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Extra Points: Ponder-ing the future in Minnesota
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The biggest problem any NFL personnel guy can have is refusing to admit a mistake when the die is already cast.
Rick Spielman, the Minnesota Vikings general manager, practically threw out his back reaching for Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Desperate to find a long-term fix for the game's most important position after Band-Aids like Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb ran their course, the Vikings honed in on Jake Locker.
When Tennessee pulled the trigger on the University of Washington product four picks earlier, Spielman, no matter his spin today, panicked and selected the next signal-caller on his board, Ponder.
That did Ponder no favors. A guy who probably should have went in the second round was forever labeled as a high No. 1 pick and hamstrung by the expectations that come along with such a designation.
Ponder had a rocky rookie season after taking the reins from the disappointing McNabb a year ago. The book on the former Florida State star when he arrived in Minneapolis raved about his smarts but questioned whether he had the arm strength and accuracy to be an upper-echelon signal-caller in the NFL.
He proved he could make all the throws as a rookie, but his accuracy was very spotty and his decision-making regressed as the season progressed. Ponder seemed to lose confidence as the season wore on and kept making similar mistakes, something that's normally a red flag when grading signal-callers.
That said, Ponder ended up starting the final 10 games for the Vikings in 2011, matching Fran Tarkenton's team record for starts by a rookie quarterback, while setting the franchise mark for most passing yards in a game by a first-year player when he threw for 381 against Denver.
That was enough for the Vikings to think a major improvement in pass protection with Matt Kalil now in place at left tackle, and adding skill- position threats like Jerome Simpson and John Carlson to a nucleus which already included two of the game's elite playmakers, Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, would be enough speed up Ponder's development.
The early returns were promising in 2012 as Minnesota got off to an impressive 4-1 start, but the wheels have come off over the last month.
The Washington Redskins who exposed Ponder on Oct. 14 with the overload blitz. Harassed and hurried, Ponder looked like a rookie again against the 'Skins, failing to recognize things pre-snap and undergoing a complete breakdown in mechanics, something he hasn't corrected in the ensuing three weeks.
Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave began losing confidence in Ponder and the second-year starter has thrown all eight of his interceptions in the last five games. Overall, the Vikings have 12 turnovers in those five contests and almost all of them are directly related to Ponder, who has been making extremely poor decisions, particularly when he's out of the pocket trying to extend plays. Ponder is athletic, but those aforementioned mechanics fall apart when he's on the move, causing his ball to sail.
"I think, for me, it's going back to technique, working on my footwork and working on my reads and everything," Ponder said. "One thing I need to continue is to keep stepping up in the pocket and not flushing left or right, but keep moving forward."
The problem is Ponder has been saying that for weeks now. He realizes the problem, but sliding in the pocket or stepping up while displaying at least passable fundamentals is an innate ability which can't be taught. When the bullets start flying, Ponder regresses to what's natural to him, and his default settings are just not conducive to solid quarterback play at the NFL level.
He hit rock bottom in Seattle on Sunday during Minnesota's 30-20 setback to the Seahawks, throwing for just 63 yards, the second time in three weeks the moribund Vikings' passing game has offered little production despite a a rushing game which generated 243 yards, 182 of them from the best running back in football, Adrian Peterson.
Ponder apologists point to a lack of separation from Minnesota's pedestrian wide receiver group, but the "All-22" coaches film tells a different story. Time and time again, the opposition is sticking eight or even nine in the box to stop Peterson and Ponder has been unable or unwilling to take advantage of play-action. He simply doesn't have the confidence to grip it and rip it.
To his credit, Ponder refused to follow the Vikings' talking points designed to protect him, but he's also in denial.
"We've got good receivers, we've got good blocking up front. I've just got to do a better job to get the ball in their hands," Ponder said. "This team isn't one-dimensional. This offense isn't one-dimensional. We've shown that the past couple games, but we can throw the ball. We're going to figure it out and we're going to win in the air."
The team is in fact one-dimensional because Ponder can't carry his own water.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of Ponder's play is his woeful inaccuracy on the cliched waggle play. Musgrave has been dialing it up five to seven times every game because his playbook has shrunk due to Ponder's limitations.
The embattled quarterback had two chances to do something positive on the play against the Seahawks and missed badly both times, throwing the ball at Kyle Rudolph's feet on one occasion and tossing it three yards behind an open Devin Aromashodu on another.
Meanwhile, four times in recent weeks Ponder has not hit Harvin on simple bubble screen throws. He also missed an open Harvin on two key situations down the field, making the wrong reads and throwing into coverage.
Harvin's frustration boiled over in Seattle after a second-quarter drive stalled in the red zone with a failed bubble screen. The dynamic receiver, who played through ankle and hamstring issues, sought out head coach Leslie Frazier on the sidelines, complaining for the entire world to see.
Harvin followed Frazier down the sideline, finally prompting his coach to remove his headset and address the issue. Harvin wouldn't share details of the heated conversation, but you didn't exactly need to read the tea leaves.
"I'm not going to talk about what me and coach discussed," Harvin told ESPN. "It was a little conversation, just in the heat of the moment, trying to get things right. I just want to score points. It's frustrating not scoring. So, it was just a little frustration."
Harvin didn't want to throw Ponder under the bus, but he knows better than anyone that a promising season is being killed by the team's quarterback play.
Frazier, however, disagrees at least publicly.
"I don't necessarily think that Christian is the problem. We've got to look at what we're doing and what people are doing against us," the coach said.
Of course, understand Frazier, like Spielman, needs Ponder to succeed. His future employment depends on it.
To the rest of us with no skin in the game, we understand. After 19 starts by Ponder, it's time to admit the mistake in Minnesota and give Joe Webb a shot, even if you use Ponder's banged-up knee to save face.
And that's said understanding changing quarterbacks is an easy and often lazy answer.
Letting Webb take over the Vikings isn't going to fix the team's gap control problems on defense or help alleviate its lack of depth in the defensive backfield. Moreover, it's unlikely Webb, a superlative athlete who was originally drafted with the intent of moving from quarterback to wide receiver after being named the 2009 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year at Alabama-Birmingham, is the answer, either.
He is, however, an opportunity -- one that enables you to move on.
After all, the sooner you admit a mistake, the sooner you can go about fixing it.
THE MONDAY REWIND:
UNKLIKELY FREE AGENT
There could be a very interesting free agent on the market after this season.
Suspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton may or may not be under contract with the club for 2013. Reports from both ESPN and NFL.com confirmed the NFL rejected an extension Payton signed with the Saints in 2011 which would have kept him in the Bayou through the 2015 season.
That would mean his deal is now set to end after the 2012 campaign. However, since Payton is suspended for the entire season as part of the club's bounty scandal, it has not been determined if his final year can now carry over until 2013 or if the contract will expire after this season.
Commissioner Roger Goodell will have to make that decision and has yet to do so.
The NFL quickly issued a statement responding to the ESPN report.
"All contracts between clubs and their employees must be approved by the commissioner, and we do not comment on specific terms of individual contracts," the statement said. "Any comment regarding the matter should come from coach Payton and the Saints."
Payton, of course, joined the Saints in 2006 and guided the franchise to its first Super Bowl title after the 2009 season. He has a record of 62-34 in New Orleans with four playoff appearances over six seasons.
The fact the Saints have turned into a 2-5 team without Payton heading into Monday's matchup with Philadelphia only increases his already significant value.
If Payton hits the open market, it's not out of the question that a free- spending owner in a desperate situation (think the NFC East) throws the kitchen sink at the coach.
Mike Shanahan may have run his course in Washington, which is showing little improvement again despite possessing the dynamic Robert Griffin III, and Jerry Jones has to be tiring of populating his Palace just side out of Dallas with mediocrity both on the field and on the sideline. Meanwhile, it's becoming increasingly clear week in and week out that Andy Reid's shelf life with Philadelphia is coming due.
In the end, however, Payton will most likely show loyalty to an organization which stuck by him in rather embarrassing circumstances.
IT'S ALL GOOD LUCK IN INDY
Chuck Pagano provided plenty of inspiration Sunday and Andrew Luck handled the perspiration for the Indianapolis Colts.
Luck set an NFL single-game rookie record with 433 passing yards as Indianapolis recorded a 23-20 triumph over the Miami Dolphins and their own impressive rookie signal-caller, Ryan Tannehill.
Pagano was back at Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time since being diagnosed with leukemia in late September and watched the game from the coaches' box before addressing his team after the emotional win.
"I've got circumstances. You guys understand it, I understand it," Pagano told the Colts after the game. "It's already beat. It's already beat. My vision that I'm living is to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and then lift the Lombardi Trophy several times. I'm dancing at two more weddings and we're hoisting that trophy together, men. Congratulations, I love all of you."
Luck, who now has four 300-yard passing games, matching Peyton Manning for the most ever by a rookie, was spectacular against the Fish, completing 30-of-48 passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 105.6 passer rating.
It was a simple 2-yard shovel pass to tight end Dwayne Allen with 6:52 remaining in the fourth quarter which broke Cam Newton's record of 432 yards, set last season.
Clearly, this is a pass-happy era and some of the all-time greats weren't operating under these rules but Luck has more than lived up to his billing as the best pure quarterback prospect since Manning or perhaps John Elway. His 5-3 record as a starter is the best a No. 1 overall pick has ever put together through eight games.
"(Pagano's) presence is felt every day in the facility," Luck said. "But to see him in the flesh, in the locker room, to hear him speak I think gave all the guys a boost."
YOUR MOVE RG3
We have talked about if for weeks. As dynamic as RG3 is, the read-option, which gives him the ability to hand off the football or keep it himself, is a a gimmick at the NFL level and opposing defenses were going to catch up.
In a 27-12 setback in Pittsburgh back on Oct. 28, Griffin couldn't find his rhythm all day, as the Baylor product completed just 16-of-34 passes for 177 yards and one touchdown, while managing just eight rushing yards on six carries.
Granted, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau isn't your average defensive coordinator, but the fact he was able to stop the read-option gave the rest of the league a blueprint and Carolina coach Ron Rivera picked up on it Sunday.
The lowly Panthers won 21-13 in Landover, Md., as Griffin finished 23-of-39 passing for 215 yards, while adding 53 yards on 11 carries. The Redskins fell to 3-6 on the season in a game Shanahan called a "must-win" for his slumping team.
The frustrated coach only amplified that postgame, saying the rest of the season will become an evaluation for next year,
"You lose a game like this, you're definitely evaluating who will be on this football team for years to come," Shanahan said. "I'll get a good chance to see where we're at."
Unlike Shanahan, RG3 will certainly be with the Redskins for years to come, but make no mistake, despite the energy and explosion he brings to the table, Griffin, like most rookies, is nowhere near where he needs to be as a quarterback.
TAMING THE BENGALS
Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time and the Cincinnati Bengals have certainly contributed to that over the years. While in Indianapolis, Peyton was 7-0 all-time versus the Bengals with 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
The only thing that changed for Manning Sunday was the uniform. The Denver Broncos won 31-23 in Cincinnati after Manning led back-to-back touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.
Peyton finished with 291 yards passing and three touchdowns in the win, notching his 48th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most in the NFL since 1970.
"We faced some adversity and we were able to respond," Manning said. "I've been there before. My dad always says 'Get back to level zero.' Any time you're on the road, you'd like to put a team away when you have a chance. Give credit to the Bengals for responding, but when we had to, our team responded as well."
- Tampa Bay rookie running back Doug Martin rushed for a team-record 251 yards and four touchdowns in the Buccaneers' 42-32 win at Oakland, the franchise's first-ever road win against the Raiders. Martin joins Mike Anderson (Dec. 3, 2000) as the only players in NFL history to rush for at least 250 yards and four touchdowns in a game. The Boise State product had TD runs of 70, 67, 45 and 1 yard in the victory.
- Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers passed for four touchdowns in Green Bay's 31-17 win over Arizona. Rodgers now has 25 touchdown passes on the season in just nine games, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw at least 25 TDs in his team's first nine games in two different seasons. Rodgers had 28 TD passes through nine games last season.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 24-20, in just the seventh game in NFL history in which the starting quarterbacks - in this case Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning - had each won multiple Super Bowls.
11/05 11:50:36 ET