EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Christian Ponder's up-and-down performance in his first full season as the Vikings starting quarterback has draped plenty of criticism on his shoulders from the team's demanding fans.
It hasn't done a thing to shake the organization's confidence that Ponder will lead the Vikings back to relevance in the NFC North.
"I know everybody in this organization believes Christian Ponder is our guy," Vikings GM Rick Spielman said on Wednesday. "And I have full, 100 percent belief that Christian Ponder's going to be our quarterback heading into the future."
That's an emphatic vote of confidence for the 2011 first-round draft choice who at times appeared to be a rising star with complete command of the offense and pin-point accuracy. Other times, Ponder looked like an overwhelmed youngster with happy feet and a propensity for making risky throws.
Ponder was among the league leaders in completion percentage, with six touchdowns and two interceptions, to help the Vikings to a surprising 4-1 start. But they lost three of the next four games, and he threw six interceptions and twice failed to top 65 yards passing in that span. It culminated with star receiver Percy Harvin venting his frustration on the sideline in a loss to Seattle in which Ponder threw for just 63 yards.
He rebounded last week, completing 24 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Detroit that got Minnesota to 6-4 heading into the bye week.
The peaks and valleys may be difficult for the breathless fan to handle, but it's exactly what Spielman expected when he drafted Ponder last year. Spielman said he wrote down a series of statistics at the beginning of the season that he felt Ponder would produce this year, based upon the second year of several elite quarterbacks. While not getting specific, he intimated that Ponder is right on that track.
"Just look at guys in their second year," said Spielman, who has previously mentioned the developmental paths taken by Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning. "And where he is right now to where he was last year and just look at some of the quarterbacks I have mentioned. And what their progress was. And they're almost identical wherein that realm where they all ended up."
Of course, just because other players have followed that trajectory does not guarantee Ponder will do the same. He still has been reluctant to step up in the pocket and deliver strong throws into tight windows, and has a tendency to let poor footwork lead to gasp-inducing throws across his body.
But Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier remain confident Ponder is right on schedule in the three-year plan they have for his development. And heading into the bye after a very good game against Detroit certainly helped matters.
"It just raises everybody else's confidence level," Frazier said. "He took control of our offense, moved the ball around, got everybody involved and did a great job of leading us throughout the day. So his pocket presence and the decisions that he made with the football. He did a great job all day decision-making wise."
And even though the Vikings are very much in the playoff hunt, Spielman said the team is looking at Ponder's full body of work to evaluate his performance and ability to be a building block going forward.
"They're going to get evaluated from the outside and from the media on their performance that week," Spielman said. "But you have to be, from an internal standpoint, looking at the whole picture and looking at a length of time."
Spielman also lauded Frazier for his work with the fourth-youngest roster in the NFL. The Vikings are coming off back-to-back last place finishes in the NFC North and won just three games last season. Most expected 2012 to be another rough rebuilding year, but so far the team is much more competitive.
"Leslie's been doing an outstanding job," he said. "Knowing the situation that we were going to have a lot of new faces on this roster, and I think the coaching staff has done an outstanding job.
"We can bring in guys that are talented, but it's our coaches who should get the credit for developing these guys. And our coaches should get the credit for playing these guys and letting them grow into the positions as they grow."
Frazier has one more year left on his contract, but Spielman declined to discuss an extension. He did the same with Harvin, the do-it-all threat who was garnering some MVP consideration before spraining his left ankle. Harvin has one year left on his rookie contract and the Vikings have a history of extending their core players before the final year begins.
"We will keep all that in-house," Spielman said. "I don't want to say anything about where we're at with any of our players right now. Right now, the whole focus is for coming back out of the bye."
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