GIVEN THE first-year accomplishments of Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and their ilk, one can easily forget what a rookie NFL quarterback's season traditionally looks like: some good, some bad and plenty of ugly.
Christian Ponder hasn't forgotten. The Vikings' 2011 first-round pick, No. 12 overall, lived the more typical experience, a trial-by-fire season that saw flashes of potential overshadowed by mistake after mistake. Starting the final 10 games, after Minnesota acknowledged that it had whiffed on Donovan McNabb, Ponder made some flashy plays on the run, attempted far too many throws that never had a chance, suffered an array of injuries and, eventually, lost confidence as the Vikings sputtered to a 3--13 finish, tying a franchise low for the 16-game era.
It was a far cry from the slow-but-steady improvement that the organization was expecting of its latest franchise quarterback—which has made it all the more remarkable to see Ponder's improved grasp of the offense this preseason.
"It's night and day," says Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. "There are fewer unknowns. He's feeling comfortable. He's being patient."
Patience. That was the obvious concern following Ponder's rookie season, which included an interception to match each of his 13 touchdown passes as he went 2--8 as a starter. Typically, Ponder created trouble for opponents by keeping plays alive with his feet, but far too often he panicked when pressure dirtied the pocket, pulling the ball down prematurely and giving up on plays before he reached his second read.
But the increased familiarity with the Vikings' offense that comes with a full off-season has Ponder playing faster and more in control. Rather than locking in on a receiver, coaches say, he has begun to see the whole field, consistently making better decisions when a play breaks down. The game has slowed for him, even as his reaction time has sped up.
"I didn't improve enough [last year], and there's no way around that," says Ponder, who took 30 sacks, completed just 54.3% of his throws and had a mediocre 70.1 passer rating. "It was a learning process, but I think I'm better off for having gone through those times. I feel so much more confident this year."
That confidence is catching on. With Ponder showing improved decisiveness, timing and accuracy in the pocket, plus faster recognition skills, teammates and coaches have lauded his control, and they appear comfortable ceding that this is his team—even if Minnesota's offense will always feature a huge dose of running back Adrian Peterson, who is expected to return to form after tearing the MCL and the ACL in his left knee last December.
"He's much better at so many things," Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier says of Ponder. "Even though it was difficult at times for us last season, we're that much further along because he played as a rookie. It was the right decision."
Also prudent was the Vikings' decision this off-season to provide Ponder with some much-needed help. They upgraded their offensive line by drafting USC's Matt Kalil (6'7", 308) with the fourth overall pick, and his insertion into the lineup at left tackle addresses the protection problems that contributed to Minnesota's 49 total sacks in 2011, tied for fifth most in the league. Former Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson was added in free agency to prevent Percy Harvin from getting doubled, and Seattle tight end John Carlson was signed, creating, along with 2011 second-round pick Kyle Rudolph, a one-two receiving punch at that position.
Even with Ponder's improvement, the Vikings still will field the fourth-best quarterback in the suddenly pass-happy NFC North. But defensive leaders Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and Kevin Williams are responding to new coordinator Alan Williams, who spent the past decade leading the Colts' secondary, and a soft early schedule should allow for some momentum-building.
Traditionally, Year 2 marks a great leap forward for quarterbacks. And Ponder, says quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson, "doesn't look like a rookie anymore." For a franchise looking to move ahead, that's a huge relief.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 18
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 3--13
16 at Indianapolis
23 San Francisco
30 at Detroit
14 at Washington
25 Tampa Bay (Thu)
4 at Seattle
25 at Chicago
2 at Green Bay
16 at St. Louis
23 at Houston
30 Green Bay
With his penchant for acrobatics, Simpson was a must-see at Vikings camp, though the new big-play receiver won't be visible for the season's first three games as he serves a suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Jumpin' Jerome is an intriguing talent who signed a low-risk, one-year, $2 million deal despite the impending suspension, which followed a 15-day jail term as part of a felony drug conviction.
As a Bengal in 2011, Simpson, 26, caught a career-best 50 passes for 725 yards and made a claim to Play of the Year for his spectacular front-flip TD over Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington in Week 16. But he's no mere sideshow in Minnesota. He'll be expected to stretch the field, opening up room underneath for fellow receiver Percy Harvin and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. In the preseason Simpson quickly became one of Christian Ponder's favorite targets ("We're having fun finding out what we can do," says Simpson); he helped set up a TD against the Bills by catching an underneath pass and hurdling a tackler for a 33-yard gain. Simpson gives the Vikes their best deep threat since Sidney Rice left before the '11 season, and he appears ready to repay them for giving him a second chance.
Average rushing yards between the guards by Vikings running backs in 2011, making theirs the best A-gap ground game in the league.
Yards from scrimmage by Percy Harvin, who played 58.4% of snaps. Only five NFL receivers had more yards, and all played a higher percentage of snaps.
Yards per carry by Minnesota's offense when a fullback (usually Jim Kleinsasser or Ryan D'Imperio) was on the field, second best in the league behind the Bills.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (PONDER)
Ponder will get a big boost if, as expected, his superstar running back is around to carry the load.
BRYAN C. SINGER/ICON SMI (SIMPSON)