Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 5/2/12
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. It's been less than a week since the Colts drafted their quarterback of the future after dispensing with the man who brought them to relevance, six days since the Redskins sacrificed much of their future for the double-threat signal caller who's charged with turning their team around. Talk of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III is finally starting to subside as character examinations and draft boards and never-ending highlight loops become last week's news, and as the 2012 NFL draft fades into the past, those with the longest-reaching of memories may realize something. Just a year before Luck and Griffin (and Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden), there was another crop of quarterbacks. There were different debates, different trades, different overblown expectations for a different group of young 20-somethings. The Stanford wunderkind and Baylor prodigy were not, in fact, the first quarterbacks ever drafted to an excess of fanfare. Just a year ago, the Vikings sidestepped or weren't quite terrible enough to capitalize on the Cam Newton-Blaine Gabbert theatrics, and they may be the better for it. On April 28, 2011, with the 12th overall pick in the NFL draft, the Vikings selected Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. That was after Newton had donned his Panthers hat as the draft's top pick, after Jake Locker slipped in as a surprise No. 8 pick to Tennessee, after Gabbert fell from a possible No. 1 selection to 10th overall. There was hype, sure Ponder was good in college, great even but he wasn't the stuff of draft day specials and finger-pointing one-upmanship among draft analysts. And when the Vikings traded for veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb three months to the day after drafting Ponder, the rookie faded a bit further into lockout oblivion. Strangely, that may have been the best thing for Ponder. While Newton and Gabbert and eventually second-rounder Andy Dalton began to negotiate the pressures of training to be starting rookie quarterbacks during the lockout, Ponder had both space to breathe and an extra motivation to earn his job. By virtue of McNabb's ineptitude, Ponder was handed the Vikings' starting job in October, and though he went 2-8 in his 10 starts, entering his first true offseason the quarterback has high hopes for the future. It's hard to blame Ponder for the Vikings' 3-13 record last season, just as it's hard to blame any rookie quarterback when his team falters. And despite that record, Ponder performed better than several of his classmates, including the vaunted Gabbert. Among rookies, only Newton and Dalton had higher completion percentages and quarterback ratings than Ponder, who finished the year completing 54.3 percent of his passes and with a 70.1 rating. That's not bad for a player few expected to start, and entering offseason workouts in preparation for his second year, Ponder for the first time feels like the Vikings are his team. His team. That's a big statement for a 24-year-old with a smile so wide and a Wedding Crashers quote as his Twitter bio, but Ponder is well on his way to making good on all of the promises and effort that being in control of a team requires. His biggest task this season is beyond bulking up and working out, outside the limits of physicality and athleticism: Ponder must become something of a leader, and he's already made the right impression. "He's really turning into a leader," running back Toby Gerhart said Wednesday of Ponder. "I know from experience, it's hard as a rookie This year, he's definitely taken ownership. He's being vocal. He's pushing everybody to stay after, catching routes, everything like that. He's really grown into a leader and really trying to perfect his shows and get timing with everybody early in this offseason." Gerhart, a second-round pick in 2010, added that as a rookie it's often hard to be vocal, to speak up when it's difficult to remember even basic plays. Leading is near impossible for a player who hasn't proven anything as a pro, and so Ponder's longer transition into becoming the team's starting quarterback should only work to his benefit. Right now, though, the only "proving himself" Ponder has done yielded a 2-8 record, though it was good for two-thirds of the team's wins in 2011. There were bright spots, games against Atlanta, Washington, Denver and Carolina in which he played well but earned only two wins. There was his season-high 281 passing yards on Dec. 4 against the Broncos, but there were also the three starts in which he failed to throw a touchdown pass. There were glimpses of a high ceiling. There is ample room to grow. So right now, that means film studies. It means talking with coaches, introducing himself to rookies, staying late after workouts to throw and urging teammates to do the same. Ponder is treating this offseason as an opportunity "It's only going to help," he said. "It's not going to make me worse." and for a member of that strange class of lockout rookies, it's no surprise he sees it that way. "It was weird being a rookie that shows up right at training camp," Ponder said. "It's hard to establish yourself as a leader. Having Donovan (McNabb) here, obviously he was a leader, and some of the other guys. So now, being in a position where I can comfortably say that this is my team, it definitely helps." He manages to say it without the slightest hint of cockiness, all the implications of duty and obligation and the specter of 3-13 somehow enveloped by his smiling assurances that, yes, he can lead. Ponder knows that right now, he can't just talk himself up. He's fortunate he can't claim full responsibility for the team's failures of last season, not even for its problems at quarterback. Still, though, it's hard to argue that Ponder was anything more than good enough last season, a future promise for a faltering team. He knows it. Teammates and coaches know it. Tapes reveal it, and Ponder is absorbing it all. He's watching footage of loss after loss, talking it over with coaches and wincing as he witnesses mistake after mistake. He can see all the times he scrambled out of the pocket too early, the bad reads and botched plays, but instead of beating himself up, Ponder is allowing those mistakes to give him hope. "Just seeing myself on film, there's so much I can do better," Ponder said. "I get so frustrated watching myself from last year Just watching stuff, it gives me so much more confidence that I can be so much better next year. There's so much to learn from." It's that ability to mess up, move on and improve that's ingratiated Ponder to some of his veteran teammates. Center John Sullivan said that from Day 1, when the quarterback made mistakes, they'd just roll off his back. Sullivan admired Ponder's command in the huddle all season, calling him a leader since the moment he began playing, and he's equally impressed with his improvements since the team's final game in December. Endorsements like Sullivan's are the ones that earn Ponder the credit he needs among his teammates. They garner him the respect that few rookies can earn, a respect that was virtually unheard of among players making their debuts after the lockout, virtual strangers among cohesive teams. Everything else Ponder's arm, his mobility, his stronger frame only supports the confidence teammates are beginning to have in the quarterback, and there's no way to replicate the attitude that he's taken about his role on the team. It was obvious this offseason that the Vikings were making an effort to build around Ponder, especially when they signed receiver Jerome Simpson and drafted left tackle Matt Kalil with the No. 4 overall pick. They're committed to their quarterback, and he's taking ownership of the team, yet there's still a reigning uncertainty. No one knows how the team will mesh, and Ponder has yet to come into his own in the NFL. That's the bitter reality of it all, and despite Ponder's rising confidence, he's well aware of how far he has to go. "We're all replaceable," Ponder said. "You try to make yourself as great of an asset as possible to this team." It's a rare player so recently removed from his rookie season who can see the many facets of what he faces the way Ponder does. He's mastering the leadership game, saying the right things and setting an example. He's taking responsibility without succumbing to complacency, and that's a good start. But with four months until the season and no doubt the requisite flurry of excitement surrounding the Vikings' supposed return to relevance ahead, Ponder has a long way to go. There's a lot of hype to ignore and training to complete, but if Ponder makes good on this fledgling leadership, there's a chance that some level of that excitement this year might be warranted. Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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