NFL Nation: 2014 season predictions
On the state of Christian Ponder's progress
June, 20, 2013
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsChristian Ponder said he has spent the offseason improving his decision-making and accuracy.EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Standing with reporters Thursday on the final day of the Minnesota Vikings' offseason program, quarterback Christian Ponder provided this summary of his work with the offense: "We definitely got better, but there were some days that were better than others."
Any objective observation on the state of Ponder's game, at least based on practices open to the media, must follow suit. There were some throws that made you think Ponder has turned a corner with his decision-making and accuracy, but there were also some head-scratchers that you should never see from an established NFL starter.
Even as the national media hovers and waits for controversy with new backup Matt Cassel, I'm certain that the Vikings will take Ponder's good along with the bad. No one is perfect, of course. But Ponder could make it easier on himself by making sure that the bad isn't quite as scary as a few of the throws he made this spring.
A few stand out:
- A double-pump push-throw Tuesday toward tight end John Carlson, which cornerback Josh Robinson easily stepped in front of and intercepted.
- Two overthrows of tight end Kyle Rudolph during organized team activities (OTAs). One was in the end zone. On the other, the ball went five feet over Rudolph's head and landed in the arms of safety Harrison Smith.
- Two interceptions by defensive end Brian Robison in one practice, including one with Robison standing within a few feet of him.
It's only fair to note a number of passes we haven't seen consistently from Ponder in previous years. On the same day he threw the interception to Smith, Ponder followed up with a perfectly-arced pass that dropped over middle linebacker Erin Henderson and into Rudolph's hands. Perhaps Ponder's best practice of those open to the media came on Wednesday, when he was confidently firing to downfield receivers all afternoon, most notably on a deep post to receiver Stephen Burton.
If there is a concern about the dichotomy between those two groups of throws, it's that they mirror Ponder's performance last season. When you break down his 2012 campaign objectively, it's hard to avoid this conclusion: When he was good, he was really good. And when he was bad, he was awful.
As the chart shows, Ponder was a top-10 quarterback based on Total Quarterback Rating in half of the Vikings' games and one of the NFL's worst in the other half. Not surprisingly, the Vikings were 7-1 in the former and 3-5 in the latter.
To draw the unequivocal conclusion that Ponder has turned the corner this offseason, you would want to see a leveling out of those ups and downs. What I think we saw was a greater number of ups and fewer downs, but the polarity between the two remained the same.
Ponder said he spent the offseason dedicated to improving two aspects of his game: decision-making and accuracy. Coach Leslie Frazier assessed those efforts Thursday, and on the former he said: "His football above the neck has been impressive in the time he's been out here practicing. He's got the athletic ability and you want him to make good decisions under the center, and some of the things he's done out here leads me to believe along with our staff that he's grown a lot in that area. Making better decisions with the football which should help him down the line."
On accuracy, Frazier said: "I think he's much better. He's worked his tail off trying to improve his accuracy. Coaches have put him through a bunch of different drills. Through his hard work, I think he's improved in that area. We've got some things we've got to get done in training camp, but he's put in the work to improve and we're seeing that."
I wouldn't expect anything less from an always-optimistic coach on the final day of offseason practices. So it's worth noting how new receiver Greg Jennings responded when asked his initial impressions of Ponder.
"I love his personality," Jennings said. "I love his demeanor on the field. The one thing we talk about, and I've shared with him more than anything, is the trust factor. Because he has everything he needs. He has all the tangibles. He has the skill set. He has it. It's just about trusting the other guy, whether that other guy is Kyle, myself, [Jerome Simpson], across the board. It's just about trust: That we're going to be where he knows we should be. And us trusting that he's going to have the ball where we know it should be. That's the one thing that kind if takes that split second off of our timing. Other than that, once we develop that trust and that comfort, sky's the limit."
Jennings of course, is used to a pretty high standard at the quarterback position based on his career with the Green Bay Packers. But his response was a reasonable articulation of Ponder's still-evolving final step: To step confidently and throw every pass as opposed to the more-than-occasional double-clutch and/or wild throw that sails over a receiver's head.
"For me, my step is overall to be a better quarterback," Ponder said. "What I've said is it comes down to two things: decision-making and accuracy. For me to help my decision-making, it's getting more experience in OTAs. Watching more film. Getting familiar with our offense and then watching more film on defenses and defensive schemes. Accuracy just comes down to all fundamentals. Footwork from head to toe."
Ponder is continuing to move in the right direction. Has he moved far enough? Can he maximize his good throws and eliminate the terrible ones? We're about to find out.
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