To hear Minnesota Vikings players tell the story of Christian Ponder's maturation, that's how it went down. Ponder has stepped forward at the end of his second season with more of a vocal presence in addition to improving his statistics.
In the last four games of the season, with a must-win mantra pushing down heavily on his shoulders, Ponder had one of the best stretches of his two-year-old career. During the Vikings' four-game winning streak, he has completed 60.6 percent of his passes, increased his yards-per-attempt to 6.3 and passed for 630 yards, four touchdowns, one interception and an 88.4 rating.
Still, two of the Vikings' most important players, Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen, say Ponder has made just as big of strides in his leadership, where there are no quantifiable statistics recorded.
"I think the biggest thing he's done is he has put himself more towards the front of our team. Even in the beginning of the year when he was having success, he wasn't a vocal leader on the team. The last few games, he's kind of brought the team up right before we break down," Allen said. "Not a whole lot has to be said, but hearing your quarterback's voice and knowing that he's excited – when he's pumped up, it gives you the confidence that ‘OK, the head of our offense, he's ready to go.'"
That's easier said than done, especially for a second-year quarterback that was the target of fan barbs throughout most of the previous year in his development. The front office and coaching staffs have been Ponder's biggest supporters, and so have most of his teammates, but he is still just 24 years old and has only 26 games started. It can't be easy to step forward and lead a team with names like Peterson, Allen, Antoine Winfield, Kevin Williams and Chad Greenway being the faceplates of the franchise.
Allen said he saw that take-charge leadership with Trent Green in Kansas City. It's not always superstar status that translates into super-effective leadership.
"Even though he's young and there are older guys on the team that are in leadership positions as well, to be a winning organization, a winning team, your quarterback has to be that dominating force and has to be that guy that everybody looks to," Allen said. "I think that's really what he's starting to do and he's really starting to accept that role and being comfortable with it."
For Allen, it is the pageantry more than volume that makes a difference. Ponder has led the Vikings in breaking down the huddle before a game, when sometimes-incoherent barking can change even a veteran's psyche more than deep thoughts with a reflective position coach.
Just one month ago, Ponder likely didn't feel like much of a leader. He had thrown two game-changing interceptions in the second of the Dec. 2 loss in Green Bay, helping to turn a 14-10 halftime lead into a 23-14 defeat. He took full responsibility for the loss at the post-game press conference despite head coach Leslie Frazier assuring him he would remain the team's starter the following week and for the foreseeable future. The Vikings were committed to getting Ponder to reverse his struggles.
Two weeks later, he got married and, despite winning his next two games, took criticism and questions about the timing of that.
Back in Green Bay almost five weeks ago, Frazier wasn't the only one offering reassurances to his quarterback. Peterson, coming of a 210-yard rushing effort, was trying to encourage the downtrodden and downward-trending quarterback, too.
"After that game, he just looked … he looked defeated," Peterson said. "It was – we'll just be real – it was pretty obvious that the two interceptions cost us the game. It definitely showed on his face," Peterson said. "So I just did what I felt I needed to do to help him get over that because this is the guy that we're rolling with and we need him to continue to improve each week.
"So I just walked up to him and told him, ‘Hey, it is what it is. You take those two interceptions away …' I told him the passion that you played with, that I seen you play with, I loved that. You can win with that, when someone is playing with those characteristics."
Since then, Ponder has thrown one interception in the last four games, and that's the type of performance he will need to "win with that" Saturday night in Lambeau Field.
It will be the coldest game of Ponder's career. The hype on him has never been louder. Somewhere, Allen, Peterson and Frazier will be hoping to see him respond with a confident swagger out in front of his teammates at the place where he reached at a career low one month ago.
"You've got guys like Antoine, 14 years for him. I'm nine. Kevin's 10. You've got guys like Adrian on the offense. So it can be intimidating as a young player," Allen said. "I think he's done a good job, especially of late, of realizing, OK, for us to go to the next level as a team, he's got to carry a lot of the load. … It can be tough, but like I said, for me watching, that's where he's made leaps and bounds. It's just in his leadership."
Indianapolis (11-5) led the way for biggest improvement in win total from 2011 to 2012 with a nine-game improvement, followed by Minnesota (10-6, seven-game improvement) and Washington (10-6, five-game improvement).
Said FB Jerome Felton: "That play's been successful for us several times this year. As soon as I got through and saw a little corner out there, I knew Adrian was going to get the first (down)."
"Against the Giants? Good thing we're not playing them," Matthews said defiantly. "So we probably should have thrown a game so we could have gotten a sixth seed (and played on the road)."
"You learn to live with it. You can't avoid the elements out here. It'll be cold but all right as long as the rest of this team will be ready."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.