Christian Ponder followed what was one of the worst games of his career with a steady four-game progression, culminating with what was the best game of his career against the same team that had him hitting rock bottom less than a month earlier.
Ponder's Dec. 2 game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field was an efficient enough performance throughout the first half to help his Minnesota Vikings to 14-10 lead. Adrian Peterson had run for 126 yards on 13 carries, including an 82-yard touchdown, so Ponder didn't need to do much. He completed 5 of 8 passes, including a 7-yard touchdown toss to Kyle Rudolph, and had a 112.5 passer rating. The second half was nowhere close to that same performance. He completed 7 of 17 passes and threw two interceptions in the red zone.
Teammates said Ponder accepted a lot of the blame for the Vikings' 23-14 loss to Green Bay. They not only were shut out in the second half, but Ponder's interceptions led to two field goals and the Packers added another touchdown. Head coach Leslie Frazier and teammates knew Ponder was down. Adrian Peterson offered him words of encouragement and Frazier continued to show Ponder support before he ever went to the post-game press conference podium at Lambeau Field.
"I talked to him in the locker room after the game because I anticipated it. There will be a lot of criticism, a lot of second-guessing from a lot of different places and I wanted him to know that before he went to that press conference: ‘I don't want you to walk in there with any doubt about your future here as our starting quarterback. Next ballgame you're going to be our starter. There's some things we've got to work on leading up to that game,'" Frazier said Tuesday. "I think the Chicago game was the next one and I just wanted him to be assured that we would get through this. ‘We have some work to do. You're going to be the guy and you've got to handle some things.' And he has, he's done a great job."
Ponder finished with a 41.9 passer rating at Green Bay, the third lowest of his season. It improved slightly the following week in a win against the Chicago Bears, but since then his rating has been above 80 for three consecutive weeks, the first time that has happened since he began the season with ratings above 90 in the first three games.
"A lot has changed (after the Green Bay game). I think the biggest thing for me was making better decisions. Obviously I made some bad decisions in that first game. It's something that I knew I had to improve upon," Ponder said. "I think each week it's gotten better. The Chicago game I was maybe a little conservative, and kind of going throughout each of those next games kind of took steps forward and balancing being conservative and making good decisions. You've got to continue to learn as a quarterback and grow up. So I think that's the biggest difference for me."
In the four games since that initial Green Bay performance, Ponder has thrown four touchdowns and just one interception.
Frazier called it a "process" in having Ponder rebound from the Packers game that caused him to hit bottom. As of now, he's on a roll. His 120.2 rating in Sunday's rematch against the Packers was a career best for him, and he played his best at big moments.
He was 3-for-3 passing on third downs in the fourth quarter, including a 3-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins and a 25-yard pass to Jenkins on third-and-11 on the team's game-winning field goal drive.
"It's hard to imagine that his confidence level would be any higher than it is after the ballgame he just had," Frazier said. "I mean, in such a huge game for our team and our organization, to play as well as he did? You'd imagine that would be something that would propel him going forward. And I think it will. That was great to see."
Ponder said his confidence never wavered, but his decision-making needed revisiting. He said he's learned to not force the ball when things aren't there. From that standpoint, he hasn't been flawless. He has taken some dangerous chances with the ball when being pressured or tackled by pass rushers, including a ball that floated high in the air, got deflected by a pack of receivers and defenders and was finally caught by Jarius Wright in Sunday's game. His touchdown pass to Jenkins could have just as easily been intercepted as caught, too.
Ponder said the words of encouragement from Frazier and teammates after his first Green Bay performance "definitely helped" and said he was very hard on himself after that loss. Fans were critical as well, and some remain that way, but Ponder knows he has the ability to change perceptions. Frazier's continued support has allowed Ponder to still have that opportunity.
"If it's something you believe in," Frazier said. "I think from my perspective as the head coach, you can't be swayed by outside opinions. You can listen, but you've always got to make sure you're doing the best thing for the team and what gives the team the best chance to win," Frazier said. "And for me, that was making sure that Christian knew that he had my unwavering support. I thought that was necessary and I needed to voice that to him, and our team as well. To his credit, he responded and he's playing well for us."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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