Developing quarterbacks in the NFL takes time, and the Minnesota Vikings are in a position of patience with theirs.
For Christian Ponder, the waiting is the hardest part.
“It’s frustrating. Everyone talks about rookies having their ups and downs. It’s hard for me to hear that,” Ponder said after Sunday’s loss to Denver. “I don’t want to go through ups and downs. I just want to go through ups. I’m hard on myself.”
Despite setting Minnesota’s single-game rookie passing record with 381 yards, Ponder was glum after the game. The Vikings lost 35-32, and his two interceptions gave the Broncos 10 points. Plus, a lost fumble wiped out what would’ve been a short field goal try.
“It’s hard to look Jared Allen in the eyes and tell him I had two picks and a fumble and I cost us the game,” Ponder said.
Allen was one of several teammates who consoled him afterward.
“Obviously we can’t turn the ball over as much as we do. That kills any team,” Allen said. “He’s young and he’ll learn from that, and ... as long as he continues to grow and work and get better, that’s all you can really ask.”
Ponder took a hard hit on a blitz in the first quarter, sustaining a right hip pointer that’s still causing him stiffness and soreness, enough to keep him out of practice on Wednesday. All indications are he’ll play at Detroit this weekend while wearing extra padding.
Three days after the Denver game, the disappointment of his costly mistakes subsided, Ponder was back to his usually sociable self. He said he’s still having fun and again called his job a “dream come true.” With a big smile, when asked if he might miss a game or two, he joked, “Yeah, I’m going to sit out the rest of the season.”
Ponder has shown plenty of poise and decisiveness over six games as a starter, but he has made the predictable rookie mistakes of throwing passes into the wrong places. Against the Broncos, linebacker Mario Haggan returned his first interception 16 yards for an easy touchdown. Ponder learned he can’t look for a curl route to be open when the defense is in a Cover-2 zone scheme.
The second pick, by cornerback Andre’ Goodman to set up the winning field goal, came when Ponder looked for a hitch — or “smash” — route and failed to recognize that Goodman would move back on it when playing Cover-2.
“I have to see that. I can’t be forcing things. The crazy thing is in college. The smash route, we loved that in Cover-2. I threw corners all day. In the NFL it’s completely different,” Ponder said.
So the rookie learned another tough lesson. But veteran Sage Rosenfels, now the team’s third-string quarterback, said he’s been impressed by the way Ponder can respond to a mistake.
“I think it’s good he’s hard on himself. I think even in wins there are times where you play and you win the game, but if you don’t play your best you’re going to be hard on yourself,” Rosenfels said. “It’s not only about wins and losses. You’ve got to have high expectations of your play.”
Most all of Ponder’s interceptions have come on a quick throw, without recognizing the bigger picture of the coverage. That’s one of the many reasons the Vikings have such high hopes for him, believing those strides in awareness will naturally come with each week in the league.
When Tarvaris Jackson was trying to learn on the job here, he often looked indecisive in the pocket while trying to read the defense. Ponder hasn’t shown that same skittishness, even if he’s made plenty of bad throws.
“After that pick for a touchdown, he could have easily gone in the tank,” coach Leslie Frazier said, adding: “Sometimes the quarterback gets all of the credit when you win and all of the blame sometimes when you lose as a team, but it is a team game and the other guys around him have to make enough plays to give us a chance to win. But it just shows his competitive fire at how much he wants to succeed, the fact that a loss hurts him to that point. It’s not a bad thing. You just have to be able to move on from some of those tough losses and learn from them, and he will.”