A raging debate has broken out over Christian Ponder. On one side are those who think all his errors should be chalked up to inexperience and essentially discounted, and on the other side are those who think that despite his being a rookie he should be assessed honestly and with some eye toward a minimum standard of performance. This debate it seems to me hinges on one major question: How exactly does one go about quantifying the performance of a relatively raw quarterback who any way you slice it is dealing with a situation that is not 100% conducive to success?
You can look at stats, but do stats really tell the whole story on a guy like Ponder? His completion percentage is relatively low, but rookies generally have low completion percentages. He’s thrown lots of picks but, again, picks are going to happen to a rookie. Obviously the win-loss record is not a fair measure given all the variables that are outside Ponder’s control. You can drill down a little and ask how much Ponder has contributed to the losses by his mistakes, but even if you do that, the “he’s a rookie on a bad team” excuse still looms up.
Obviously you have to look beyond the numbers to get a real feel for where Ponder is right now. It’s easy to make the negative case by pointing to the turnovers. Against Denver Ponder committed three of them and they were all huge from a game situation point-of-view. One resulted directly in six points, one ended a Vikings’ scoring drive deep in Denver territory and the third prevented the Vikings from having a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. The two picks were directly the result of bad reads, and the fumble was a combination of lazy ball security and a really good, experienced DB knowing how to punch a ball away.
The advantage in making the negative case is that the mistakes tend to be glaring and dramatic and obvious. When making the positive case, if one wants to go beyond mere brainless cheerleading and endless tired repetition of “he’s a rookie, give him a break,” things get a little tougher. You can’t really use the stats because the stats are only mediocre. The win-loss record doesn’t help you either because it’s terrible. And if you want to make the argument that Ponder is showing ever-improving command…well, that’s not an entirely solid position either as evidenced by his mental gaffes, including the one where he didn’t know the time out rules (you can put that on the coaches as much as the player – another easy out for the Ponderpologists).
But believe it or not I’m not here to bash Ponder. I like Ponder. I’m trying to find a way to argue for Ponder, but without resorting to the same old tedious refrains. And I think I’ve uncovered something that makes the case. It involves Percy Harvin. It doesn’t really require any in-depth statistical analysis to make this case, though the stats would probably help bear it out. The case is simply this: Percy Harvin is an impact player on offense only when a good quarterback is throwing him the ball. And since Harvin is having a greater impact, Ponder must be getting better.
Let’s retrace Percy’s history as a Viking. He burst on the scene in 2009 as a dynamic weapon, thanks largely to Brett Favre who immediately realized his value, especially as a third down and red zone threat. As Favre went, so went Harvin; which explains why in 2010, when Favre went down the toilet, Harvin saw his production also decrease. The conventional wisdom there was that the loss of Sidney Rice hurt Harvin as much as it did Favre, and there’s some truth to that. This argument carried over into 2011 – the argument that Harvin, more of a slot man than a deep threat, needs a true downfield receiver to open things up for him underneath. The hope with Donovan McNabb was that he would be able to push the ball downfield enough to make room for Harvin and even more so Adrian Peterson, but that hope proved a foolish one. The Vikings couldn’t protect McNabb, and even when they did, he didn’t have the receivers to make things happen downfield. And even when he had open receivers he often missed them.
With McNabb struggling, Harvin stagnated even more, at times being used as more of a gimmick player than a true wide receiver. Leslie Frazier ultimately decided to bench McNabb, handing the team over to Christian Ponder. Things didn’t improve much for Percy right away; he still wasn’t much of a factor in the passing game proper, a situation some were eager to blame on Bill Musgrave and his allegedly unimaginative offense. Then the break-out happened. With Adrian Peterson out and the Vikings desperate to produce offense, Musgrave conjured up the radical idea of actually using Harvin as a regular wide receiver instead of some fancy hybrid receiver/running back. Harvin was allowed to run down the field on actual receiver routes, and lo and behold, Christian Ponder was able to get him the ball even despite the poor blocking. Suddenly the Vikings had a downfield threat. Then this last Sunday against Denver Harvin flowered even further, speeding all over the field on an array of routes and using his brilliant skills to torch would-be tacklers.
Bill Musgrave’s willingness to finally use Percy as a real receiver had a lot to do with this two week break out, and so frankly did the fact of Adrian Peterson being out of the line-up (without AD as a home run threat Musgrave was forced to find other weapons), but Ponder has had a lot to do with it too. Ponder’s ability to deliver the ball accurately is the reason Percy has been put in position to make the plays he makes. I will cite a single stat here in making my case: Harvin has been targeted 17 times the last two games and has 16 receptions, and a lot of those passes were in traffic. That reflects on Ponder as much as Harvin.
All due respect to Donovan McNabb, but even if the Vikings had tried those plays more often early in the season, it’s unlikely they would’ve been completed with any consistency due to Donovan’s inability to deliver the ball on-target. It’s also become obvious that the “Percy needs a deep threat” argument was a tad overblown. Maybe against certain defenses it would help to have a true #1 outside receiver, but the most important factor when it comes to getting Percy involved is simply having a QB who can get him the ball.
Percy, as we’ve heard over-and-over, is not a true #1 receiver. He’s not a guy who will win a lot of jump-balls (not for lack of trying). He’s fast but he’s not necessarily a guy you’re going to see streaking down the field and getting behind the coverage (maybe he would if the Vikes could pass protect for longer than a millisecond). Harvin is the classic slot receiver, a guy who is best used on crossing routes and other such patterns. For that kind of receiver to succeed, the QB must have pin-point accuracy. It’s all about timing and putting the ball into tight windows. That being the case, Ponder deserves as much credit for Harvin’s recent uptick as Bill Musgrave or anyone else.
Harvin hasn’t looked this good since 2009 Favre was throwing him the ball. Obviously it would be silly to compare Ponder to Hall of Famer Favre at the top of his game, but it’s not silly to say that Ponder is currently playing the QB position better than anyone has for the Vikings since 2009 Favre. That doesn’t mean you just overlook the mistakes, nor does it guarantee that Ponder will ultimately develop into a playoff QB. Nothing is guaranteed in this game. All I’ve done here is hand the Ponder people a new argument that I think is possibly the best one of all. If you want to see how Ponder is coming along, watch what Percy Harvin is doing. Harvin is playing lights out right now, so you know Ponder must be doing a lot of things right.