to work through. You get to work through the details of the plays, but you also get to (realize) that, 'If I do have a bad play, which I'm going to have, because every quarterback is going to have a bad one, can I move onto the next play or am I still thinking about the last play?'"

Q. Ponder seemed to play pretty well when he first got in there and then seemed to take some steps back. Was that a question of him maybe over thinking some things?

A. "I think that Christian is definitely a perfectionist and he's trying to do everything right and perfect. It's hard to play the game perfect. So, part of the thing that I've tried to do to help him is tell him, 'You know what? Stuff happens within a play. It's not always going to be like your draw it up. In fact, often times it's not like you draw it up and it's when you're knocked off the spot as a quarterback where you want to throw it, or you're trying to lead a receiver and you're not on the same page, (then) what happens? Well, you know what, that play is over and I move on.' That's what you have to be able to do.

"Where you're working on those little details, like this receiver likes to come out of the cut this way, this receiver likes to run a crossing route this way. You work on that and get most of your improvement in details right here (in practice). That's what he's doing."

Q. What's it like working with Ponder in that he's such a smart kid, but he could have a tendency to think too much? How do you go about telling him not to do that?

A. "I just say, 'Don't overanalyze. If you know exactly what you want to do with the ball, you've gone through your progression and you know where you want to go with the ball, and it's not there, then you have to move onto the next step.' Sometimes, (he will say), 'I know exactly what I'm doing, I know where I'm supposed to go with the ball.'

"But for whatever reason it hasn't worked.

"The receiver slipped, the guy has fallen down. That's the game. ... I always say, 'What if' to them. 'What if we've told you to go to this guy and he slips, or a guard slips, or a back misses a protection and a guy comes from (wherever)? What if? What are you going to do?' That's what you kind of have to do with a young (guy).

"They will be able to get that when the game slows down so they can kind of close their eyes and you'll kind of see them. They are kind of drawing on air, because they will say, 'I see where everybody is at. I know where I want to go with the ball. That's covered, where else? Where can I find a place to get rid of the ball to not take a sack and then move on and/or not force the ball down the field?'

"A lot of young guys like him say, 'I can get it in there,' and that's what they find out here (in practice). I've got find out what passes I can get in there, and you can kind of test yourself a little bit in the offseason to find out, 'Yeah, I can do that.' You don't really want to try it during the season so this is your time to test. 'Can I get that ball (to the receiver in that situation)? No, I'm not ready for that.' Some guys are ready for chemistry, but all at different levels. You have to find those problems and you try to solve them right now."

Q. Do you see the game slowing down for Ponder right now?

A. "It's hard to say because it's not full contact, but obviously there is a lot of action going on over there. There's no question there were three or four sequences (in minicamp that) I saw him, he came back and threw the ball, exactly what we talked about, and it was right there. Right where we wanted the ball to be. There's definitely a sense of improvement there. As a coach, I'm going to continue to keep the consistency and that's what the young guys do, 'Can I do it again? Can I do it again?' That's what we have to work on."

Q. Guys like Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton have had immediate success in the NFL that likely changes the expectations for Ponder. What is realistic from a coaching standpoint about what's expected from a guy like Christian?

A. "I just think obviously, as young guys, you always hope and look for the touchdown-interception ratio because for a lot of young guys, there's a really well-known guy who is out there who had a lot of turnovers early, but then he learned. (We believe Johnson was talking about the Giants' Eli Manning.)

"You always look for your touchdown to interception ratio to get better because you're trying to make sure you make better decisions and don't try to force the ball and get the ball in there all the time. ... Hopefully you're completion percentage goes up and as you get more comfortable, those two things, along with your yards per attempt (goes up), because now you can hit guys more in stride.

"That's what I found out from my 20-plus years of quarterbacking. When the light starts coming on, they don't just throw completions, they throw accurate completions. Then you will start seeing the receivers catch the ball and be able to run after the catch. That's when you've got it going and you're able to do that on a consistent basis. A lot of times young guys are happy to complete the pass. But when you're getting into the elite level you complete it accurately and now the guy can catch it and run."

Q. Does Ponder remind you of anyone you've coached?

A. "No, I really wouldn't say that because I haven't quite had a guy that has had the ability that he has with the brain and everything else that has gone on. There's a lot of guys that have a little bit of this or a little bit of that, but I put him kind of in a unique category because he's a strong, fast guy that can do a lot at the line of scrimmage. No, I couldn't say anybody that I've worked with. I think we're going to be happy with what his future is going to hold because I can continue to see him being a work in progress.

"We're going to try to lift him to another level and I think that's going to happen. But he's going to still be a work in progress. It takes a couple, three years before you really find out about guys but we're definitely going to try to get him, and the rest of our team, to bring it up a notch this year."

Decision to come

Nick Bjugstad spent time this week at the Florida Panthers developmental camp, but the Minnesota Gophers center still hasn't decided if he will leave college for the NHL.

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said the decision will be Bjugstad's to make, and Bjugstad told the Miami Herald he will decide after this camp.

Bjugstad was the 19th pick in the first round of the 2010 draft by the Panthers. He had 25 goals and 17 assists in 40 games with the Gophers as a sophomore last season but his play did seem to tail off late in the season.

Vikings considering option

The Minnesota Vikings are evaluating whether they will take up the NFL on its new rule that relaxes local television blackouts, according to chief marketing officer Steve LaCroix.

The team hasn't had a home game blacked out since the 1997 regular-season finale and likely won't have big issues selling tickets this season, given it will move into a new stadium in 2016 and will be aggressively trying to get fans to buy seasons tickets now in anticipation of being in the new venue.

But the Vikings did go 3-13 last season and could be in for another rough year in 2012.

The new blackout rule states that home teams will have the option of selling 85 percent of its tickets to avoid a blackout in its local television market. For years, the rule has been that teams had to sell out home games 72 hours in advance or get an extension on that deadline.

However, there is a catch to this 85 percent rule.

That is more revenue will have to be shared with the visiting team if tickets sold exceed 85 percent of overall capacity.

The Wall Street Journal first reported this change, which was approved in May at the NFL annual meetings. At the same time, owners reportedly also voted to add high-speed wireless Internet to all stadiums and have decided to begin showing the same replays in stadiums that game officials see when reviewing plays.

The Journal reports there is concern because league-wide attendance has declined over the past five years.

The NFL's fear seems to be that the experience at home, with many now watching in high definition and with a remote nearby, is preferable to that in the stadium.

End game

The Twins will send 12 people to Kansas City for the July 10 All-Star Game, according to team president Dave St. Peter. St. Peter said there is nothing new to report regarding the Twins' hopes of getting the 2014 All-Star Game at Target Field.

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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