NFL Playoffs: Will an improving Ponder be enough?
EDEN PRAIRIE — The most glaringly bad performance by Christian Ponder in a season marked by costly mistakes and curious decisions had just concluded, and the skepticism about his viability as Minnesota’s quarterback was as prevalent as ever.
As for Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, well, his faith in Ponder was never clearer.
After Ponder threw two devastating interceptions in the third quarter at Green Bay that day, one in the end zone with Minnesota leading 14-10 and the other at the Packers 13-yard line with the Vikings trailing 20-14, the playoffs appeared improbable. They were 6-6 and facing a difficult four-game segment at the end of the schedule. Ponder’s future as the starter looked tenuous.
So Frazier, anticipating the swirl of speculation and criticism from the analysts and the fans, sought out Ponder in the locker room at Lambeau Field to assure him the team was still behind him. Adrian Peterson gave him a pep talk, too.
“I don’t want you to walk in there with any doubt about your future here as our starting quarterback,” Frazier told Ponder before his postgame news conference. “Next ballgame, you’re going to be our starter.”
The Vikings finished with four straight wins to secure a wild card spot, and though Peterson and the defense had a lot to do with the rally they wouldn’t have qualified for the postseason without improvement by Ponder. Yes, the Vikings are Peterson’s team, but Ponder is ultimately the one most responsible for their progress.
“Obviously a lot has changed. I think the biggest thing for me was making better decisions,” Ponder said. “Obviously I made some bad decisions in that first game. It’s something that I knew I had to improve upon. I think each week it’s gotten better.”
First, he had to eliminate those turnovers. In victories over Chicago and at St. Louis, Ponder’s efficiency improved, and his last interception of the year came Dec. 9 against the Bears. The Vikings were more conservative than usual with the pass, though, asking Ponder to do even less. Safe, short throws were about all he tried. Part of that, of course, was Peterson running wild.
The next week, though, Ponder was a more assertive passer in that 23-6 victory at Houston. The Texans were the only team to contain Peterson since October, limiting him to 86 yards on 25 rushes, so the second-year quarterback had to step up. He threw for a touchdown, finished with 174 yards and went 9 for 13 on third down, moving the chains on six of those completions. Ponder also ran more effectively than he had all season, taking off seven times for 48 yards, twice for first downs.
Then on Sunday, Ponder matched his career high with three touchdown passes, turning in his fifth turnover-free performance of the year and taking only one sack in the most important NFL game he’s played in. His 65-yard completion to Jarius Wright that set up one of those scores was his longest of the season.
Without his favorite receiver since Percy Harvin’s injury on Nov. 4, Ponder has had a tougher time finding open targets. But his patchwork group, while never being confused with the collection of standouts the Packers have at their disposal, has begun to give him more help. Wright, Michael Jenkins and Jerome Simpson all made tough catches on Sunday against Green Bay.
“I don’t think my confidence ever really was shaken or anything. I think it just goes back to obviously understanding what I can and can’t do. I can’t force things that aren’t there,” Ponder said.
He acknowledged Tuesday how much he appreciated the assurance from Frazier, Peterson and others.
“It was a tough situation and I was very hard on myself, so it was good to hear,” Ponder said.
The passing game was so weak and the ground game so good that, for a while, Peterson was rushing for more yards than Ponder was accumulating passing. During an eight-game stretch from Oct. 21 to Dec. 16, when the Vikings went 4-4, Peterson averaged 164 yards rushing and Ponder averaged 137 passing. In the other games this season, of which the Vikings won six, Peterson averaged 98 yards and Ponder 230.
“From my perspective as the head coach, you can’t be swayed by outside opinions,” Frazier said. “You can listen, but you’ve always got to make sure you’re doing the best thing for the team and what gives the team the best chance to win. And for me, that was making sure that Christian knew that he had my unwavering support.”
At some point, the Vikings might face more of a crossroad about whether to stick with Ponder or find a replacement. But with only 26 career starts — Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, by comparison, has 80 — they have a lot more performance reviews to conduct.
“He’s done a fantastic job these past few weeks. I thought this past game was his best,” center John Sullivan said. “Obviously he’s taking care of the football. He’s completing passes, a lot of third-down conversion and some big plays down the field. And that’s all we can ask of him. He’s doing his job just like everybody else is trying to do.”
Except that he’s under the most scrutiny, except maybe for Peterson.
“I think he’s done a great job just weathering that and continuing to play ball. It’s not always going to be pretty in this league,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “I think he’s just going to continue to push and improve, and you can kind of see where the results are now.”