EDEN PRAIRIE — Through 22 games started, Christian Ponder isn’t close to where the Minnesota Vikings need him to be.
The quarterback they’ve been counting on to build a contender around has repeated costly mistakes and shown persistent mechanical problems when many of his NFL peers are ascending to another level. As for how many more weeks Ponder needs before his skill set is established and the Vikings can determine whether he’s truly a cornerstone of the franchise for years to come, that’s difficult to tell.
But people are becoming impatient, and that includes Ponder.
“I hope not that long. Hopefully as soon as possible. I don’t really know. I think it’s hard to establish a timeline like that,” Ponder said. “Every player is different. Obviously I want to get to that consistent level as soon as possible.”
Even leaving out the top-two draft picks of the last two years, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, second-year starters like Andy Dalton and rookies like Russell Wilson have been outperforming Ponder. The 12th overall selection in 2011 from Florida State had one of his worst games last Sunday, throwing two crippling second-half interceptions deep in Green Bay territory that led to Minnesota’s 23-14 loss. Ponder didn’t pass the 100-yard mark until the final, desperation drive.
Comparisons to other quarterbacks around his age, though, are not part of Ponder’s process.
“I know I could be playing better and I want that level of success. Whether other players are playing better or not, I have my own expectations for myself regardless of what they’re doing,” he said.
Ponder called his performance a “wake-up call” to change the way he’s been playing.
“Especially where we are in the season and with the goals that are in our hands, I’ve got to make sure that I give our team a chance to be successful,” Ponder said.
He called those picked-off passes “pretty obvious and pretty dumb.” Learning to relax enough so he can settle in the pocket without shuffling around, properly step into his throws and be unafraid to fire balls into tight windows is part of what he’s still working on. He also must be wise and careful enough not to be casual about throwing into dangerous places in critical situations, like he did into the back of the end zone on his first interception against the Packers.
Ponder, though, insisted again he still has the confidence he showed in September, despite decisions and body language on the field that might suggest otherwise from time to time. Ponder said he was happy to have the public backing of coach Leslie Frazier and a positive post-game pep talk from running back Adrian Peterson, but he also said the encouragement wasn’t necessary.
Wide receiver Jerome Simpson, whose speed on the outside was supposed to help Ponder develop into a better deep thrower, came to his quarterback’s defense.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Christian. He’s going to bounce back and have a great game,” Simpson said. “That guy, he’s a tough guy, man. A lot of added pressure gets put on him that shouldn’t be. A lot of criticism shouldn’t be put on him. We all make mistakes. I guess that’s just the nature of being a quarterback.”
Frazier said he believes Ponder has done what he can to put himself in the right mental state to succeed.
“We see some things where he’s definitely gotten better from a season ago. We saw it throughout the offseason. We’ve seen it during this season. There are still some areas where we know he has to improve. He knows he has to improve. The clock is still ticking on his improvement and development, and that’s part of evaluating the quarterback position,” Frazier said. “But we are not at a point where we’re going to throw in the towel on Christian Ponder.”
If Sunday’s game against Chicago were to get out of hand, hypothetically, Frazier said he’s not afraid or limited in authority to switch to backup Joe Webb, as he did once last December at Detroit when injuries and turnovers were plaguing Ponder.
“I can make those changes throughout the course of the game without having to get that red phone and put a call in to New York or wherever,” Frazier said, smiling.
So maybe this week will be different, with the Vikings playing at home against a banged-up Bears team.
“No greater time than right now,” Frazier said.
Ponder has had plenty to celebrate, actually, despite this rocky stretch. He confirmed Wednesday his engagement this week to ESPN reporter Samantha Steele, whom he began dating earlier this year. With a smile, he declined to provide any more specifics.
There’s work to do, after all.
“After a bad game, I’m even more excited to come back to work the next week and the next day just so I can get it put behind me,” he said. “I keep my confidence up.”