Vikings’ season will hinge on Ponder’s progress

Published 8:58 am Tuesday, July 24, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — The headlines from another active offseason in Minnesota have, strangely, missed the player who’ll soon have the largest share of the spotlight.

Quarterbacks rarely go under the radar in the NFL, but Christian Ponder was almost an afterthought over the last six months on a Vikings team with several other attention-grabbing issues off the field and on it. Well, the public scrutiny of Ponder is about to pick up when training camp begins Friday.

Following a rocky rookie year, with flashes of excellence sprinkled among the painful sacks and costly turnovers, he has all the power to make or break Minnesota’s season. That’s the way this pass-driven league is. Ponder, for the record, isn’t worried about the sophomore slump.

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“I think I had a freshman slump last year. I don’t think it can get any worse,” said Ponder, who took over for Donovan McNabb after six games and finished with 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 54.3 completion percentage. “I think it’s all in your head, and I have a lot to improve upon from last year.

“There’s nowhere to go but up, and it will go up.”

For the first time since 2005, their final season with Daunte Culpepper, the Vikings didn’t spend their winter, spring and summer wondering who the starting quarterback was going to be. Though Ponder has a lot to prove before his position can be considered set for the future, he showed enough potential for the Vikings to hand him the job again for 2012. Plus, he was their first-round draft pick last year, so there’s no reason for a rebuilding team to give up on a top prospect yet.

“We trust that he’s going to be the guy to lead us to where we want to go this next season,” coach Leslie Frazier said at the end of last month’s minicamp.

Frazier praised the decision-making improvement he’s seen from Ponder, recognizing blitzes and coverages more quickly and throwing the ball more consistently and accurately to the right places. But those were merely non-contact practices against his own team, and there will be many more challenges ahead for the former Florida State star to try to lead the Vikings past the mess that was 2011.

“I think we’re going to have a lot better year than people expect of us,” Ponder said.

Bettering a 3-13 record, which matched the franchise’s worst, isn’t difficult to do. Assessing schedule strength before September is a useless exercise given the NFL’s perennial history of significant turnarounds from several teams each season. But the Vikings could do much worse than opening at home against Jacksonville and then traveling to Indianapolis. The Jaguars were 5-11 last year, and the Colts went 2-14.

Five of their six games against the NFC North, which could be the toughest division in the league, are shoved to the back over their last seven matchups.

“We’re going into this thing with the right attitude and the right approach, and now we just have to take care of some things when we get down to Mankato and put the pads on,” Frazier said. “We’ll learn a lot more about our team when that happens.”

The Vikings report to Minnesota State on Thursday for the 47th straight summer, and the immediate focus will be on Ponder’s two most important teammates, Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson. Harvin stirred up a quiet minicamp by vaguely expressing widespread unhappiness with the organization, requesting a trade and skipping a practice. Then he showed up the next day and claimed on Twitter he had no clue where those “crazy reports” were coming from.

How Harvin acts, performs and keeps his body healthy will be another major factor in this year’s success. Peterson more recently provided a round of offseason stories for allegedly pushing a police officer who was trying to clear out a Houston nightclub at closing time. He has a court hearing on a misdemeanor resisting arrest charge set for Aug. 6, but he and his attorney have vehemently denied the accusation.

More relevantly, when the Vikings hold their first practice, Peterson will be roughly seven months out from surgery on his left knee that repaired the torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments suffered in the second-to-last game of 2011. He’s been ahead of schedule on his rehabilitation and has vowed to be in uniform for the Sept. 9 opener. But he still has work to do to persuade the team to put him out there so soon.

There’s work to do all over, but a 10-deep draft class led by ex-USC left tackle Matt Kalil has rejuvenated the roster a bit. The signings of free agents wide receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end John Carlson have strengthened the depth chart on offense. Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook have helped restock a depleted secondary, along with rookie safety Harrison Smith and free agent cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Chris Carr.

“I saw opportunity,” Carr said, explaining his choice.

“There’s a thin line between good and bad. So if we get just a little bit better, I think this can be a playoff-caliber type of football team.”