It's time the Minnesota Vikings figure out if they have their quarterback of the future or just a quarterback they think is set for the next year. They should have their answer in nine months. By the end of that gestation period, Ponder should have defined himself as a player. Either he is what he was the start and end of the 2012 regular season, making good decisions and adeptly managing the game, or he is what he showed in the middle of the season, a wildly inconsistent decision-maker.
The worst thing that could happen is for Ponder to continue to tease, sometimes becoming the mature game manager and other times making the stupid mistakes that lose games – like the kind of second-half collapse he prompted last year at Lambeau Field. In fact, his 2012 season can be encapsulated by his two outings against the Packers. There was the Ponder that helped take the Vikings to a halftime lead at Lambeau and then threw two inexplicable interceptions in the second and there was the Ponder that took charge in the regular season finale and produced the best game of his career in a home win over Green Bay.
At least this season the Vikings should know what they have because all of the other offensive pieces should be in place. He is entering his third season in the NFL and in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's system. He has all five starting offensive linemen in place. Adrian Peterson will be fully healthy at the start of the season with a Pro Bowl fullback in front of him. And Ponder will have the receiving weapons requisite of an NFL team.
There is no more Percy Harvin providing the easy pass largely parallel to the line of scrimmage and trying to improve Ponder's yards-per-completion average by eluding converging defenders in the first five yards from scrimmage. Now Ponder has Greg Jennings, who can play multiple positions and provide some run-after-the-catch ability but mostly just has an understanding of how to set up defenders.
No doubt, Jennings could be looking for a bit of redemptive season himself. After three straight seasons (2008-10) playing in all 16 games, Jennings missed three games in 2011 and then eight last year with an abdominal injury.
Then there is the statistical drop-off, too. Over his career, Jennings is averaging 15.4 yards per catch, which includes four straight seasons (2007-10) that he averaged more than 16 yards per catch. In 2011, that dropped to 14.2. Last year, it fell further, to 10.2.
Jennings is likely looking for a rebound season. Ponder, on the other hand, needs to prove he can successfully become a downfield passer. Many fans question his arm strength and wonder if he is the reason Harvin was so anxious to exit Minnesota. Harvin only added to that speculation when he talked about playing with Brett Favre and looking forward to joining forces with Russell Wilson in Seattle, but the only hint of Ponder in Harvin's introductory press conference to Seattle was a statement believed to be a not-so-veiled shot at Ponder.
"That was one of the things I was looking for, a quarterback who wants to win, who has it," Harvin said when asked about Wilson. "I was looking for that leader and we seem to have it here."
Even Jennings admitted he needed to review Ponder's performance a little more closely before deciding to sign with the Vikings. But Jennings took the approach suggested here – give the quarterback a quality set of NFL receivers before making a final judgment.
"What I've seen on film, he didn't have a lot of options to go to. No disrespect to the guys he was throwing the ball to, but you can just get the sense that he needed a little bit more around him to give him some help and hopefully I can help him out a little bit," Jennings said. "Hopefully we can continue to add to the pieces around him to make him into the quarterback that he potentially could be."
Ponder doesn't have the rocket arm of some of the league's elite quarterbacks. Some of those have improved their arm strength as they advanced their NFL careers.
But arm strength aside, he also hasn't had a quality corps of receivers. With Jennings, an early draft pick and a supporting cast of Jarius Wright and Jerome Simpson, the third-year quarterback should finally have the weapons to determine after this season whether he, indeed, was worthy of the support he has from coaches and management and is the quarterback of the future or just the placeholder for the next quarterback of the future.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.