For all the draft picks, trades, and off-season activity, the fate of the Minnesota Vikings rests largely where it did last year- on the shoulders of Christian Ponder. Adrian Peterson carried the team offensively with his MVP performance, but when it came down to win or lose, it was the performance of #7 that was often the deciding factor. The two regular season games against the Green Bay Packers last year was a clear example.
We all know that top QBs like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have performed at a consistently high level over the years. But the often inconsistent Joe Flacco and Eli Manning have just as many Super Bowl rings, and Super Bowl MVPs, between them.
So, when it comes to evaluating Christian Ponder, it's important to start with the right question: is Christian Ponder good enough to help bring a Super Bowl championship to Minnesota? If you start by asking if Ponder can be an elite QB, or can he throw the deep ball, or can he reach this statistic or another, you're asking the wrong question.
We all know what it takes to win a Super Bowl- play well enough to make the playoffs, then get hot. As important as the QB position is now in the game of football, it's still a team game. It's hard to go the distance if as a team you're one dimensional. It happens, but sometimes what a QB gives, the defense gives back- and more.
Having said that, there are definitely several times during a season when a quarterback needs to step-up. Make a play. Grind out a drive. Particularly against a tough opponent, or a playoff game. Sometimes a QB makes a play with his arm- like Brett Favre's pass to Greg Lewis to beat the 49ers. Sometimes it's recognizing a defense and calling a last second audible at the line to beat it- like Peyton Manning did a couple times in the playoffs last year. And other times it's in weekly preparation and/or recognizing a mismatch, then exploiting it on the field- like Aaron Rodgers did when Marcus Sherels entered the game for Antoine Winfield last year.
So, with all that in mind, let's look at Christian Ponder.
When looking at a young QB, I think it makes sense to separate quantitative measures and qualitative. Ponder has less than two full years under his belt, and like many young QBs, his quantitative measures seem a model of inconsistency. Overall, he had a 53.8 QBR, which I think it is a more accurate rating because it measures total performance, not just passing, it includes a "clutch" play weighting (which adds weight to game-changing plays and discounts "garbage yards" for example), and a couple other measures that isolate individual QB performance, which makes sense. On this 100 point scale, 50 is considered average performance. So, by this (more accurate) measure Ponder was a slightly above average QB during the 2012 regular season.
How could that be given a 31st ranked passing offense? The main reason is that Christian Ponder performs a lot better than the bottom-half ranked QBs in clutch situations. Additionally Ponder didn't have as many errors- like penalties or sacks for holding the ball too long, didn't have a lot of garbage yards or TDs when the game was out of reach, and was fairly efficient (62%) passing.
Analyzing Ponder's passing performance, however, doesn't yield a lot of strong trends. But there are a few things that stood out to me:
1. Generally-speaking, in both single-game performance and over the whole 2012 season, Ponder tended to start relatively strong, worsen considerably in the middle, before finishing very strong. This comes from doing well under pressure, and coaching.
The coaching staff has emphasized the importance of getting off to a good start, which creates pressure to perform early on, given the difficulty of a run-focused team like the Vikings to play from behind. Playing well in the 4th quarter, and in close games, speaks well of Ponder's competitiveness, and his ability to play relatively well with the game on the line. Far-and-away his best passer rating (132) came in the 4th quarter in close games (+/- 3 and +/- 7 points) - outperforming Aaron Rodgers in both situations.
2. Ponder is extremely poor passing 20-30 yards down the field (11 passer-rating), and worse - 0 for 10 (zero-rating) - on his 10 attempts between 30-40 yards. His highest rating (although only 2 for 3) was for 40+ yard passes. By contrast, Aaron Rodgers was 0-6 (zero rating) on 40+ yard passes last year. But in the 20-40 yard category, Rodgers beats Ponder by 100 rating points or more, going a combined 19/47 while Ponder was a dismal 4/33.
3. Ponder attempted about as many screens (throws behind the LOS) as he did throws over 10 yards. Nearly 75% of Ponder's attempts (and 84% of completions) were down field 10 yards or less.
4. Ponder was by far the worst throwing to the middle of the field, and attempted doing so the least.
5. Rounding a bit for ease of numbers, 21% of Ponder's completions were to Percy Harvin (half of which were bubble screens), about 22% were to a TE (Rudolph 90% of those), 16% to RBs (AP 90% of those), 14% to Michael Jenkins, 9% to Jerome Simpson, 8% to Jarius Wright, 4% Aromashadu, 2% Burton, 4% someone else. Looking at that mix, roughly 90% of Ponder's completions of 10 yards or more (and likely an even higher percentage of attempts) went to a receiver that ranked in the bottom half of all receivers in the league. By contrast, the vast majority of Aaron Rodgers' passes 10+ yards went to receivers in the top half, if not top quarter, of all the receivers in the league.
#2 - #5 are essentially shared statistics. A function of both QB and receiving corps, their strengths, weaknesses and offensive scheme. The strength here is clearly very short passes, the glaring weakness are passes 20 - 40 yards down field. The fact that relatively few of these passes were thrown, and completions were extremely low, suggests receivers were not open much at this distance, and either pass, route or receiver were not good enough for a completion.
7. If you add up under-thrown, over-thrown, and thrown-wide passes as a measure of inaccurate passes, Christian Ponder was inaccurate on 15% of his attempts. By contrast, Aaron Rodgers was inaccurate on 13% of his attempts. That's a difference of about 10 inaccurate passes during the entire season.
Aaron Rodgers had a 108 passer rating last year. Ponder 81.2, or about a 27 point gap. Turning 1 inaccuracy per game into a 20-40 yard completion would likely cut that gap in half.
Let's move on now to more qualitative measures.
One of the main things that comes out of Ponder's stats is his competitiveness. He may not be the most gifted QB ever, or have the most talented group of receivers to throw to, but he does seem to have the ability to raise his level of play when the game is on the line. This also suggests confidence. Confidence in himself.
And yet to watch him in the pocket, it's pretty hard to reach that conclusion. Ponder doesn't show a lot of poise in the pocket, or elicit the feeling that he is in command of the field. He looks nervous and tentative. Frankly this is the reason, along with the lack of a vertical game, why so many fans and pundits question Ponder's ability to succeed as an NFL quarterback.
While I think some of that lack of poise comes from being a young QB still building, rather than relying, on his experience, I think most of it comes from a lack of confidence in his receivers. As Greg Jennings mentioned when asked about Christian Ponder's passing ability, he did his due diligence on Ponder and watched a lot of film on him. He found that the main problem was a lack of open receivers. Keep in mind that Greg Jennings has a lot of performance-based pay on the line with Ponder. So this wasn't just being a good team-player. If Ponder falls short, it'll cost Jennings millions. So Jennings signing with the Vikings was also an endorsement of Ponder's ability to succeed as a QB - provided there is an upgrade to the receiving corps.
And let's face facts. The Vikings receiving corps on the field last year was not very good. Most lacked speed. Just about every one lacked good route running ability, and the ability to adjust and come down with a contested ball. That being the case, I think it was only natural for Ponder to be tentative as he surveyed the field. But, as Ron Jaworski mentioned in condemning Ponder to the bottom of the league this year (although somehow still managing some praise), Ponder's tentativeness resulted in his being a beat late in his delivery on most of his throws down field. That doesn't help get the best out of a less-than-stellar receiving corps.
In any case, Ponder was always willing to take the blame. Pretty much every press conference he's ever given, win or lose, you hear a steady stream of "I need to continue to work hard" "I need to continue to improve, get better". In every loss, he was always willing to shoulder the blame. "It's on me" "the loss is on me" "my fault" "could have done better" were pretty familiar lines. You don't always appreciate that until you've seen a Jay Cutler press conference following a loss.
The other character aspect that bodes well for Ponder is his ability to bounce back from a bad play or bad game. Following the first Green Bay game last year, arguably his worst, there were pretty grave concerns (myself included) about his ability to continue much longer as QB. But to his credit, he was able to bounce back when the season was at a crossroads, and finish the year with some of his best performances.
OK, so looking ahead, what does this mean about Ponder's ability to deliver a championship?
The truth is, the Vikings don't need Christian Ponder to be an elite QB to win a Super Bowl. Adrian Peterson in the backfield, a solid run defense, the ability to generate sacks, a good offensive line and special teams reduce the need for an elite QB to win a Super Bowl.
What the Vikings do need from Ponder is a more balanced passing game. When basically 85% of your passing, and about 95% of your total offense takes place within 10 yards of the LOS, you're making it much easier for defenses to limit the running game and focus on a short field. You also pretty much guarantee 8, 9, 10 men in the box.
Fortunately for Ponder, the Vikings overhauled the receiver corps during the off-season, providing him with better down field threats. Both Jennings and Patterson are better suited for down-field production - Jennings as a talented veteran route runner and Patterson with his length and speed. Combined with the return of Jarius Wright and a healthy Jerome Simpson, this should give Ponder a real chance at improving the 20-40 yard pass game that was a huge hole in his game last year. More than that, having a trusted vet in Jennings, an upgrade in (healthy) talent at the X receiver in Patterson and Simpson, and an improving Jarius Wright should help build Ponder's confidence in his down field receiving corps that was sorely missing last year. It may take Ponder some time to develop that confidence, but it's not like Frazier and Musgrave are calling for a quick return to the Carter/Moss aerial playbook either. One 20+ yard completion per game would be an improvement over last year. Two would be huge.
But the benefits of multiple, legitimate down field threats extend beyond that. Having those threats will allow Ponder more flexibility in making plays. Last year he made plays with his legs, and occasionally with his arm. But last year he couldn't very well audible a 9 or 7 route to take advantage of single-coverage- when your receiver can't beat single coverage. It was also hard to take advantage of mismatches down the field- when your receivers were often the ones out-matched. Additionally, that down field threat is the only sure-fire way to curtail the defensive box-stacking that slowed the Vikings run- and short-pass game- or make 'em pay for doing so.
Beyond that, Ponder needs to maintain his good starts, and strong finishes, while working to stop taking his foot off the gas in-between. He has shown the ability to step-up with the game in doubt. He has shown the ability, together with the team, to play well enough to make the playoffs. The last test- getting hot in the playoffs- is also very doable. His 4-game win streak at the end of 2012- 3 of which were against 10-win and playoff caliber-opponents, is proof of that. I don't think we've seen Ponder's best game yet. Or his best season. While it would've been nice to have a rookie wunderkind in Ponder ala a Cam Newton, RGIII, Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck, I don't think that is what the expectations were for Christian Ponder. Having a rookie QB without any preparation start near the bottom in QBR his first year, then move to just above average his second year, is not horrible. Frustrating perhaps, but probably more the typical route for a young QB. Neither Aaron Rodgers (who hardly played) or Drew Brees did much their first few years, but went on to be elite. That remains to be seen for Christian Ponder, but he could have Super Bowl ring(s) on his finger either way. He needs to improve some over his 2012 performance, but he need not be Aaron Rodgers to win a championship. To the extent he falls short of that mark, the Vikings will need help in the running game and on defense, and that is doable too.
So, yes. Christian Ponder has the ability to help bring a Super Bowl to Minnesota. More than one. Heard it here first.