Through the first two seasons of his NFL career, Christian Ponder has been a kind of quarterback Rorschach test—everyone sees something different when analyzing his potential.
Some focus on his athleticism, intelligence and arm strength, while others are disappointed by his hesitant play in the pocket, dubious decision making and accuracy issues. The 6' 2", 229-pound quarterback is either an emerging talent on the cusp of a breakout year, having turned a huge corner during the Vikings' surprise 4--0 playoff-berth-clinching run last December, or he's facing a crossroad season that could result in his losing the starting job.
Here's where we stand: With the clock ticking on the prime of incomparable running back Adrian Peterson, a much-improved corps of receivers and a veteran quarterback in Matt Cassel now on the sideline, a heightened sense of urgency exists in Minnesota. Ponder, 25, must prove he's the club's unquestioned No. 1 quarterback.
"He does seem to be put under the microscope," says general manager Rick Spielman of Ponder, the team's first-round pick in 2011. "But the same things happened to [Giants two-time Super Bowl--winning quarterback] Eli Manning early on in New York. He had a lot of ups and downs in his second and third years, but that stopped when he won the Super Bowl in year four . You have to look at the whole picture, and we feel very confident that [Ponder] is progressing the way he should be."
Spielman's support of Ponder may put him in the minority, but no one disputes how clutch the quarterback was in Week 17's showdown against Green Bay in the Metrodome, when the Vikings' once-improbable wild-card hopes hung in the balance. Ponder led two crucial fourth-quarter scoring drives to give Minnesota a 37--34 lead, and with eventual league MVP Peterson rumbling for 199 yards, the Vikings held on to win, securing a return to the playoffs after finishing last in the NFC North in 2010 and '11. Ponder was unable to play in the Vikings-Packers rematch the following week in Green Bay because of a bruised triceps, and Minnesota went down without a fight, 24--10, in the NFC wild-card game.
"That [win in the first game] should be a stepping-stone," says Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. "It's something he can look back on and say, 'I know I can do this. I proved it.' I think we'll say that was the turning point in his career."
Ponder played well down the stretch last season, but it was still Peterson who carried the team to the playoffs on the strength of 2,097 rushing yards. That's why Ponder starts 2013 probably two bad games away from hearing calls for Cassel, and why he knows his strong final month didn't completely wipe away the doubts he stoked with a midseason slump in '12.
"In the middle of the season, I tried to force things, and I made decisions that probably weren't the smartest," Ponder says. "For me it was about finding that right balance, taking risks and throwing the ball downfield, but not forcing things that weren't there. Late in the year it was just a change of mind-set that I'm going to just go out and have fun with it. I stopped overthinking things and just let it go, and it worked. That would help anyone's confidence."
But the Vikings knew that Ponder needed more than increased confidence this season. He needed better outside receiving weapons in order to take advantage of all the defenses that put eight and nine men in the box in an attempt to slow down Peterson.
Just days after a March trade that sent the talented but problematic Percy Harvin to Seattle, Minnesota signed veteran Greg Jennings to a five-year, $45 million contract, and the following month drafted raw but gifted receiver and return man Cordarrelle Patterson out of Tennessee. With Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph always a favorite target, a healthy Jerome Simpson at receiver and the constant threat of Peterson in the backfield, Ponder should top his 28 completions of 20 or more yards in 2012, which was the lowest among NFC quarterbacks who started 16 games.
The Vikings need their quarterback to trust his talent. If he does that, the team will grow to trust him and the negative perceptions will fade away.
THE CASE FOR...
Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson
When the Vikings drafted the 6' 2" 220-pounder No. 29 out of Tennessee, their hope was that he'd have an impact in the return game this season; on offense they'd give him only a scaled-down package of plays to learn as a receiver. Patterson proved he had step 1 down pat right away, taking the first live NFL ball he touched 50 yards on a kick return against Houston in the preseason. But he's developed faster than anticipated as a receiver, and now the expectation is that he can give Minnesota the deep, speedy threat it's lacked since Sidney Rice left town. With free-agent pickup Greg Jennings working the intermediate zones and tight end Kyle Rudolph emerging as a consistent option, the Vikings' passing game suddenly has the look of being far more varied than at any other time in coach Leslie Frazier's three-year tenure. Historically, wideouts have tended to be slow in acclimating to the NFL. This rookie wears number 84—a number familiar to Minnesotans. Randy Moss first wore it in 1998 as a rookie. And he didn't take long in setting the NFL afire.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
March 5 Cut WR Michael Jenkins
March 12 Trade WR Percy Harvin (SEA); re-sign OT Phil Loadholt
March 15 Sign WR Greg Jennings(GB), QB Matt Cassel (KC)
April 12 Cut CB Antoine Winfield
April 25 Draft DT Sharrif Floyd (Florida), CB Xavier Rhodes (FSU), WR Cordarrelle Patterson (Tennessee)
May 6 Cut P Chris Kluwe
June 27 Sign LB Desmond Bishop (GB)
A jumbled off-season saw a mix of veteran and draft additions offset by notable losses. Harvin's seemingly constant rumbles of discontent—with the offense, with his QB, with his contract—forced a trade that, in the short term, looks wise given the WR's almost-immediate injury in Seattle. But Rhodes and Patterson are future-focused assets who should replace the production of Winfield and Harvin; and Floyd may have been the best value pick in the draft. Jennings and Bishop are the latest in a long line of ex-Packers who've defected to the Vikings, and each should provide instant upgrades.
Andrew Brandt's Off-season Grade B+
2012 RECORD: 10--6
8 at Detroit
15 at Chicago
21 at New York Giants (Mon)
27 Green Bay
3 at Dallas
7 Washington (Thu)
17 at Seattle
24 at Green Bay
8 at Baltimore
22 at Cincinnati
Four straight dates with teams that had double-digit wins in '12 is daunting enough. But three of those games are at notoriously nasty stadiums, and the Vikes were 3--6 on the road last season.
WITH 2012 STATS
OFFENSE 2012 RANK: 20
(N) NEW ACQUISITION
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
QB CHRISTIAN PONDER
HANNAH FOSLIEN/GETTY IMAGES