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After Rookie Season, Vikings Aim To Make Christian Ponder ‘All He Can Be’
ASHBURN – When Christian Ponder rolled out of the pocket and threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins on the first play of his first start last season, it seemed as though nothing would go wrong for the Minnesota Vikings.
As Ponder would quickly learn, the NFL wouldn’t be that easy. The rookie quarterback, the 12th overall pick in the NFL Draft last year, struggled over those final 10 games and finished the season having completed just 58.3 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
A year later, as the Vikings and prepare to face the Washington Redskins on Sunday, Ponder appears to have it all figured out.
“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 the reads faster and he looks a lot more seasoned.”
Ponder is a big reason why the Vikings, at 4-1, have already won more games than they did all of last year. His 69.0 completion percentage ranks second in the NFL, behind only the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III, and he’s only thrown two interceptions this season.
A more simplistic game plan has helped. The Vikings have continued to focus on the running game, giving the ball to Adrian Peterson roughly 20 times a game and allowing another 10 carries by Toby Gerhart.
But they’ve also tried to take more use of high-percentage passes, including utilizing Percy Harvin often with bubble screens. Ponder’s 6.5 yards per pass attempt ranks 22nd in the league amongst starting quarterbacks.
“Especially at the quarterback position, it’s important to establish a rhythm, and as you establish a rhythm, that establishes confidence,” Ponder told reporters in Minnesota this week. “To connect on shorter passes and build that confidence again, that definitely helps.”
Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier said Ponder spent significant time working with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson during the offseason to recognize areas in which he needed to improve.
As a rookie last season, Ponder was unable to have any contact with the coaching staff until late July, when the lockout ended. As a result, he sat behind Donovan McNabb for the first five games before making his first career start Oct. 23 against Green Bay.
“The fact that he’s a smart football player and a very good football player, he’s gotten that information and he’s done with it what we need him to do,” Frazier said. “It is important that you have some pieces around him, so this offseason, to go out and get [receiver] 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 special teams – all were part of having Christian be all he can be at quarterback.”