EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- For all of the offseason maneuvering, free-agent signings and new draft picks, the Minnesota Vikings' 2013 season hinges on the continued development of quarterback Christian Ponder.
It's the basic premise of the NFL: A team's success is dependent on the quality of its quarterback play. Minnesota knows the inescapable truth. Ponder, often maligned and sometimes spectacular, enters his third season in the NFL and his second year as the full-time starter. Drafted No. 12 overall in 2011, he is as important to the Vikings' 2013 season as MVP running back Adrian Peterson.
Ponder's progress will be scrutinized, but Minnesota's coaches and players like what they've seen from Ponder through the offseason program, which ended with the final day of mandatory minicamp on Thursday.
"I really like the way that he has matured mentally, just seeing how he has kind of taken the reins from a leadership standpoint," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's more vocal than he has been in the past. His football above the neck has been impressive in the time that we've been out here on the field practicing. He's got the athletic ability, but you want him to make good decisions under the center, and some of the things he's done in these practices kind of leads me to believe, along with our staff, that he's grown a lot in that area; making better decisions with the football, which should in turn help us down the line."
This summer has been Ponder's second full offseason with the Vikings after the lockout wiped out the offseason program in his rookie year. He said his comfort level has grown with each season and each practice.
"As you get more experienced, the game slows down a little bit," Ponder said. "And being in the third year of the offense and knowing how (offensive coordinator Bill) Musgrave calls plays and what we're doing as an offense, I think that comfort level has definitely grown. At the same time, I know I can get better and keep progressing. And that takes a lot of work. And also being uncomfortable, knowing that it's still going to take more."
Time could well be running short on Ponder. He's entering his third season. General manager Rick Spielman feels three years in the league is the amount of time needed to properly judge a draft pick. Ponder has been, at best, inconsistent in his two-plus seasons as a starter. He owns a career 77.1 quarterback rating and has thrown 31 touchdowns to 25 interceptions.
When Ponder was at his best last season, Minnesota was winning and among the best teams in the league. The Vikings were 4-1 at the beginning of the season with Ponder avoiding interceptions. They won their last four regular-season games to make the playoffs, with Ponder not throwing an interception in the final three games. He had perhaps his best game as a pro his last time out when he threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns to beat Green Bay. A deep triceps contusion caused him to miss the playoff game the following week.
Minnesota expects growth from Ponder and believes it's seen more from him this offseason.
"There are much fewer unknowns for him at this stage than there were a year ago," Musgrave said. "He knows more of what to expect, and can kind of let himself go a little bit and not be so guarded."
Ponder said his offseason improvement comes in two ways: decision-making and accuracy.
"For me to help my decision-making, that's getting more experience in the OTAs, during practices, watching more film, getting more familiar with our offense, the ins and outs, and then also watching more film on defense, understand defensive schemes," Ponder said. "Accuracy just comes down to all fundamentals. That's footwork and everything from head to toe."
Ponder's performances in offseason practices have been a mix, as well, just like his first two seasons. He's missed on a few passes and had some decisions he likely wishes he could have back. He's also had good moments, such as hitting two deep passes during practice Wednesday to Jerome Simpson and Stephen Burton.
The deep balls, in particular, are encouraging to see from an accuracy standpoint. Ponder's completed 59.2 percent of his passes in his first two seasons.
"I think he's much better," Frazier said of Ponder's accuracy. "He's worked his tail off, trying to improve his accuracy. Our coaches have put him through a bunch of different drills, and through his hard work, I think he's improved in that area. Now, we've got some things we've got to get done in training camp, but he's put in the work to improve, and we're seeing that."
The Vikings are doing their part to ensure the development continues on the right path, surrounding Ponder with new passing options like Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, and hoping for more from receivers Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson.
Jennings, who's played with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, sees the potential in Ponder.
"I love him," Jennings said. "I love his personality. I love his demeanor on the field. The one thing we talk about, and I've shared with him more than anything, is the trust factor. Because he has everything he needsthe skill sets, he has it. It's just about trusting the other guy.
"That's the one thing that kind of takes that split second off our timing. Other than that, once we develop that trust, and that comfort, the sky's the limit.
And after talking a bit about what makes Rodgers so special with the Packers, Jennings added: "But Christian, I'm excited. He's a great quarterback. He's going to shock people."
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