There weren't many statistics last year in which Christian Ponder was close to the top of the league, but the one area that he was could be the key to his future – red zone passing.
By just about any measure, Ponder was a middle-of-the-road statistical quarterback at best. He was 21st in attempts, 18th in completions, 13th in completion percentage, 25th in passing yards, 31st in average gain, 23rd in touchdown passes, 21st in touchdown percentage, tied for 13th in interceptions, 15th in interception percentage and 21st in passer rating.
However, when it came to red-zone passing – passes thrown inside the opponent's 20-yard line, only six NFL quarterbacks threw more passes than Ponder's 75 – Drew Brees (102), Matt Ryan (92), Peyton Manning (88), Tom Brady (87), Matthew Stafford (87) and Eli Manning (84).
How impressive is that number? He tied with two other quarterbacks with 75 red zone passes – Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo.
It doesn't end there for Ponder. His 44 red zone completions ranked sixth, behind only Brees (66), Ryan (59), Peyton Manning (52), Brady (52) and Rodgers (47) – pretty rare air indeed, since four of them have won Super Bowls and the other (Ryan) is playoff-tested.
Perhaps most surprising was that Ponder threw 18 red zone touchdowns, which tied him for eighth among NFL QBs. The only quarterbacks who threw more were the same usual cast of suspects and a couple of new faces – Brees (34), Peyton Manning (28), Rodgers (26), Ryan (25), Brady (24), Josh Freeman (21) and Andy Dalton (20).
It may seem surprising on a team with the league's pre-eminent running back that Ponder would be a top-10 guy in the key statistical categories of red zone passing. However, there was a downside. A big downside. Ponder was near the very bottom of the league in one critical category – interceptions. Only two quarterbacks threw more – Stafford and Mark Sanchez. Only three others had three interceptions – Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
One of the keys that Rick Spielman, Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave have harped on in championing Ponder's cause is that he is smart and a precision passer. Nowhere is that more tested than in the red zone. When an offense has moved that deep into enemy territory, scoring is the only acceptable option – either a touchdown or a chip-shot field goal. Turnovers are unacceptable. The depth a defense plays is reduced, since they have the back line taking away the over-the-top pass. Twenty-two bodies are in a confined space and precision is key. Only two quarterbacks threw more interceptions than Ponder – and the results there were obvious. Both the Jets and Lions had been playoff teams but fell to bottom of the league due in no small part to the play of their starting quarterbacks.
On the flip side, only seven quarterbacks had double-digit red zone touchdowns without throwing an interception – Brees (34-0), Rodgers (26-0), Dalton (20-0), Ben Roethlisberger (18-0), Russell Wilson (18-0), Jay Cutler (11-0) and Robert Griffin III (10-0). Four of those seven quarterbacks went to the playoffs – three of them in the first or second year in the league – and Brees was the only QB of those seven who had a losing record … and nobody is blaming him for the 2012 struggles of the Saints.
Almost from the day the Vikings drafted Ponder, Vikings fans – skeptics and Kool-Aid drinkers alike – have been told that the key to long-term success for Ponder is that he is an intelligent quarterback who throws crisp, accurate timing passes. To date, that has been his calling card. When he doesn't throw interceptions, the Vikings win almost every time. If he throws more than one pick, they lose almost every time.
While the jury is still out among a large segment of Vikings fans whether Ponder has that "it factor" to be a great quarterback, one thing that he has shown is, with the exception of interceptions, he can make plays in the red zone – turning trips into the red zone into touchdowns.
He hasn't passed all of the tests, but he can take encouragement that players like Sanchez and Cam Newton (who completed just 22 of 59 red zone passes last year with eight TDs and two interceptions) have struggled to enjoy sustained success, while young quarterbacks like Ryan, Dalton, Andrew Luck, Wilson and RG3 all have postseason appearances on their resumes thanks to being very efficient in the red zone.
Ponder got the Vikings to the playoffs last year and everyone in the organization is convinced it will be the first of many postseason visits. Ponder has a lot of career hurdles to get over, but he has already cleared one of the most difficult and one that goes a long way to determining the clutch ability of a quarterback– his coaching staff has confidence in him airing out the ball in the red zone and he has put himself in the company of league giants with his statistical performance. It's only one hurdle, but it's a formidable one.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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