The Minnesota Vikings spent the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft on Christian Ponder. The team was hoping that the quarterback from Florida State would be its first franchise quarterback since Daunte Culpepper was at the helm of the Vikings' ship in the 1990s.
Ponder's rookie season presented more questions than answers, and his inconsistent play so far this season has Vikings fans wondering if the team has hitched its wagon to the right guy. Team officials continue to express confidence in the 24-year-old signal caller, even if he hasn't fully blossomed into a top-tier NFL quarterback.
The fan base continues to be restless and will remain so until Ponder demonstrates a consistent ability to spark the Vikings' passing game. To be a true franchise quarterback, a player has to be able to do more than hand the ball off to Adrian Peterson and throw bubble screens to Percy Harvin on the perimeter.
Peterson, coming off knee surgery in the offseason, has made a remarkable recovery, and leads the NFL in rushing. However, as the schedule gets more difficult and defenses get tougher, Ponder will have to be productive on a more consistent basis if the team is going to progress.
Although Ponder hasn't been consistent this year, the fault for his up-and-down performances isn't all his own. There are several things that the Vikings can do to aid the progression of their young quarterback.
The first thing the Vikings need to do is provide Ponder with more weapons. Aside from Harvin, and emerging tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings don't really have a legitimate receiving threat. Free agent Jerome Simpson was signed in the offseason to provide a deep threat. Due to suspensions and injury, Simpson hasn't been on the field in several games this season, and has proved more adept at drawing pass interference penalties than catching passes.
Michael Jenkins is a solid possession receiver but has problems getting open at times. Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton are serviceable NFL players, at best. Free agent signee John Carlson has been largely ineffective. Like Simpson, he has missed significant time due to injury.
This receiving corps leaves Ponder short of viable options. Many times this season, he has tried to force the ball to a covered receiver or has taken off running because his receivers cannot seem to work their way open.
The Vikings need at least one receiver who can provide a consistent deep threat. This would loosen the pressure on the line of scrimmage and also make teams think twice about blitzing Ponder. Rookie Jarius Wright showed promise in his first action of the season last week, but he was replacing Harvin. Another outside threat is a must for the Vikings.
Another way that the Vikings can help Ponder grow is to throw the ball downfield more often. Harvin is the Vikings' biggest weapon, but he is most effective in the slot and catching the ball near the line of scrimmage than running after the catch.
The Vikings need to throw the ball more than 20 yards downfield at least once per half. If nothing else, that would loosen up opposing corners somewhat and provide more space for Harvin and Rudolph. Whether teams take the deep threat seriously or not, they still have to cover it, and that makes life easier for the entire offense.
The Vikings need to force more turnovers and give Ponder a short field to work with. Ponder, like most young quarterbacks, is prone to mistakes. The longer a drive, the more likely a mistake will pop up. If Ponder had more chances to work on a short field, he would have fewer chances to make a mistake, and a couple of easy touchdowns could provide the spark of confidence a young quarterback needs to get on a roll.
The Vikings need to use Joe Webb more to spell Ponder. Minnesota's second-string quarterback is the insanely athletic Joe Webb. Team officials seem loathe to put the former UAB standout on the field, possibly because they don't want Ponder's confidence to suffer. Using Webb for one or two series a game would loosen up the defense. Webb's run-pass ability would be a changeup from the normal Viking offense. Also, having a series on the sideline to see what opposing defenders are doing would be useful for Ponder, who is famously bright.
Lastly, the Vikings should let Ponder do what he does best. It seems at times that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson have instructed Ponder to stay in the pocket and make his reads, regardless of the pressure put on by opposing defenses. Ponder seems to struggle when scanning the field to find an open receiver. His throws tend to sail, and his mechanics look awkward, at best.
When Ponder is at his most effective, he's on the move. When he rolls out, he is still able to survey the field, and the threat that he'll run is a problem for opposing defenders. The Vikings need to implement some designed roll-out plays in order to take advantage of their young quarterback's athleticism and mobility.
It's still too soon to tell if Christian Ponder is the long-term answer at quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. At times, Ponder has been brilliant, but at other times he has appeared hapless. Before the Viking make their final decision, they should make sure they've done all that they can to maximize Ponder's chances for success.
It has been said a craftsman is only as good as his tools. Right now, Ponder doesn't have all the tools he needs to do his job. The Vikings need to provide them.
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