EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. Christian Ponder walked off the field on Dec. 2 at Green Bay feeling personally responsible for the Minnesota Vikings' loss to a division rival, a defeat that nearly finished off his team's playoff chances.
Ponder had thrown two interceptions, both in the second half and both in the red zone, in a game the Vikings had led, 14-10, at halftime. The second-year quarterback was down as the now 10-6 Vikings fell to 6-6, and teammates and coaches noticed. Several spoke with Ponder trying to keep his spirits up, none more important than coach Leslie Frazier.
"I talked to him in the locker room after the game because I anticipated it," Frazier said. "There will be a lot of criticism, a lot of second-guessing from a lot of different places, and I wanted him to know that before he went to that press conference, I don't want you to walk in there with any doubt about your future here as our starting quarterback. Next ballgame you're going to be our starter. There's some things we've got to work on leading up to that game.' I think the Chicago game was the next one, and I just wanted him to be assured that we would get through this."
Minnesota had lost four of its last five games, and Ponder's play had some fans calling for backup Joe Webb. Ponder had passed for fewer than 160 yards in three of the four losses and had thrown three touchdown passes and five interceptions in those games. Yet Frazier's support of Ponder never wavered, and he made sure the 2011 first-round pick understood that.
"When we're going through some of those tough moments: all those questions about whether he should be in there or not be in there and we're struggling a little bit on offense and as a team," Frazier said. "But if it's something you believe in, I think from my perspective as the head coach, you can't be swayed by outside opinions. You can listen, but you've always got to make sure you're doing the best thing for the team and what gives the team the best chance to win. And for me, that was making sure Christian knew that he had my unwavering support. I thought that was necessary, and I needed to voice that to him and our team as well."
Frazier knew there would be questions about Ponder's status outside of the organization, but he wanted it to be clear there was no doubt within.
Ponder, finishing off his first full year as starter, responded to the coach's confidence in him. He struggled a bit in the following game at Chicago, but his progress over the past three weeks is as much a reason the Vikings earned an unlikely postseason berth as running back Adrian Peterson's tremendous finish.
Ponder, who said his confidence was never shaken, didn't throw an interception in the final three games, all victories. He completed 70.8 percent of his passes at St. Louis. He was efficient and in control a week later at Houston, much as he was earlier this season, completing 16 of 30 passes with a touchdown. And then last week, in his biggest game as a pro with Minnesota in a must-win situation, he had his best game in the NFL, compiling a career-high 120.2 quarterback rating by completing 16 of 28 passing for 234 yards and three touchdowns.
"Obviously, a lot has changed," Ponder said of his play since the first matchup with Green Bay. "I think the biggest thing for me was making better decisions. Obviously, I made some bad decisions in that first game. It's something that I knew I had to improve upon. I think each week it's gotten better. The Chicago game I was maybe a little conservative and kind of going throughout each of those next games I kind of took steps forward balancing being conservative and making good decisions. You've got to continue to learn as a quarterback and keep growing up. So I think that's the biggest difference for me."
Ponder rose to the occasion last week, justifying Frazier's faith in him. But even Frazier warns that Ponder can't afford to plateau. The stage only gets bigger from here, with a rematch against the Packers this weekend in the first round of the playoffs. The game will be played at Lambeau Field, the venue Ponder left so discouraged a little more than a month ago.
"I think it increases everybody's confidence," Frazier said. "When you're quarterback plays as well as he plays, and as you mentioned in arguably the biggest game of our season because of what was at stake, it's very encouraging. But the thing about our business, as you know, you've got to continue to put good games together. You can't rest on your laurels in our business."
After all, the next biggest game of Ponder's career is only a few days away.
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