Christian Ponder's self-described "horrible" first day of training camp as a rookie last year showed what a difference a year can make. Last week, in his first two practices with the Vikings, he completed more than 80 percent of his passes during 11-on-11 work.
Working without a true pass rush and without pads, it's a challenge to decipher just how effective Ponder will be when the games actually start. But as camp practices and intensity ratchets up, quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson has a few markers he uses to judge QB success.
"I think realistically if you can be in the 65 percent completion percentage or more, you're really doing something," Johnson said. "I've always believed if your completion percentage is up in the mid-60s, right around there, and your yards per attempt are right around the 8.0 mark … that's the MVP-caliber theme. As your yards-per-attempt goes up and your completion percentage goes up and your interception ratio goes down, that's always good."
Last year, Ponder completed only 54.3 percent of his passes, putting him 29th in the league in that category. Donovan McNabb completed 60.3 percent of his passes before he was benched in favor of Ponder, and Joe Webb completed 54.0 percent when Ponder was injured. Even Tarvaris Jackson completed 60.2 percent of his passes.
McNabb was criticized for his low-risk passes during his six starts, but he led the team with 6.6 yards per attempt. Ponder was close behind at 6.4 yards and Webb was at 6.0. The reason that yards-per-attempt is important is to make sure passers aren't always taking the safe route.
"You're going to find that as you're stretching the field, as I've told numerous guys, 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."
Ponder's training camp to date has been much more impressive than last year, when McNabb was brought in to be the starter and take first-team reps. This year, Ponder started training camp with 12 straight completions in full-team work last Friday and has clearly been the best of the team's four quarterbacks in camp.
As the team moved to full pads on Monday afternoon, Ponder started 3-for-4 but ended the practice 7-for-12 with a throwaway and taking a sack.
"I thought there was obviously a lot of mistakes that we can fix and a lot of growing to do, but it was a great starting point," Ponder said. "It's the first time we've put on pads since Jan. 1 so I think that's huge. I think we have to get used to having the shoulder pads on. As a quarterback, it's different throwing with shoulder pads on. I've got to get used to that, but I thought it went well. I thought it's been a great three days."
Ponder said he missed a route or two from the receivers – he overthrew an open Michael Jenkins on a deep route in a three-receiver set – and the quarterback said the teams needs work on picking up blitzes, one of the focuses of Monday afternoon's practice.
"But overall we're so much further along than we were last year at this time. It's a world of difference," Ponder said. "Building blocks right now."
This year, the front office also made the commitment to get him better protection with the drafting of left tackle Matt Kalil in the first round and releasing the two starting guards from 2011, Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera. The pass-catching weapons have also been upgraded with the addition of free agents Jerome Simpson and John Carlson and fourth-round draft picks Jarius Wright and Greg Childs.
While Simpson offers Ponder the bigger deep threat he lacked last year, Johnson simply wants to see better consistency out of Ponder in his second season.
"I'm hoping it's not in the spectacular plays. Everybody looks for the flash plays that happen and the long passes that you're able to throw," Johnson said. "I'm hoping a lot of people just say, ‘Oh, I'm seeing him complete the ball a lot and the ball is staying off the ground.' That's been a real emphasis for all the quarterbacks – let's keep the ball off the ground. As a young group – and the timing is not quite there with everybody – the ball is on the ground too much."
Eventually, the coaching staff hopes, Ponder will earn the label of franchise quarterback. And to get that, Johnson has one last marker he follows: "When you start hitting around 90 (passing rating), you're starting to get it there. I've been blessed enough to have a guy right near 100 and that's when you're really hitting it."
For now, it's training camp in incremental steps for the development of Ponder, but in just over 40 days the regular season will begin and fans will be able to see if Ponder can approach some of the mileposts Johnson watches.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
QB coach has mileposts for Ponder to hit
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