The Vikings divide their season into quarters to set short-term goals, but looking at Christian Ponder's stats on a month-by-month basis this season shows declining productivity, not the progress the Vikings were hoping to see.
First, the good news for those optimistic that Ponder can still live up to his first-round draft status: In 12 starts he has actually improved in his second NFL season and the Vikings have put more on him. Last year, Ponder played in 11 games, making 10 starts and attempted 291 passes, completing 54.3 percent of them.
This year, Ponder has started all 12 games, but he has attempted 384 passes, completing 62.5 of them. His average yards-per-completion has gone down slightly, but he has a 14-to-11 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio, whereas last year he was even at 13-to-13. His passer rating has also improved, from 70.1 to 79.4, and he has taken three fewer sacks but rushed 15 more times.
So, why all the consternation about Ponder's performance? Maybe it's because he has actually regressed as the season has progressed.
Ponder had a 97.7 rating in September, throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions with a 6.7-yard average per completion. At that point, it looked like the Vikings' confidence in him would be justified. He wasn't throwing downfield very often, but the early chemistry with Percy Harvin was promising, as the receiver was a league leader in receptions and yards after the catch.
The return of Jerome Simpson after a three-game suspension was a tantalizing prospect, too, but all of Ponder's numbers fell in October, when his rating hit 75.2, he threw six touchdowns and seven interceptions and averaged 6.6 yards per completion.
In November, those numbers fell once again. Last month, his rating was 71.8, he threw only three touchdowns and two interceptions and averaged 4.6 yards per completion.
Position coach Craig Johnson said at the start of training camp that quarterbacks "are really doing something" if they are completing 65 percent of their passes. But the more important stats to Johnson are the touchdowns-to-interception ratio and yards per attempt.
Ponder is completing 62.5 percent of his passes, has a positive TD-to-INT ratio and averages 6.0 yards per attempt. That last number comes up two yards short of Johnson's desire mark, and the quarterbacks coach was almost prophetic about what would happen when he was talking at the start of training camp – although he never intended it as a prediction.
"You can find a way to never throw interceptions and complete a lot of passes, but the ball never moves down the field and you're throwing it short and dumping it off," Johnson said. "What younger guys are going to do, they've got to find out what they can do – that's what we use the offseason for – and then when you get into the season, you kind of know what you can and cannot do. With all that said, there's going to be some troubles, there's going to be some storms. That's part of being a quarterback. The other thing is, when that mistake comes, how are you going to handle it? Can you make a mistake and move on or are you dwelling about that? The older you get, the less you dwell on the past."
Although Ponder said he has gotten better about moving on from his mistakes, especially compared to his days at Florida State, there are times that the weight of the season appears to be sitting heavily on his shoulders.
But he has consistently talked about getting better and learning from mistakes. He did that three weeks ago against Detroit, when he hit Jarius Wright for a 54-yard reception on the Vikings' first series. That helped the Vikings end a two-game losing streak.
However, they are right back in that same situation. They've lost their last two games – to Chicago and Green Bay – and are back at home fighting for their playoff lives. And, once again, they face the Bears.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, Ponder has struggled especially in his four divisional games to date, when his combined passer rating is 71.9 and he has four touchdowns to three interceptions and only 4.8 yards per attempt. That includes ratings of 41.9 against the Green Bay Packers last week and 58.2 against the Chicago Bears the week before that.
Not surprisingly, he has been better at home than on the road. At home, he has an 88.1 rating with eight touchdowns and five interceptions while averaging 6.9 yards per completion. On the road, his rating is 71.6 with six touchdowns and six interceptions and a 5.2-yard average per completion.
Johnson was asked at the start of training camp what his most important statistics are for the quarterback position, and Ponder got that same quesiton more recently. Before the Green Bay game, he pointed to turnovers being more important to him.
"Number one is turnovers. Obviously, those impact the game the most," Ponder said. "Other than that, the thing we talked about early on in the year was efficiency on first down and that's something that I've kind of swayed away from and something that I need to improve. But, other than that, that's what a quarterback needs to do is efficiently spread the ball around and not turn the ball over."
Four days later, Ponder threw two crippling interceptions – the first one in the end zone with the Vikings on the verge of adding to a 14-10 lead. He might have been able to run the ball in, or simply throw it high in the back of the end zone like coaches preach. At worst, he could have thrown the second-down pass away. Instead, the Packers took advantage of the interception, avoiding the likely points the Vikings would have scored and marching 51 yards downfield to pull within a point, 14-13. It was the start of Green Bay's 13 unanswered points (another three points coming off Ponder's second interception of the game).
Ponder's performances of late have Vikings fans on the brink of a mutiny.
Five of Ponder's last six performances have rendered passer ratings below 75, with three of them below 45. Through it all, he has some ardent supporters in head coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman. They want to see him successfully man the position for years to come, but the Bears are living proof that holding onto hope doesn't always turn around the fortunes of a young quarterback. Playing a young quarterback through the tough times doesn't always mean they will go away.
Exhibit A: Rex Grossman. The Bears tried to develop Grossman for six years after drafting him in 2003. Granted, Ponder is already ahead of where Grossman was after two years, but the point is that not all quarterbacks develop just because their teams stick with them. Grossman was finally given a chance to be the Bears' full-time starter in his fourth season and completed only 54.6 percent of his passes for 3,193 yards, 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions for a 73.9 passer rating, only slightly above his career average rating.
"As a coach, when you believe in your guy and what you're doing, it's easy to – I wouldn't necessarily say defense – but you have to do that a little bit," he said of publicly sticking by a young quarterback. "… To me, what I've been doing right now and have been doing a long time, everyone you see on the football field gives us the best chance to win. If you feel good about that, nothing else really matters.
"That's the life of a head coach, you stay with what you believe. It's an easy day each day if you stay with your beliefs."
Frazier has stuck by Ponder through thick and thin this year, eschewing the notion that playing a backup in relief doesn't have to undermine the starter's confidence or the possibility of returning to the starter the following game.
Frazier said he has the authority to make a change during the game if necessary. Ponder has four more games this year to find what was making him successful early in the season, and he'll have to do it without Harvin. He can't afford to let the fourth quarter of his season continue the downward spiral of the last three months. He will have to put up his own version of a December to remember or the Vikings may have to forget about him being their lone starting option in 2013.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Sunday slant: QB regressing, not progressing
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