The Minnesota Vikings, 3-13 a year ago, are no joke this season. Leading the NFC North, their improvement is staked on a lot, not the least of which is the rapid development of quarterback Christian Ponder.
Now in his second NFL season, Ponder is an effective force to be reckoned with and so are the Vikings. And as the Washington Redskins get ready to host Minnesota on Sunday, they see the drastic changes and also realize what it could be in 2013 for Robert Griffin III.
“We’ve talked about this from the beginning. Each game is a learning experience for him,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “If it’s running, scrambling, dropping back, play action, you always want to put a quarterback in live situations as many times as you can. When you do that, the game usually slows down for him.
“Initially, everything is sped up, everything is going a hundred miles an hour. I think Ponder would tell you that this year he is a lot more comfortable than he was a year ago.”
As a rookie, Ponder threw for 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 1,853 yards and finished with a 75.1 quarterback rating. Incidentally he was also sacked 30 times.
“We went through it a year ago with Christian, just trying to find things that he’s comfortable with that we also thought could help us to be successful,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “We also knew that there would be some growing pains and that it was going to take a little time and a little patience on our part. We felt like as he saw more things and went through some of the ups and downs of being a rookie quarterback, we’d be better for it, and we are.
“It can be difficult: the speed of the game, the concepts that you’re teaching, just so many factors that go into the development of that quarterback. Patience is critical.”
This season, through five games, the 2011 first-round pick out of Florida State already has 1,082 yards to go along with six touchdowns and two interceptions. Yes, Minnesota is better for it.
“Rookie year, you could tell he was just learning on the go,” Redskins defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “Now he’s a lot more comfortable, he’s recognizing his reads faster. He looks a lot more seasoned.”
“He’s a really good athlete. I like watching him on film. He’s a really good athlete, he’s got a good arm, really mobile. He’ll take off and run,” Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “Last year you could tell he was a young guy that was kind of learning his way. You can tell he’s smooth right now. He feels good about the offense, and they got the three-headed monster at running back. They can put them all back there so that kind of relieves him a little bit.”
The Vikings‘ ascent to first place is not entirely thanks to Ponder. Frazier pointed out that his running game, led by Adrian Peterson and supplemented by Toby Gerhart, has opened things up. Left tackle Matt Kalil, taken third overall, right behind Griffin, has helped as well.
And it doesn’t hurt to have someone like Percy Harvin to use to keep defenses off-balanced. But Ponder runs the show.
“From what I’ve seen this year, he’s doing a good job of getting the ball to his playmakers, be it Percy or Adrian,” Redskins safety Madieu Williams said. “He’s doing a good job of just knowing where his outlets and guys are in the system.”
“He’s very accurate and he’s very athletic also. He doesn’t get enough credit for his speed,” Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “He might not be a guy that’s trying to run for a hundred yards, but he’ll break contain, get a first down or break contain and extend the play and make a good play downfield. His legs and his accuracy are both jumping out at me.”
Peterson has noticed a “big change” in Ponder, and not just on the field.
“He’s just becoming more of a leader, more vocal,” he said. “I can see that the confidence level is continuing to rise each week. He has made a big jump.”
“[We] need him to play. The fact that he is a smart football player and a very good football player, he’s gotten that information, he’s done with it what we needed him to do,” Frazier said. “It is important that you have some pieces around him.
“This offseason [to] go out and get a [wide receiver in] Jerome Simpson, to have a healthy Adrian Peterson, to improve our defense like we did, to do some of the things we’ve done on our special teams, those were part of helping Christian be all that he can be at quarterback.”