At the start of the season, Ponder was nearly perfect, leading the Vikings to a 4-0 record while throwing 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. As Adrian Peterson worked to regain his strength after tearing his ACL in 2011, the burden of victory was placed upon Ponder's shoulders, and he delivered up until Week 6.
As a diehard Vikings fan, the writing was on the wall in Week 5, when Ponder threw two interceptions on forced, misread balls. The first, a designed shotgun play on 3rd and 11 inside Titans' territory, was the correct read, but a terribly thrown ball. Ponder's miscues lie mostly in mechanical flaws, as evident on this particular play. He was pressured up the middle, rolled to his left, and threw the ball downfield to Kyle Rudolph, jumping on his release and firing the ball off his back foot. The ball sailed over Rudolph's hands an into the safety's arms for an easy interception in garbage time. The second came at the beginning of the second half, in an obvious passing situation. Ponder took a 5-step drop, planted, stepped into the pocket, and released a weak ball down the right seam to Jerome Simpson. Here, it was both poor decision-making and throwing that did Ponder in. He rushed the throw, forcing it into triple-coverage and under-throwing his target. Both Percy Harvin and Toby Gerhart were open in the flat, and though they may not have converted the 3rd and 12, a completion to either would have ensured a punt and pinning Tennessee in their own territory.
In Jaworski's assessment of Ponder, he sees the Vikings' starting quarterback heading into the 2013 season after a year of "steady and gradual improvement." The year was like a roller coaster ride for Christian Ponder, with an ascent to the top after 4 games, then a sudden drop off in the middle stretch of the season, and finally, a meteoric rise back to winning, intelligent football. In the decent stretches of the season, Jaworski describes what he noticed out of Ponder:
"Ponder fits the profile so many are now talking about: the athletic movement quarterback who can beat you with his legs. Ponder is an opportunity runner, and he's shown the ability to burn some of the best defenses in the league. "
Take for example, the game against Houston in Week 16, where Ponder displayed both his mobility and flashes of responsibility in the pocket. A rare sub-100 yard day for Peterson meant that Ponder had to carry the offense, and his legs did most of the work. In tight situations, he utilized opportunities to scramble for 48 yards on 7 carries, keeping drives alive with his feet. He also passed for a touchdown, but his true playmaking ability was displayed in a must-win game against the Packers at home in Week 17.
Like Jaworski though, I was bothered by the fact that Ponder had only 28 completions of 20 yards or more during the season. Not only that, he didn't take advantage of having Adrian Peterson in the backfield, struggling on play action passes and reading the field late in general. When a quarterback steps up to the line of scrimmage, he must be able to "read" a defense, identifying coverages, disguises, and schemes before the ball is snapped. Ponder must improve in this area of the game, as he tends to force balls into tight coverage because he misses openings in coverage or weaknesses in the defense. For one game, that all changed.
In Week 17, Minnesota had to beat the Packers to clinch a playoff seed. Not only did they win, but they got a glimpse of Christian Ponder's development and an image of their ideal quarterbacking situation. Ponder finished the game with 3 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a few critical, revealing throws. The first addressed Jaworski's concerns with Ponder's deep ball throwing, and alleviated my fear of a lack of arm strength. Near the end of the game, on a 1st and 10, Troy Aikman noted that the Vikings should go "Play-Action pass." Sure enough, Ponder faked to Peterson, stepped up in a clean pocket, and launched the ball down the left seam to Jarius Wright for a 65-yard completion. Perfect mechanics and a confidence rarely seen before then led to a game-changing moment, one that invigorated Vikings nation. The second throw, on 3rd and 11 with two minutes remaining in the game, exemplified patience and accuracy. Ponder stepped up, tucked the ball, then found Michael Jenkins on the left sideline for 25 yards after scanning through his targets on the right of the field.
Jaworski sums up Christian Ponder perfectly when he says:
With a revamped offense, two years of play under his belt, and the confidence stemming from a solid 4-game stretch at the end of last season, Christian Ponder has no reason not to step up as the franchise quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. I don't expect Adrian Peterson to break 2,000 yards again, so Ponder must be able to show he can consistently deliver on a week-to-week basis. In the NFC North, the Vikings can't afford to stumble like they did for stretches last season, and a lot of that rides on the right arm of Christian Ponder. If all goes well, Ponder may find himself in the Top 20 of Jaworski's list next year.