Lockout Got Ponder Ready For Starting Role

For the second time in his brief career, impressive rookie Christian Ponder will face the Packers. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy used the word "composed." Clay Matthews called him "poised." And he's energized a Vikings team that was sinking fast.

By Minnesota Vikings standards, it's a pretty low measuring stick.

With a win against the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, Christian Ponder would tie the franchise record for most wins by a rookie quarterback. That would be two, set by Fran Tarkenton in 1961, when he looked like anything but a future Hall of Famer with eight losses in 10 starts.

Ponder, the 12th pick of April's draft, kept the Vikings in the game when he faced the Packers in Week 7, then beat Carolina 24-21 behind a key fourth-quarter drive that snapped a 21-all tie.

"He seems to have settled in fairly well and quickly," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said in a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Thursday "He's asserted himself and the players really see him as our starting quarterback. He played well enough to gain their confidence."

Confidence was key when Frazier benched veteran Donovan McNabb in favor of Ponder when these teams met on Oct. 23. As Packers coach Mike McCarthy has said on numerous occasions, it's not so much whether a young quarterback is ready to handle running the offense as much as it's whether the rest of the team is ready to play with a young quarterback. By giving the Vikings a chance to beat the Packers and then beating the Panthers, Ponder has made believers of a team that includes eight former Pro Bowlers and isn't too far removed from reaching the NFC Championship Game following the 2009 regular season.

"I hope I won them over, but my approach has been being the first one here and the last one to leave and trying to put in my time and trying to earn the respect of the guys," Ponder said during his conference call. "It's hard to do sometimes and I know that. So, I'm just trying to do what I can."

Ponder got his start during the lockout by leading workouts at the IMG Madden Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Receiver Percy Harvin and tight ends Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph were among those catching passes from Ponder, who was given a copy of new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's playbook during the one-day break in the lockout shortly after the draft. He also threw to Rudolph and several other NFL receivers at a camp organized by the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald at the University of Minnesota.

"Yeah, it did (help make the transition to the NFL)," Ponder said. "It helped me a lot more than if I stayed home and did nothing. Obviously, it's tough when you miss the OTAs and everything. But I worked with Chris Weinke, who played for Carolina for a while and knows the ins and outs of certain offenses. And he tried to help me as much as possible with my playbook, and I think it did help. I think it prepared me as much as I could for that first training camp."

In two starts (plus mop-up duty against Chicago), Ponder has completed 51.9 percent of his passes for 554 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. The bye, during which Ponder hung out at team headquarters watching film, should further his preparation for Monday night.

"He's got our game, he's got the Panthers game and he's a bye week, so he should be that much better than when we played him with experience," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Monday. "We know a little bit more about his capabilities, too, because we've got a little bit more to look at. We know he's a very good athlete, can run, is very good in the movement aspect of their passing game and does a good job throwing the ball -- he's got some velocity throwing the ball."

Granted, it's a small sample size, but he's excelled in two of the most important phases of the game: third down (70.4 percent completions) and red zone (5-for-5, two touchdowns, 137.9 rating). While he was picked off twice by Charles Woodson in the third quarter, he impressed by leading the Vikings to a season-best 9-of-16 on third down.

"You know the guy's a good athlete and has good arm strength," McCarthy said in light of Ponder's 13-of-32, 219-yard, two-touchdown performance. "Just look at the first throw (against Green Bay, it) was a boot to his left and throws the ball down our boundary on a double-move. I thought he was composed, stood in there versus the pressure. (He has) the ability to come out of the pocket and make plays. I thought he improved against Carolina and had two weeks to get ready for us. Statistically, they even improved. Look at their third down, red zone and some of the things they've done just since he's been in there for two games. They have improved as an offense and he's a big part of it."

Frazier like how Ponder rallied the Vikings after the interceptions to Woodson, which helped put the Vikings in a 33-17 hole. Frazier said one of Ponder's biggest challenges was "to play well and justify the decision" to supplant McNabb as the starter. He's done that, and by doing so, has provided a jolt of energy for a team that was going nowhere fast.

"Oh, yeah, our guys are excited and really looking forward to this challenge at Lambeau Field on Monday night against the defending champs, a team that's undefeated," Frazier said. "Coming off this bye, everybody's energized and excited to get back to playing again. So, the emotions are very high at this point."

And high for Ponder, too. When he was drafted, the so-called draft experts nationally widely panned the selection as a reach. But without a quarterback in today's NFL, teams have no chance to win, as evidenced by the top nine quarterbacks in the passer ratings all boasting winning records.

"I think it definitely gives you a chip on the shoulder," said Ponder, who was the lone player in college football last season who had earned a master's degree. "I think I'd be lying if I said it didn't. But I have pretty high expectations for myself and I know what I can do and I'm just trying to go out and play my game and hopefully, by the end of my career, prove those guys wrong."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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