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4 MINNESOTA: Vikings
Don Banks
September 03, 2012
Christian Ponder took his lumps in 2011. That's fine, as long as he follows the typical QB trajectory, especially the part about a big Year 2 leap
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September 03, 2012

4 Minnesota: Vikings

Christian Ponder took his lumps in 2011. That's fine, as long as he follows the typical QB trajectory, especially the part about a big Year 2 leap

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QB CHRISTIAN PONDER
  ATT 291 COMP 158 PCT 54.3 YARDS 1,853
  YD/ATT 6.4 TD 13 INT 13 RATING 70.1
RB ADRIAN PETERSON
  ATT 208 YARDS 970 REC 18 TTD 13
FB JEROME FELTON (N)
  ATT 3 YARDS 10 REC 4 TTD 0
WR PERCY HARVIN
  REC 87 YARDS 967 AVG 11.1 TTD 9
WR JEROME SIMPSON (N)
  REC 50 YARDS 725 AVG 14.5 TTD 4
TE KYLE RUDOLPH
  REC 26 YARDS 249 AVG 9.6 TD 3
LT MATT KALIL (R)
  GS 12 SACKS — HOLD — FALSE —
LG CHARLIE JOHNSON
  GS 16 SACKS 9 HOLD 0 FALSE 3
C JOHN SULLIVAN
  GS 15 SACKS 2½ HOLD 1 FALSE 0
RG BRANDON FUSCO
  GS 0 SACKS 0 HOLD 0 FALSE 0
RT PHIL LOADHOLT
  GS 16 SACKS 9½ HOLD 4 FALSE 4
RB TOBY GERHART
  ATT 109 YARDS 531 REC 23 TTD 4
WR MICHAEL JENKINS
  REC 38 YARDS 466 AVG 12.3 TTD 3

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.

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