As I was scouring through my Vikings and NFL newsfeed today, I stumbled on an excellent and well written piece on Christian Ponder, and it came from one of the most unexpected places: ESPN Insider. Many of us like to criticize the 4-letter network for their seeming bias against all-things-Vikings. But this time, I have to give them credit. The article begins by comparing Christian Ponder to a slew of other quarterbacks: those that have handed the ball off to 2,000 yard rushers. With the exception of the Davis/Elway combo in 1998, not one made it to the Super Bowl and won.
The author goes on to point out many of the bad statistics from Ponder's 2012 season, and you've likely seen some of these reiterated throughout the media, and even here at the Daily Norsemen. Examples (like you needed them):
- Ponder completed just eight passes of 20-plus yards (Even Blaine Gabbert, who started just 10 games completed seven.)
- He threw deep (20-plus yards) on only 7.5 percent of dropbacks, the lowest total among any regular 2012 starter.
- No QB in the NFL last season threw more often out of play-action than Ponder.
- Ponder had just 983 yards out of play-action because he averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt in those situations.
- Ponder ranked just 17th in overall accuracy on throws, per PFF.
Again, I'm sure none of us needed the reminder. But here is where it gets interesting. Author Chris Sprow points to three reasons why he believes Christian Ponder is poised to improve in 2013, and I think he makes some excellent points:
Start with the upside of losing Percy Harvin. If that sounds insane, just consider Harvin in the context of this offense. Harvin lined up in the slot 59.8 percent of the time last season when he was on the field. That's not some league-high total, but Harvin also led the NFL in 2012 with a whopping 31 percent target rate when he ran a route. In essence, Minnesota's best pass-catching threat was primarily running shorter routes against defenses that were already crowding the box to stop the run. I won't ever say Harvin's absence actually helps Minnesota, but at least it means that Ponder could get a nudge out of his short-passing comfort zone.
I don't think this can be overlooked, or overstated enough. Harvin thrived out of the slot, and in short-yardage passing. I don't think it's a coincedence that the passing game last year featured, primarily, short "dink and dunk" passes. That part of the scheme was dissected ad-nauseum here in the fanposts and comments section of the DN last year with the whole "Yards After the Catch" discussion. But guess what, Harvin and his YAC abilities are gone, and that might encourage Ponder to look further downfield. Continuing with the second reason:
Secondly, Ponder's best pass-catching options this year are far more defined by their ability to stretch the field. Greg Jennings might be the best intermediate route-runner in the NFL. Cordarrelle Patterson is a big target with 4.4 speed and the ability to beat defenders over the top. Even Jarius Wright -- the player responsible for Ponder's longest pass of 2012, a 65-yarder -- is a burner who can push safeties off the line. This is a group designed to keep safeties from cheating.
I harped all off-season about the Vikings need to completely revamp their wide receivers, and for the most part they did. The following players are gone: Percy Harvin, Michael Jenkins, and Devin Aromashodu. And we've got the following new players in their place: Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, and dare I say it: Joe Webb. Simpson and Wright return, but likely will fall back to their natural #3 and #4 role, rather than being the main targets for Ponder. If Ponder needed better receivers who can get open down field, well, he's certainly got them now. And here's the last reason:
The third reason Ponder should have a great chance to take the next step (down the field) is what should be a very good pass-blocking offensive line. Matt Kalil enters Year 2 at left tackle after starting all 16 games there as a rookie, Phil Loadholt is well above average at right tackle and the Vikings are also solid along the interior. They were above average as a unit in 2012, and should only get better in 2013.
If reports out of training camp are to be believed, it sounds like Fusco is stepping up his game. I agree that the offensive line was very good last year and should only get better, and if a guy like Fusco can have a break-out year in 2013, that will only help Ponder and the passing game.
I think we all can agree that this is a make-or-break year for Christian Ponder, and it's obvious that he'll need to play better if we want to see our Vikings return to the playoffs. But I love reading something optimistic about our chances, and when it comes from an unlikely source, it's even better.