If the Vikings are to compete in the Murderer's Row that the NFC North has become, they're going to need Christian Ponder to step up and become the player that the organization believed he would be when he was selected with the 12th pick of the 2011 draft.
The jury is definitely out on whether Ponder has what it takes to become a true NFL star. In 10 starts (11 games) last year, Ponder didn't exactly compete for rookie of the year – completing 154 of 291 passes for 1,853 yards with 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 70.1, the lowest of the three Vikings QBs that saw action last year.
Being a rookie starting QB in the NFL is a growing trend, but not one that happens all that often. Michael Vick didn't become a full-time starter as a rookie, despite being the No. 1 overall pick. Neither did Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tony Romo.
In fact, only 12 current quarterbacks were more than half-time starters as rookies. The Class of 2011 has added to that total significantly with Ponder, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Blaine Gabbert, which is a significant changing of the tide. The list also includes some of the biggest names in the QB business, including Super Bowl champs Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
Those guys must have lit up the NFL from the get-go, right? Not so fast, my friend.
Almost to a man, the quarterbacks that started as rookies struggled early on, only to improve in their second seasons. Some were markedly more pronounced than others, but, in almost every case, progress was made as they gained experience and didn't make the same mistakes that they did as wet-behind-the-ears rookies.
While not a rigid rule, the dozen QBs that were rookie starters largely showed improvement the second time around the league. Ponder will join this company this season and, in most respects, bigger things can be expected.
Sam Bradford, St. Louis – He has yet to live up to his hype as the No. 1 pick and regressed in his second season. As a rookie, he started all 16 games and threw for 3,512 yards with 18 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a passer rating of 76.5. In an injury-plagued 2011 season, he started 10 games, but his numbers all dropped, including just six touchdowns and six interceptions and a passer rating of 70.5.
David Carr, New York Giants – A No. 1 overall pick with Houston, as a rookie, Carr started all 16 games he played, throwing for just 2,592 yards, nine touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a passer rating of 62.8. In his second season, he started 11 games and, while his numbers didn't spike sharply, they all improved (2,013 yards, nine TDs, 13 picks and a passer rating of 69.5).
Joe Flacco, Baltimore – He has started every game in his four-year career and has had success every step of the way. As a rookie, he was much more a game manager, throwing for just 2,971 yards with 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 80.3. In his second season, he threw for 3,613 yards with 21 TDs, 12 picks and a passer rating of 88.9.
Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay – He started nine games as a rookie and struggled badly, throwing for 1,855 yards with 10 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and a passer rating of 59.8. In his second season, he became the full-time starter and produced – throwing for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns, just six interceptions and a passer rating of 95.9.
Eli Manning, New York Giants – He played in nine games as a rookie, starting six of them, and threw for a dismal 1,043 yards with seven touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 55.4. In his second season, he started showing the skill that made him the No. 1 overall pick, throwing for 3,762 yards with 24 TDs, 17 interceptions and a passer rating of 75.9.
Peyton Manning, Denver – As the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft, he threw for 3,739 yards with 26 touchdowns, a whopping 28 interceptions and a passer rating of 71.2. In his second season, he threw 42 fewer passes, but had 4,135 yards, 26 touchdowns, 15 picks and a passer rating of 90.7.
Colt McCoy, Cleveland – He started eight games as a rookie, throwing for 1,576 yards with six touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 74.5. In 13 games last year, he increased his yards (2,733) and more than doubled his touchdowns (14), but his lack of consistency saw his passer rating almost identical (74.6), which could explain why the Browns drafted Brandon Weeden this year.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh – One of the more underrated quarterbacks of his time, Big Ben played in 14 games as a rookie, throwing for 2,621 yards with 17 TDs, 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 98.1 – proving to be an effective game manager if not a game-changer early on. Those were difficult numbers to improve upon, but he did it in his second season. In 12 games, he threw for 2,385 yards with 17 TDs, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 98.6, setting the foundation for what is a borderline Hall of Fame career.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta – One of the rare exceptions to the second-year rule, his numbers actually declined in his second season, except for touchdown passes. As a rookie, he started all 16 games, throwing for 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a passer rating of 87.7. In his second season, he started 14 games, throwing for 2,916 yards with 22 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a passer rating of 80.9 – the worst of his four-year career.
Mark Sanchez, New York Jets – As a rookie, he started 15 games, throwing for just 2,444 yards with 12 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and a passer rating of 63.0. While he has never become the game-changer the Jets have expected, in his second season all of his numbers went up considerably, as he threw for 3,291 yards with 17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 75.3.
Alex Smith, San Francisco – As a rookie, he played in nine games and had one of the most abysmal seasons in NFL history – throwing for just 875 yards with one TD, 11 interceptions and a passer rating of just 40.8. While it took him years to improve, even in his second year, he showed significant improvement, throwing for 2,890 yards, 16 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a passer rating of 74.8.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit – In his 2009 rookie season, Stafford completed 201 of 377 passes for 2,267 yards with 13 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and a passer rating of 61.0. He was showing significant signs of improvement in his second year, throwing six touchdowns with just one interception in his first three games before going down for the year. We all know what he did upon his return last year, throwing for a whopping 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a passer rating of 97.2.
Ponder may never be on the level of Big Ben or the Manning brothers, but he is the quarterback of the present and the future for the Vikings – for better or worse. He is expecting big things from himself in 2012. So are his coaches and teammates. But, from the looks of things, so is recent history.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.