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Time For Ponder To Prove He Can Play

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Christian Ponder is a good game manager. It's time for him to become elite. Photo by Andy Clayton King/Getty Images.
Christian Ponder is a good game manager. It's time for him to become elite. Photo by Andy Clayton King/Getty Images.

Winning quarterbacks come in two types.

The game manager is able to do well enough to win games while not putting up great numbers. This kind of quarterback must make few mistakes, but is not required to throw every down for the team to win. They take care of the ball, hand the ball off to a quality running back and the chips will fall as they may.

Think Bart Starr. He was an elite quarterback, but rarely had to be. The mid-‘60s Green Bay Packers were a dominant team that didn’t need to throw to win. But if they did, they could. Consider Max McGee’s hungover MVP performance in Super Bowl I.

Or think of Trent Dilfer in the Baltimore Ravens’ first Super Bowl win. That team had a great defense and good running game..

Or Jim McMahon for the 1985 Chicago Bears. Enough said.

Those days are pretty much gone. You can reach the playoffs with a good team and an average quarterback, as the Minnesota Vikings did in 2012. 

Christian Ponder will have to be a lot better.

Ponder took his game up a couple of notches down the stretch despite the absence of Percy Harvin. He was a successful game manager for a team that made plays on both sides of the ball and rode a guy named Adrian Peterson. He cut down his mistakes and the team finished 10-6 and got to the playoffs.

That won’t work in 2013. Ponder has no excuses this year. It’s all on him. 

Last year, you could say he was handicapped by his lack of receivers. He had a good tight end, Kyle Rudolph, and some journeymen (like Michael Jenkins, who’s made a journey to New England to play for the Patriots). 

Ponder was hurt and couldn’t play in the playoff game against the Packers. The result was preordained.

Not this year. In what is looking like a better move every day, the Vikes traded Harvin and his headaches to the Seahawks. Coach Pete Carroll may have migraines now figuring out who his receivers will be if Harvin misses the whole season after hip surgery. 

In return, the Vikes received the second of what would end up being three first-round picks. And they beefed up their receiver corps by signing Greg Jennings from the Pack, who could be the new Cris Carter. 

The Vikes also have Jarius Wright, who had a decent rookie year, especially down the stretch. More uncertainty centers on Greg Childs, who is coming back from injuries. He has the explosiveness offensive coaches dream about. Jerome Simpson is also back after a poor year.  He needs to show he’s the guy who flipped over a defender for a TD in his last year for the Bengals, not the guy who got in trouble and wore another set of stripes. 

The third first-round selection, Cordarrelle Patterson, is the X factor. Will he be a quick learner and be incorporated into the passing game early? Will coaches, on the other hand, decide it’s better to let him figure it out on the bench?

No one knows. 

Ponder and the Vikes won’t have the luxury of playing the likes of the Cardinals, Titans and Jaguars as they did last year. Instead, they play the AFC North and the NFC East. They play at the Giants, Dallas, Seattle, Baltimore and Cincinnati, and play against the Steelers in London. 

Furthermore, the Vikes are in a tough division, at least potentially. Just as a plethora of  prognosticators can be counted on to predict the Cowboys will win the Super Bowl, plenty of other analysts like to forecast that the Bears will restore their former greatness. Pete Prisco has listed the Bears 11th and the Vikings 19th in his preseason power rankings. If there’s anything more meaningless than a preseason power ranking, please write me.

True believers out there, feel free to head to Vegas and bet your life savings on either of those teams.

The Vikings have the makings of an elite team that could make noise in the playoffs. A lot of it depends on Ponder. He’s one of those players who could go either way. He played well at the end, so we don’t know how he would’ve done in the playoffs. His grade is incomplete.

This is Ponder’s big year. He appears to have all the tools: A strong arm, mobility, intelligence. His injury (which was all too apparent in a photo) is healed. 

But the NFL stands for Not For Long. If he doesn’t get the job done in 2013, the Vikings won’t hesitate to pull the plug and put in Matt Cassel. He’s one of the better backups out there, and I think he’ll be in there sooner rather than later if Ponder doesn't perform. 

Here’s what Ponder will have to do for the Vikings to contend:

* Throw the deep ball. He did not do in 2012. Now he has deep threats, including Patterson, Childs (perhaps), Simpson (maybe).

* Make big third-down plays during crucial drives against tough foes. The Vikes are unlikely to blow everyone away. Will it be Ponder to Jennings? Ponder to Rudolph? Or Ponder on the seat of his pants? 

* Not throw crucial interceptions or drop the ball. Ponder did well in the final four games, but those with a longer memory can’t erase his horrible game in Green Bay. The Vikings played very well in that game except for Ponder. 

* Be the man players rally around. It appears silly, and sportscasters sound ridiculous when speaking as if the game is D-Day or Iwo Jima and the quarterback’s the guy ordering the men to take that distant hill. And yet leadership is not just myth. A team needs to believe in the signal-caller. And that has to be clear to everyone. 

* Overcome adversity to make good plays. If he throws a pick, he needs to take the team down the field.  His body language has to be just right.