During the first 26 starts of Ponder's career, there were alternate possibilities for issues with the Vikings' passing game. In 2011, when he supplanted Donovan McNabb as the starter after only six games, there were problems on the offensive line. Bryant McKinnie had eaten and loafed his way out of the Vikings' plans at left tackle and Charlie Johnson was called upon to a play position that didn't best suit him. Steve Hutchinson was getting to his last leg (and knees and back), and the rest of the linemen hadn't truly established themselves.
Ponder's athleticism saved him numerous times, but it wasn't an ideal learning environment. McNabb was simply trying to hang onto the idea of being a starting quarterback and any playing dignity he had left (there wasn't much of that and it was time for him to go). There wasn't a great mentorship between the once-formidable veteran and the rookie trying to play schematic catch-up without an in-house offseason tutoring session.
Ponder had Adrian Peterson for most of his rookie starts, but Percy Harvin was the only true threat at receiver, and there wasn't much that changed there in 2012. With Jerome Simpson suspended to start the season and ailing the rest of the way, Harvin remained Ponder's only intimidating option at receiver.
This year, it's much different. There is no Harvin, but there is a reliable Greg Jennings who, by all accounts, is already taking on a leadership role and working overtime in the passing game with Ponder following offseason conditioning segments that started last week. Additionally, Kyle Rudolph is hitting his stride as one of the best pass-catching weapons from the tight end position and should have a new shot of confidence after being named Pro Bowl MVP.
The offensive line has taken on a new and improved look since Ponder's first start in Week 7 of the 2011 season. Matt Kalil took over for Johnson at left tackle and established himself Pro Bowl-worthy in his first season, Johnson is back at his natural position at guard, John Sullivan has continued his ascent toward being one of the better centers in the game and Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt return on the right side.
But it all comes back to the receiving corps and Ponder, and with the addition of Cordarrelle Patterson to complement Jennings, Simpson and Jarius Wright, the excuses are gone. It's Ponder's time to shine or be prepared for a change in the next year.
"We've got guys, between Jerome and Greg and Stephen Burton, Chris Summers and some other guys, but we're a little thin at the position, so I think whether it's the first round or the seventh round, someone is going to come in and probably play pretty early," Ponder said hours before the draft started.
It was the first round in which the Vikings addressed receiver with Patterson, and they did it in a big way, trading away second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks to get in position to grab him. Since then, they've been raving about his combination of size and speed and they should. He is an electric – albeit raw – receiver. He was also what they needed – someone to stretch the field like the Vikings haven't had since the days of the early version of Randy Moss – the one that produced more with his feet and hands than with his mouth.
The Vikings' wide receivers were last in receptions, touchdowns and 30-yard plays on throws of 15 yards or more last year, according to ESPN. Part of that could be Ponder and part of that could be offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave simply trying to get the ball in Harvin's hands early in the play and let him work his wiggling moves. But much of it had to do with the lack of a legitimate deep threat once Simpson's back kinked.
"That definitely hurt us. Once Jarius got out there, he came alive and got downfield. We've just got to find a guy and continue to attack downfield," Ponder said. "We'll get there and continue to develop that. Especially based off the run game we've got to get down the field."
Although the Vikings have essentially admitted that Tavon Austin was the most explosive receiver in the draft, Patterson was next and offers better size than Austin but still possesses an incredible change of direction for his size, along with scintillating run-after-the-catch skills.
After free agency and the draft gifted the Vikings with Jennings and Patterson, all excuses are gone. Ponder has the best running back in the game, one of the best pass-catching tight ends, a franchise left tackle and solid supporting offensive line, and now he has a complement of wily veteran receiver and explosive youngsters.
The only serious remaining question on offense is Ponder. It's his time to either secure his place as the franchise quarterback or move aside for the next captain of an increasingly sea-worthy ship.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said owner Zygi and Mark Wilf energized the staff and players in attendance Friday when they announced that the entire organization would be attending the team's Week 4 game in London.
"That was a big commitment from our ownership and to reward all the people in the building," Spielman said. "And every department in this building works extremely hard, and it happened (the first-round picks) had just walked in the building as we were finishing up, so I took them in there and introduced them to our staff and you could feel that energy and all that momentum. And I think from building off of last year's energy and being able to accomplish what we've been able to accomplish so far, and then you've got the new uniforms and you've got the new stadium coming, there's a lot of positive here in Minnesota. Looking to continue to build on that."
"That's huge, because now you get guys in the first round they're locked in for five years instead of four. So, that extra year is a significant difference," Spielman said.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.