EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — There is one starting quarterback left in the NFL who hasn’t thrown an interception this season.
One of the last passers who would have been in the conversation for that stat is Christian Ponder. His rookie year for the Minnesota Vikings was at times promising, but predominantly erratic and painful.
Yet here he is four games into 2012 with an array of poise, awareness and accuracy not often seen last season.
“Obviously, my biggest fault last year was turning the ball over way too much,” Ponder said. “So to kind of correct those things and to put in a lot of time to protect those things, it’s paying off. I’ve just got to continue that. It’s only the first quarter of the season, so I’ve got three quarters to go and hopefully some extra quarters after that.”
The 12th pick — and the fourth quarterback taken — in last year’s draft, Ponder finished 2011 with 13 interceptions and two lost fumbles in 10 starts. His completion percentage was 54.3, and he averaged 6.4 yards per attempt. He didn’t finish three of those games, once because of a concussion, another time due to a hip problem and the other benching a combination of performance and that injury.
Through four starts this season, Ponder has lost two fumbles. His completion percentage is 68.3, sixth in the league, and he’s averaging 6.7 yards per attempt even though he still doesn’t have a completion of 30 yards or more.
“He’s making a conscious effort to make good decisions with the ball,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “When you consider the rate that he was throwing interceptions at a year ago and then you see how’s he is doing now, it’s just a credit to Christian understanding what turnovers do to a team, and then making good decisions under pressure. There have been times where he’s been trapped in the pocket, where a year ago he might have just tried to throw it up or take a sack, and he’s gotten rid of the ball or he does a very good job of throwing a check-down.”
That’s football speak for finding a last-resort receiver after the intended target is covered and when the defensive pressure is on. Almost as important as the interception reduction for the Vikings is that Ponder, benefiting from an improved offensive line, has taken only eight sacks and lost 28 yards, an average of twice per game and 3½ yards per takedown. Last year, he was sacked 30 times for 164 yards, an average of three times a game and almost 5½ yards each.
Ponder, in fairness to his 2011 performance, hasn’t even finished the equivalent of a full season yet. He has 14 career starts.
“His confidence is way better than it was, and you would expect that in his second season. It translates to our players. They sense the confidence that he has,” Frazier said. “I can remember Percy Harvin commenting on it when we were in our offseason practices. He said, ‘Man, coach, Christian seems to be so much more confident, so much more in control.’ That’s what you want to see, because everyone else on offense kind of gravitates to that leader.”
The Vikings raved this summer about the strides he was making, no longer prevented from practicing and studying the offense with quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave like he was last year during the lockout. There was no way to tell if this could translate to game success — or any guarantee that it would — until September came.
“Not surprised, just very, very pleased that we’re seeing the maturation that we all hope would happen,” Frazier said.
Ponder has had to be lucky to keep from being picked off a few times, when defensive players have dropped balls right to them. He also hasn’t connected on any long passes. But he has done exactly what the Vikings have asked, fighting temptation to force a deep throw just to make it happen, instead patiently handing the ball to Adrian Peterson, finding Harvin and others in the middle of the field and letting the defense do the rest of the work.
“I feel like I’m definitely in the perfect spot,” Ponder said.
Minnesota hosts Tennessee this Sunday. The Titans considered Ponder, too, but took Jake Locker ahead of him in that quarterback-rich draft last year. Coach Mike Munchak said the Titans were high on Ponder, even though most pre-draft projections had the Florida State product being picked a lot lower.
“We liked him a lot. I’m proud of him,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “You get to know these guys when you spend that much time with them before the draft, and he’s a great kid. Smart. All the things you watch on tape, I felt good about him that he’d be able to do exactly what you’re seeing. ... I think Minnesota got a great guy that will be there for a long time and someone they’re going to be really happy with. I just hope it’s not so much this Sunday.”
Left guard Steve Hutchinson, who left the Vikings after six seasons to sign with the Titans, expressed the same sentiment.
“I don’t think there was a doubt that Christian was going to be a great player for that team,” Hutchinson said. “I think last year — with the new offensive system and the lockout and the no offseason and asking a rookie to come in and grasp every aspect of the game at the quarterback position at the NFL level — was hard to do. I knew once he settled in, he’d be good. So they’re doing well.”