The scouting reports have been examined, analyzed and turned every which way looking for strengths and weaknesses in Christian Ponder's game. His physical and mental aptitude has been tested by the NFL and again by the Vikings. And his injury history and current medical reports have been examined by specialists.
So then, with all of that research in the past, one of the remaining questions is this: How will the Vikings' first-round draft pick handle leading a veteran team if, indeed, Ponder is asked to be the opening-day starter at quarterback? The Vikings can't say for sure because, without organized practices at the team facility, Ponder hasn't been face-to-face with his veteran teammates and hasn't had a chance to experience a Steve Hutchinson scowl or a scratch-your-head comment by Visanthe Shiancoe. But based on what the coaching staff knows about Ponder so far, they seem convinced he can handle the task.
One of the best things that I felt like, after we left Tallahassee (for a predraft workout), is how he fit in with the different crowds on the team," said Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson, who helped develop Vince Young in Tennessee. "As coaches, all of them had that as a strength of him. When you talk with him, you get a chance to be with him, he can talk to linemen, offense, defense, DBs (defensive backs), and equipment guy, and he's comfortable in all settings. I think you're going to find that he's going to be able to have a lot of people rally around his cause."
Johnson and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave have each mentored rookie quarterbacks taken in the first round. Johnson is often credited for being a major part of Young's development and Musgrave was the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta for Matt Ryan's first three seasons with the Falcons, during which time Ryan has compiled an 86.7 passer rating.
Both coaches realize the fine line involved between getting a rookie experience as soon as possible and ruining his confidence by playing him before he is ready.
"Depends on the player and his strengths and his dominant traits that he brings to this level," Musgrave said. "I think another critical factor is: How good is the team around him? Can you be effective without him being the star of the show, or would he get exposed like Jim Plunkett did with the Patriots and got crushed those initial years, which also hurts a player's confidence.
"I think kids come out of college with a lot of confidence, which they should. They were at the top of the level at which they competed. So you want to try to maintain that through those growing pains."
The early success of Ryan – who had an 87.7 rating as a rookie and started all 16 games – has often been cited by Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier during his search for his own young franchise quarterback. But Ponder is not Ryan. They have different qualities, yet Johnson says he starts to develop a young quarterback at the same starting point, no matter the player, and works from there.
"I treat all rookie quarterbacks all the same. They have a low curve and you bring them along, find out what their best things are," Johnson said. "I think Bill and I are on the same page: Try to mold your offense to show the best things that he can do, which we've talked about – good decision-making down in the red zone, being able to move the pocket, extend the play, all those kinds of things. Don't worry so much about what he can't do and worry about what he can do. And you kind of stretch him – you're going to stretch him a little bit in the preseason to find out what his point is where he's comfortable to help his team win."
Both Musgrave and Johnson said after the Vikings drafted Ponder that they were eager to begin working with him and enjoy the teaching component of coaching up a rookie quarterback. Johnson likes Ponder's "command on the line of scrimmage" and Musgrave likes Ponder's ability to throw on the run and make good decisions, especially during "crunch situations."
But how will a rookie like Ponder adapt to a veteran team that is transitioning away from a 40-year-old Hall of Famer like Brett Favre?
"His work ethic will gain their respect," said Jimbo Fisher, Ponder's coach at Florida State. "The first thing he's got to do is gain their respect, and how he's going to do that is learning the playbook and knowing what to do so they can function. That's going to be an advantage for him because the guys around him are going to know what to do and he will pick it up very quickly. He's a quick learner, he doesn't take a lot of reps to learn things. … I think having that veteran team is going to be really good for him and he will distribute the ball. I think it'll be really good for him."
Ponder's new quarterbacks coach, Johnson, is a believer.
"When I walked away from Christian, I said this is a guy that can fit in in any crowd," he said. "That's what I felt."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Can QB Ponder lead a veteran team?
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