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Christian Ponder: What His College Statistics Can Tell Us

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Continuing my look at Christian Ponder's career, I'm going to look back at his college history to see if there were any indicators to the type of Quarterback the Viking's were getting when they selected him 12th overall in the 2011 draft. I've already forecast his 2013 season and I have taken a look at his current career trajectory.

Run Up to the 2011 NFL Draft

Entering his Senior season, some had pegged Ponder as neck and neck with Jake Locker as the top QB in the draft. An up and down 2010 season, coupled with him missing time due to injury caused his stock to fall. He was projected anywhere from the 4th round to the first round. Some scouts liked his arm strength, most others had questions about it. However, most scouts praised his footwork, and throwing fundamentals and considered him a technically sound player. He was at times pegged as the "most nfl-ready rookie QB in the 2011 draft". While a few mock drafts did indeed correctly predict the Vikings drafting Christian Ponder with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, most experts had the Vikings going in a different direction. Some reports had the Viking's attempting to trade back in the first round to acquire extra picks while still picking Ponder. From all accounts, the Vikings tried and failed to find a partner, so they went ahead and picked the player they wanted at 12. Let's go back and take a look at what Ponder's scouting report was.

The first blurb we are going to be looking at comes from Pro Football Weekly. In their full scouting report of Ponder, which can be found here, they state that Ponder is:

Extremely tough-minded and intelligent with terrific intangibles. Strong drive and determination. Will battle through injuries and play through pain. Sells play-action hard. Gets rid of the ball quickly with good timing. Moves well outside the pocket and can extend plays with his feet. Has a gamer mentality with the moxie and grit to command a huddle and win respect in the locker room. Shrugs off adversity, responds well in pressure situations and performed well at the Senior Bowl. Has a confident, composed on-field temperament and can rally a team from behind. Very natural leader.

I don't know about you guys, but that generally describes the QB that I have seen the past two years in Minnesota. From all accounts, he has great intangibles and is developing into a good leader. Say what you will about his mid season play, he did bounce back to help the Vikings into the playoffs. And although I don't have any stats to back this up and could therefore be totally off basis, he does seem to respond well under pressure.

Of course, no prospect is perfect, and Pro Football Weekly also had this to say about Ponder:

Throwing elbow must be evaluated carefully - arm strength was limited prior to the injury, and accuracy wanes down the field. Average decision maker - takes unnecessary risks trying to make plays and lacks the velocity to squeeze the ball into coverage. Makes some bad reads and head-scratching decisions. Puts a lot of arc on the ball and often under throws deep receivers - cannot cut it loose through the wind. Struggles gauging his own arm and touch. Regressed following the promotion of Jimbo Fisher to head coach (and is best with a technical position coach). Could not finish the season the last two years because of durability issues.

This blurb also describes many of the things I have seen from Ponder in his first two years. Although I will be the first to admit, I am not a tape grinder, this does seem to gel with what I have seen on the field from him. One thing I will say is that he seems to have improved his arm strength. However, his decision making has been called into question during the past two years, as has his deep passing. And although I fall into the camp that injuries are inherently random, he has been nicked up the past two years on and off and also failed to finish the season this past year.

This next scouting report comes to us courtesy of WalterFootball.com. The scouting report on Ponder is similar to what we saw from PFW:

Strengths:

  • Short- to intermediate-area accuracy and touch
  • Good mechanics and footwork
  • Mobile with scrambling ability
  • Experience under center in pro-style offense
  • Three-year starter
  • Very intelligent (completed MBA)
  • High character leader - team captain
  • Again, Ponder is said to have good intangibles, good mechanics, and good footwork. The negatives, again, are pretty much the same:

    Weaknesses:

  • Average arm strength
  • Might be limited to West Coast offense
  • Forces throws that NFL players will intercept
  • Questionable decision making
  • Injury history (shoulder, elbow)
  • This list is very similar to what PFW had as negatives for Ponder. Like I said before, it appears that the arm strength concerns have been slightly overblown. The rest of the negatives seem to have some claim to legitimacy: forces throws and questionable decision making. And, although I fall into the injuries are inherently random camp, he has been nicked up his first few years, and failed to finish the season last year.

    Most critics have stated that Ponder had a solid 2009 season, but failed to build upon it due to injuries his senior season. In short, whether due to injuries or other factors, Ponder failed to noticeably grow as a QB between his Junior and Senior season. In 2009, Ponder completed 227 out of 330 pass attempts, for 2,717 yards, 20 TDs and only 7 INTs. That comes out to a solid 8.13 AYA. The average AYA for the 2009 season was 7.30, So Ponder played above average in 2009. However, for various reasons, his AYA fell to 6.97, while the average AYA was 7.40. That type of regression from Junior to Senior is definitely a red flag, but certainly not a guaranteed career killer.

    One such example is Andrew Luck, who had a sterling 9.72 AYA in 2010, but regressed slightly to a still great 9.42 AYA. Perhaps Luck isn't the greatest example, as he was above average to begin with and stayed above average, but hopefully you understand the point I am trying to make, which is scouts like to see year to year growth from a player. It shows them that a player is constantly improving while in college, which means they probably haven't hit their peak yet as a player.

    So to sum up, we know that Ponder regressed as a passer between his Junior and Senior years, and had some well documented struggles with decision making, reading the defense at times, and throwing the deep ball. All these issues have cropped up at one point or another from Ponder over the past two years. Let's now set aside the mostly qualitative method we have used to evaluate Ponder thus far, and employ a more quantitative methodology.

    The Lewin Career Forecast

    Some of you may have heard of the LCF, originally developed by, shockingly, David Lewin. Quick side note, David Lewin is now employed by the Cleveland Cavaliers. If your kids ask you at some point why they are learning that useless math, point them toward David Lewin's bio. Anyway, the original statistic developed by Lewin filtered QBs by draft status and two statistics. It looked at QBs drafted in the first two rounds between 1997 and 2005, and used their games started and completion percentage as a barometer for their career potential. Although it was a simplistic model, between '97 and '05 it had a surprisingly good track record of predicting college quarterbacks careers. However, starting in 2005, the model started to lose its good track record. It notably predicted such NFL luminaries to have successful careers: Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn, Kevin Kolb, John Beck, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne and Josh Freeman. While Josh Freeman's book isn't yet completed, the rest of that list is your veritable who's who of failed QBs. Instead of rehashing why the original LCF failed, I'll give you this quote from Football Outsiders as to why it failed:

    With these problems in the last couple years, there have generally been two criticisms of LCF. The first is that completion rates don't clearly indicate NFL-level accuracy anymore because of the rise of the college spread option. However, this really isn't as big an issue as some readers seem to believe. Despite a slight rise in completion rates across college football due to the spread offense, the real issue is number of games started. Before 2005, games started were a strong clue as to whether scouts got it right or wrong on the top prospects. Since 2005, many quarterbacks with plenty of experience washed out while similarly accurate, but much less experienced quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco have become successful NFL starters.

    With that in mind, Football Outsiders unveiled their LCF 2.0, which took into account 7 different statistics to predict a QBs career. They are:

  • Career college games started. This is still the most important variable in the equation. Uses a minimum of 20, a maximum of 48.
  • Career completion rate; however, this is now a logarithmic variable. As a quarterback's completion percentage goes down, the penalty for low completion percentage gets gradually larger. As a result, the bonus for exceedingly accurate quarterbacks such as Tim Couch and Brian Brohm is smaller than the penalty for inaccurate quarterbacks such as Kyle Boller and Tarvaris Jackson.
  • Difference between the quarterback's BMI and 28.0. This creates a small penalty for quarterbacks who don't exactly conform to the "ideal quarterback size." This year, that would include both Colin Kaepernick (BMI: 26.8) and Cam Newton (BMI: 29.4).
  • Run-pass ratio in the quarterback's final college season, with a maximum of 0.5.
  • Total rushing yards in the quarterback's final college season, with a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 600
  • For quarterbacks who come out as seniors, the difference in NCAA passer rating between their junior and senior seasons.
  • Finally, a binary variable that penalizes quarterbacks who don't play for a team in a BCS-qualifying conference. We counted Notre Dame here as a BCS school, even though that actually lowered the accuracy of the projections. However, this variable only qualifies for Division I-A quarterbacks, not Division I-AA quarterbacks. Perhaps this means that scouts do a better job of identifying the few Division I-AA quarterbacks who can translate their games to the NFL. (The data set has only three of these players: Josh McCown, Tarvaris Jackson, and Joe Flacco.)
  • As you can see, it is a much more complex formula. I'm first going to look at the all time LCF 2.0 champions, followed by the 2011 and 2012 LCF QB lists.

    All-Time LCF 2.0 Champions

    It bothers me somewhat that I don't have access to the raw formula, as I always prefer to calculate my own data whenever possible. Its not that I doubt others ability to do calculations, its just something that I have picked up the past few years while studying engineering. I always prefer my own calculations because then I am the only person accountable for the end results, and I'm not having to rely on others for my data. Regardless, in this instance, we will have to rely on Football Outsiders own calculations.

    The top ten LCF 2.0 Quarterbacks list is filled with players almost everyone will immediately recognize. Although the list clearly isn't perfect, it is a better overall formula and has an R^2 value of .58. For those new to stats, or who haven't used statistics in awhile, here is a description of R^2. Put simply, R^2 is a stats term that states how good one stat is at predicting another. 1.0 would be perfectly predictive, while 0.0 means it has no predictive value whatsoever. An R^2 of .58 is a pretty solid correlation between the new LCF formula and QB success. Here is the top 10 all time LCF 2.0 QBs:

    • Philip Rivers -2476
    • Drew Brees-2190
    • Carson Palmer-1973
    • Peyton Manning-1784
    • Chad Pennington-1678
    • Brady Quinn-1518
    • Jason Campbell-1506
    • Jay Cutler-1444
    • Chad Henne-1411
    • Matt Ryan-1403

    Clearly, LCF failed for the four highlighted QBs. The important thing to note isn't that the stat failed, but why it failed. As I have stated in my other statistics based posts, statistics by themselves don't always provide context. This is what many people who rely on only qualitative or only quantitative measurements fall short. I don't think that, at least in football, people use scouting and statistical analysis to their full effect. Rather than relying on one or the other to tell us everything we seemingly need to know about a player, use them in conjunction to formulate opinions on plays. Take our four failures for example. Although they all scored extremely high on our LCF 2.0 measurement, if we go back to their respective scouting reports, we can find some serious red flags for every failed prospect on that list. In Chad Pennington's case, its easy to forget that before he tore his rotator cuff twice that turned him into a noodle armed shell of a QB, he appeared to be a great QB in the making, finishing his first full season as a starter with a downright RIDICULOUS AYA of 9.60. Quinn, however, had some pretty big red flags in his scouting profile:

    As smart as he is, Quinn can be almost bizarrely slow in making his defensive reads, which can lead to some pretty poor outings, as shown in the Georgia Tech and Michigan games in the 2006 season. As quickly as the ball jumps out of his hands, his release can be very slow indeed, often trying to make the biggest play instead of the best play. That won't cut it in the NFL.

    Campbell also had some notable red flags in his scouting report:

    Needs to work on some fundamentals, especially his feet in his pass set, but he has the quickness to get back from center. ... Made more sound decisions in 2004 than he did in the past, but he still must improve in reading coverages.

    And, finally, Henne also had scouts questioning his ability:

    Scouts are still worried his footwork will fail him if the pocket collapses, and Henne did not show any progress through his college career. His freshman numbers look very similar to the numbers he put up each of the next three seasons at Michigan.

    Notice how many of the same issues crop up with all 3 of the non-injury bust QBs. Fundamentals, footwork, and reading coverages all appeared on multiple scouting reports. This isn't to say that I'm trying to explain away the high ranking for these guys, but I am trying to put a bit of context around those numbers. As I stated before, no single stat or measurement is perfect, and, coupled with scouting reports, you could start to weed out potential red flagged players, or at least drop them down on your board.

    2011 and 2012 QBs LCF 2.0 Rating

    After 2,500 words, a lot of quotes and some scouting reports, we have arrived at our final destination: using the LCF 2.0 measurement on the 2011 and 2012 draft class, including our own Christian Ponder. Since the performance of some of the 2012 rookies were downright amazing, I'm going to start with them.

    2012 LCF 2.0 Rating

    We will start at the top and work our way down. Although it was shocking at the time, looking back on it, it isn't a huge surprise to see Russell Wilson top the list, with an astounding 2,650 score. Although Wilson did dominate during his rookie year, Football Outsiders had this to say about his score:

    I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention the ridiculous projection that the Lewin Career Forecast spits out for Russell Wilson. Yes, that projection is even higher than the one for Robert Griffin. No, it doesn't particularly mean that Wilson is a sleeper prospect. There are a few things going on here that the LCF is just not designed to account for.

    First and foremost, the change in Wilson's passer rating between his junior and senior years is insane. Remember that earlier I noted that Griffin had a larger senior year passer rating increase than any quarterback in our data set? Well, Wilson's senior year passer rating increase is 40 percent larger than Griffin's. But does it matter when the quarterback is playing in a completely different offense for a completely different school in his last year of college eligibility? At Wisconsin, Wilson got to pick apart defenses that were concentrating on stopping Montee Ball. At North Carolina State, I doubt opponents were quaking in their boots at the thought of Mustafa Greene and Dean Haynes. It goes without saying that there isn't another quarterback in the LCF data set who transferred between his junior and senior years.

    There's also the issue of height, another data point where there's nobody in our data set that can be compared to Wilson. At first, it seems strange that LCF doesn't include a variable to discount short quarterbacks, but when you look at the data set that went into creating LCF the reasons are pretty clear. There's no penalty for being 5-foot-11, like Wilson is, because there are no quarterbacks in the data set who are shorter than 6-foot-0. There's no penalty for being only 6-foot-0 because the two quarterbacks who are 6-foot-0 are Drew Brees and Michael Vick.

    Quarterbacks who are Wilson's height simply don't get drafted in the first three rounds of the draft, period. The FO master database only includes three quarterbacks who are below six feet tall: Seneca Wallace, Joe Hamilton, and Flutie. That's a fourth-round pick, a seventh-round pick, and an 11th round pick from 25 years ago. Even if we go all the way back to 1991, the only quarterbacks taken in the first six rounds at 6-foot-0 or shorter were Vick, Brees, Wallace, Joe Germaine (fourth round, 1999), and Troy Smith (fifth round, 2007).

    Wilson too will probably be drafted on the third day of the draft, round four or later, which would render his absurdly high LCF moot.

    Even though they tried to explain away the absurd score for Wilson, all he did was go out and post one of the best rookie seasons ever.

    Next up on the list, as you can probably guess from reading the above quote, is Robert Griffin III, with a score of 2,530. His score would be the best all time score of LCF if it wasn't for Russell Wilson's.

    After Griffin, we get to Andrew Luck, with a very, very good score of 1,749.

    Once Luck is out of the way, the list takes a somewhat interesting turn. The next five QBs on the list are:

    • Nick Foles-1,391
    • Kirk Cousins-1,362
    • Brandon Weeden-1,011
    • Ryan Tannehill-730
    • Brock Osweiler-248

    Quick note on Osweiler: I actually played High School basketball against him back when he was attending Flathead High School in Kalispell, MT. I didn't think he was particularly good, and yet he was recruited by Gonzaga to play basketball. Shows how good of a talent evaluator I am.

    Now, on to the 2011 QBs.

    2011 LCF Rating 2.0

    First up, we have a name almost every Viking's fan should recognize, as he is continually compared with Christian Ponder: Andy Dalton. Dalton scores a very solid 1,616. The quality falls off somewhat after Dalton, as every guy after him (besides Ricky Stanzi) has interesting upside but some risk attached to them.

    • Rick Stanzi-1,305*
    • Colin Kaepernick-1,044
    • Blaine Gabbert-675
    • Jake Locker-569
    • Ryan Mallet-471
    • Christian Ponder-413
    • Cam Newton-175**

    *The author had this to say about Stanzi:

    Stanzi gets an asterisk. I don't think he's going in the first three rounds. He's another guy scouts have to do their due diligence on. Still, he did improve a lot as a senior and could be a nice fourth- or fifth-round sleeper. Rushing numbers suggest he may take too many sacks.

    He ended up going in the 5th round, relegating him from our list.

    **This is what the author had to say about Cam Newton:

    I thought Tim Tebow was the most unique prospect in recent times, but Cam Newton may have surpassed him. You get most of the same questions, but you take out the questions about throwing motion and replace them with questions about character and inexperience. Nobody doubts that Newton is an amazing athlete who was a supremely valuable college football player. In the NFL, he is a massive risk-reward candidate. I just happen to think that the risk is larger than the reward. I would not take him with the first overall pick in the draft unless a) there was absolutely no other player worth that top pick, and b) I knew for certain that the post-lockout CBA would include a rookie salary slotting system that would go into effect immediately.

    So far, it seems that the massive risk Carolina undertook is starting to pan out. I would wager that he is a more valuable fantasy football QB than real life QB, but he is still above average as a passer, and has amazing running ability.

    Unfortunately, our own Christian Ponder comes out very poorly on the LCF 2.0 measurement. While he did score higher than Newton, Newton seems to be a unique case, whereas Ponder appears to be a sub-par pocket QB. Here is what the author had to say about Ponder:

    Christian Ponder, Florida State: 413 DYAR

    Important stats: 33 games started, 61.8% completion rate, senior passer rating dropped 12.0 points.

    Maybe somebody reaches for him because so many teams have quarterback needs this year, but Ponder just seems to me like a classic third-round pick. How high is his ceiling, really? Isn't he basically just Drew Stanton? I would be scared of how his improvement stagnated in his senior year.

    Questions about his year-to-year improvement surfaced yet again. According to this measurement, Ponder's chances of succeeding as an NFL QB are not very good. Fans will look to Newton's similarly dismal outlook and note that there is still a chance of success, but as mentioned before, Newton seems to be an extremely unique example. Additionally, earlier red-flags we had on QBs who ended up failing surface with Ponder: decision making and reading the defense. Although it is just a scouts opinion, both of those factors continually show up as red-flags in scouting reports. I'm virtually certain one could find scouting reports of successful QBs that had decision making and reading the defense as a weakness. I don't mention them as conclusive proof that it will mean Ponder will fail, rather that other QBs who failed already had similar issues. It doesn't mean he will fail, but it is the same red-flag that seemingly caused other QBs to fail.

    So, that about wraps up my ridiculously long post on Christian Ponder. I'm sure many of you will discount the LCF 2.0 as a valid measurement tool, which isn't an altogether horrible conclusion. It is obviously not perfect, as no statistic is perfect. But, used in conjunction with scouting, I feel that it has some legitimate predictive value. And while it doesn't project our QB in a very favorably light, aren't we still seeing the same issues that dogged Ponder in college pop up in his NFL game so far? That again ties in with the narrative that Ponder is a QB that didn't improve much from his Junior to Senior year, and didn't improve much from Year 1 to Year 2 in the NFL. I am seriously hoping he makes that 3rd year jump, but based on what I have learned about Ponder as a prospect/player, it seems unlikely that he will be able to make a substantive jump.

    This FanPost was created by a registered user of The Daily Norseman, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of the site. However, since this is a community, that view is no less important.

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