Christian Ponder (Jon Dahlin/Viking Update)
The jury is still out on QB Christian Ponder, but the Vikings are making no apologies for sticking with the running game first. Still, Ponder’s final three games are an important phase in evaluating his development.
Christian Ponder has started 23 games, almost 1½ seasons of work, but the next three games could go a long way to determining his future and the final evaluation the Vikings’ talent evaluators place on his 2012 season.
Playing alongside a star running back in Adrian Peterson that is in the discussion for league MVP and a star receiver in Percy Harvin that was in that discussion before getting hurt, Ponder has been asked to manage a game more than take over it. He said the “game manager” label is a bad badge to wear and throwing 17 times a game is fine by him.
Still, with Ponder near the bottom of the league with a 78.3 passer rating, he still has much to prove, despite the Vikings improving from 3-13 last year to 7-6 and in the playoff hunt with three games remaining this year.
“You’re in a situation now that is sometimes unique for a second-year quarterback. You’re in the middle of a playoff race in December, so this will be in a lot of ways a defining moment for where he is in his development as a quarterback. I think he’s made progress and there’s still more progress to be made,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said.
That said, Frazier added that he isn’t trying to figure out who his quarterback for next year will be. No doubt Ponder will be among the candidates, but veteran competition could be acquired if Ponder doesn’t improve in the final three games of the regular season.
Ponder started the season by going four straight games without an interception, then threw six over the next three games and eight over the next five. He has thrown 12 interceptions in his last eight games and admits that staying patient in the pocket has been a challenge.
“It’s an adjustment going from college, where you can run around a lot. In the NFL, when you’re running around you’re not going to get as many yards or create as many plays as you did in college,” Ponder said. “To learn to be more patient in the pocket is big and that’s something I’ve got to learn to work on. When I do move in the pocket, not to move out, but to find ways to find a different lane in the pocket to throw through – staying in the cylinder rather than getting out of the pocket.”
While Frazier is concentrating on winning the next three games and getting to the playoffs, eventually the Vikings will have to make a decision on the personnel they have lined up to compete with Ponder next year. When do they feel confident in continuing to develop him and when would they give up on that if he doesn’t make progress?
That could be the most important decision for the franchise’s short- and long-term future.
Jeff Fisher, the coach of the Vikings’ next opponent, the St. Louis Rams, has seen both ends of the spectrum. While with the Tennessee Titans, he spent years hoping first-round draft pick Vince Young would become a star at the position. That never happened. Now with the Rams, Fisher is continuing to develop 2010 first-round draft pick Sam Bradford.
He made clear there is a distinct difference between the two.
“Let’s be very clear that that’s an unfair comparison between Vince and Sam. Sam is a pro. Sam had an outstanding rookie year his second year,” Fisher said during a conference call with Minnesota reporters Wednesday. “It’s something we know why things happened here with the lockout, the new coordinator change and all the injuries, not only to his teammates up front and the receiver position, but himself. We washed that aside and we started over. I think Sam has an opportunity to be one of the better quarterbacks in this league in a very short period of time.”
The Vikings have issued similar sentiments about Ponder, too, but the jury is still out.
The challenge for the Vikings will be trying to come up with a complete evaluation on Ponder while factoring in a receiving corps that hasn’t been much help since Percy Harvin’s ankle injury effectively ended his season after nine games.
In addition, the Vikings have the very public mission of building their offense around Adrian Peterson’s ability to run the ball. That will limit Ponder’s opportunities to really open up the passing game.
“I don’t think we’re marginalizing (Ponder). We’re playing to our strengths, but that doesn’t mean we can’t open it up and throw the football,” Frazier said. “But when you’ve got the best running back in the National Football League in your backfield, I just don’t know if you want to revolve around the passing game. Our offense is going to revolve around number 28 (Peterson). There’s no secret to that. Christian is developing. We’re going to have opportunities to throw the football during the course of this game (against the Rams).
“He’s going to have to make some key third-down decisions, some key red zone decisions. That’s a part of the development as well. Having him drop back and throw it 30 times doesn’t necessarily have to be part of your development. There are a lot of things that go into developing at that quarterback position. It just so happens that he’s in a position where he’s playing with the best in the business at a position.”
Peterson has been listed on the injury report before, but on Wednesday he was limited because of an abdominal injury.
CB A.J. Jefferson (concussion) and CB Antoine Winfield (knee) were the only Vikings that didn't practice. Frazier classified Winfield’s absence as giving him some rest but added “his knee is bothering him a little bit.” He is expected to practice tomorrow and Friday.
Jefferson has passed some steps in the NFL’s post-concussion testing, but not all of them.
“He’s getting closer. We should know something (Thursday), have a little bit more conclusive idea of whether he’s going to make it or not,” Frazier said.
If Jefferson can’t play Sunday against the Rams, Josh Robinson would get the start in the base defense and Marcus Sherels would be the nickel cornerback. Sherels will “probably” be the kick returner whether Jefferson is able to return or not, Frazier said.
CB Chris Cook (broken arm) was among the Vikings practicing Wednesday, but he isn’t eligible to play until the Vikings’ game against the Houston Texans on Dec. 23 because he is on the injured reserve/designated to return list. Cook said “it’ll be close” when asked if he will be ready for that game.
Other Vikings who were limited on the injury report: LB Jasper Brinkley (shoulder), G Charlie Johnson (ankle), RT Phil Loadholt (knee) and TE Kyle Rudolph (shoulder).
For the Rams, S Craig Dahl (head), CB Cortland Finnegan (ankle), LB James Laurinaitis (back), RB Steven Jackson (foot), TE Mike McNeill (thigh) and C Scott Wells (knee) didn’t practice.
WR Danny Amendola, St. Louis’ leading receiver with 51 catches for 576 yards, was limited with a foot injury.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.