EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Christian Ponder was watching during draft time in April, when the Minnesota Vikings passed on a chance to bring in another quarterback in favor of a left tackle to keep Ponder off his back.
He also noticed last week when general manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier decided to cut veteran backup Sage Rosenfels and keep a stable of young quarterbacks with Ponder at the top of the depth chart.
Heading into his first full season as the starter, and after an unconvincing preseason, Ponder knows it’s time to reward that faith. The Vikings open the regular season at home against Jacksonville on Sunday, and with Adrian Peterson likely to carry a light load if he plays at all, the offense will run through Ponder’s right arm.
Even though his exhibition performances weren’t exactly emphatic, Ponder enters the season brimming with confidence.
“It helps me to see Rick Spielman adding pieces around me. It shows that he has confidence in me to build around me,” Ponder said on Wednesday. “When others show confidence in (you), that just keeps building it. I think this year is going to be a lot better than last year, especially for me.”
It’s going to have to be. The Vikings went 3-13, with Ponder starting 10 games after the Donovan McNabb experiment didn’t work out. Without an offseason to prepare because of the lockout, Ponder was ragged. He had his moments — 381 yards against Denver and performing admirably against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at the Metrodome — but also struggled with accuracy and inconsistency. He threw 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and suffered several injuries with his scrambling style.
The Vikings lost seven of the last eight games and finished in last place for the second straight season.
“I take a lot of the blame of what happened last year on myself,” Ponder said. “It really didn’t have a lot to do with what other players were doing. I was making bad mistakes and dumb decisions. I could’ve done a better job of helping our team turn it around and play better and I didn’t. I played poorly. It was a situation that I didn’t help.”
With the same offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in place, Ponder says he feels much more comfortable this season.
“It creates just a whole different atmosphere and confidence between myself and the coaching staff,” he said. “I’m glad I went through what happened last year and I think that being in the same offense is only going to help myself and the rest of the guys that are a part of it.”
Ponder played sparingly in the preseason, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 331 yards, one touchdown and one interception in three games. The Vikings first-team offense moved the ball up and down the field with plenty of success in the first two games.
“Confidence only comes from one thing, that’s demonstrated performance,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “Can’t build anybody up, can’t give them anything false or fabricated.”
But the group took a big step backward in the third game, which served as the dress rehearsal for the season opener. Ponder was sacked five times in less than three quarters by the Chargers, several of them because he held the ball too long in the pocket. He completed just 9 of 16 passes for 115 yards and an interception before exiting the game, not exactly the commanding performance he was looking for to solidify his status as the team’s franchise quarterback.
“I know there’s a lot for me to learn as a quarterback and there’s a lot for me to grow, but I don’t want to make mistakes,” he said. “I don’t expect myself to make mistakes ever. I do know and I do realize that even the greatest make mistakes at times and those are just learning moments that you have to learn from and grow from. ”
The Vikings don’t need Ponder to be Joe Montana this season. They’ve started a rebuilding phase in the suddenly powerful NFC North. But they do need him to show some signs that he will eventually be up to the task of leading this offense for the next decade.
When it comes to intangibles, Ponder has shown them everything they need to see. Charismatic and take-charge, he has quickly solidified himself as a locker room favorite and a leader who not only relates well to his teammates but also has earned their respect for playing through injuries.
“Christian’s the kind of guy who not only leads vocally, but he’s a leader by example,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “You kind of have to have that from your quarterback. He needs to be one of the hardest workers and Christian is that guy.”
NOTES: Peterson practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday, with the Vikings exposing him to some contact drills to gauge how ready he is to play in Week 1. Frazier has said it will be a game-time decision. … TE John Carlson (knee) practiced full-go as he continues to work his way back from missing the entire preseason.
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