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Notes From Mankato: Christian Ponder And The 'It" Factor

One of the things I was really curious to see when I got to Mankato was the hotshot rookie QB, Christian Ponder.  The fact that Skol Girl and I were able to get a quasi-exclusive interview with him was, in a word, freaking ridiculously cool.  What's that?  It was three words?  Yeah, it was, because it can't be described in one word.

I was fortunate to do this training camp thing in 2006, when Tarvaris Jackson was the rookie QBOTF, and I really wanted to do a compare and contrast. 

Is it really a fair comparison?  In some ways, no it isn't, and I'll be the first to admit it.  These are some very different circumstances, as there are two different coaches.  And those two coaches couldn't be any more different in styles.  Childress' first camp in 2006 was a no nonsense, two a day, full pads, full contact slog.  It was very serious and business-like, and there didn't seem to be a lot of joking around.  Frazier's first camp is decidedly different, but part of that is because of the new CBA.  Two a days are a thing of the past, so with one practice nothing more than a shorts and jerseys walk through, it's less intense almost by default.  Childress was brand new to the organization and a first time head coach, but Frazier, while also a first time head coach, is very familiar to the organization, having been on the staff for several years before being named interim coach to end the season.

But in some ways, I think it is a fair comparison.  Jackson and Ponder come to camp with the weight of expectations on them.  Both were drafted to eventually be the quarterback of the team for many seasons, and both were or will be expected to be the starter early in their career.  There were vocal minorities that lambasted the pick, and called it OMZGMYGAWSWORSTESTTHINGEVAH!!11!!, and both came to Mankato under a lot of scrutiny.  

Both were high round draft picks, and both have to deal with the harsh spotlight of quarterback in the National Football League.  The chapter has been closed on Jackson in Minnesota, and it wasn't a happy ending.

How will Ponder's story end?

Some of the similarities between the two, besides the number, are apparent.  One of the universal truths about the NFL that all veterans tell you is that the speed of the game at the pro level is the toughest to get used to, especially at the quarterback position.

And in that regard, both Jackson and Ponder have struggled with the transition.  But the first difference that I noticed is that Jackson was always walking on eggshells.  But everybody on that 2006 team was, and maybe that's where the seeds of Jackson's ultimate failure were sown, as the conditions were between 2006 and 2011 are very different. 

For one, the difference between the two coaches are striking.  Brad Childress was a first time head coach new to the organization, and was a no nonsense, no BS guy.  But in his defense, that was part of his job description when he got the gig.  He was hired to bring discipline, and he By God did.  Granted, it was in an authoritarian, police state way, but he changed the laissez faire culture of Mike Tice almost overnight.  And while Frazier is also a first time coach, his is a calm demeanor that would make Bud Grant look like a hot head.  You get the feeling that if Frazier spontaneously combusted, he'd calmly walk over to the water tank and hose himself down until the fire was out, shrug his shoulders, and then head over to see what the linebackers were up to in indivdual drills.   

Still, there are noticeable differences between Jackson in 2006 and Ponder in 2010.  With Jackson, he wasn't timid, but he never seemed to relax and get comfortable.  He seemed afraid to make a mistake, and mistakes seemed to bug him.  When he met the press, he gave off the vibe that he wanted to be anywhere else in the world but there.

Ponder looks comfortable in his skin, and seems to have an ability to put the white noise of the draft, training camp, and the accompanying media scrutiny off to the side, if not flat out embrace it and accept it as part of the territory.  He's relaxed during warm ups, joking around with teammates, but when it's time to go to work, he's all business. 

Part of that may be the fact that Jackson went to 1-AA Alabama State, and Ponder went to a high profile school like Florida State.  Maybe part of that is the familiarity with the offense that Ponder already has, as the offense he ran is similar to what he ran at Florida State.

"How we call plays, how we call cadences, the concepts in our routes and our reads," Ponder said, "they're all very similar if not exactly the same thing we did at Florida State."

How they've reacted to adversity seems different, too.  Jackson seemed to tense up when he made a mistake for fear of drawing the coach's ire, and Ponder gives off the impression that it's forgotten and it's time to move on.  When we caught up with him on Friday, he had just come off of the practice field where he threw two ugly interceptions during 11 on 11 drills.

"The first four days went pretty well, but today was a little rough.  Days like this are when you learn the most, and I'll work to get better."

It didn't come across as bragging, nor false bravado, it was just a matter of fact assessment:  Yeah, I wasn't good today, but I know it, and learning and getting better.

And Leslie Frazier has been impressed, as well.

Christian Ponder has done a terrific job in just being able to absorb all the stuff that is going on, all the pressures that come with being a rookie quarterback in the NFL. Thus far he’s been composed, hasn’t been rattled and we’ll see how he progresses.

Does this mean that Ponder is going to be a great quarterback in the NFL?  No, nothing is guaranteed.  And at the end of the day, how many games he wins will be the ultimate judgement in how he is viewed as a quarterback.

But how you act under scrutiny and pressure does speak volumes.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography "I can't defiine it but I know it when I see it."  Although I can't define what the elusive 'it' is that quarterbacks in the NFL need to have to be successful, I think I saw it in Mankato with Ponder.