Oct 21, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder (7) throws during the third quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at the Metrodome. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE

Raised Expectations May Be Christian Ponder's Worst Enemy. Or His Best Friend.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to play out for Christian Ponder in 2012. The Vikings were supposed to be rebuilding. Ponder was supposed to be slowly and gradually developing behind a re-tooled offensive line. Win-loss record was supposed to be irrelevant. The Vikings were supposed to be irrelevant. There wasn’t supposed to be any real pressure on the team or on Ponder.

Expectations were that low going into the season. Most of us thought, “If the Vikings finish 5-11 and some of their young guys show promise, that will be a successful season.” But guess what? They’ve already got the five wins. 5-11 will no longer be viewed as a successful season. Now they’ve got to make a playoff push or people will say they collapsed.

What happened? Well it’s simple. The defense is better than anyone expected. And Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson together make them viable on offense. Because of that defense and those two top-drawer offensive weapons, the Vikings are a legit team in the NFC. So now there are raised expectations, and with those raised expectations comes a measure of pressure. And pressure is naturally felt the most by the weakest links in the chain. And right now, the weakest link is the quarterback.

So Christian Ponder is feeling a pressure he didn’t expect to feel. He doesn’t get to slowly develop on a rebuilding team. He’s been placed in a position no one anticipated. He’s the quarterback for a team with playoff aspirations. He needs to get better faster. He can’t take anymore backward steps.

Can this kid even handle the pressure that’s being put on him? It’s a fair question to ask. The Vikings have tried their best to take that pressure off him. They’ve run an offense that as much as possible de-emphasizes the quarterback position. They’ve restricted Ponder to short passes, utterly discouraging any downfield risk-taking. They’ve tried to use his mobility, letting him roll and read half the field. They’ve employed Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson to an inordinate degree, allowing their unique talents to compensate for what might be lacking in other areas.

The plan has worked at times and not worked at times. Ponder has sometimes been his own worst enemy with his decision-making and mechanical breakdowns. Through it all, the Vikings have managed to keep winning. And those expectations have grown. And Ponder has become more and more an object of scrutiny.

The heat got worse last weekend. Ponder did not play well against Arizona. He seemed to become more and more lost and lacking in confidence as the game progressed. The entire second half he completed only one pass for 4 yards. A half like that might have been excused under the old plan, but the old plan went out the window a couple weekends ago against San Francisco. Now Ponder is getting hammered.

The case can be made that Ponder would’ve been better off in the long-run had the Vikings not gone on this 5-2 run to start the season. On a bad team, he would’ve been free to develop at a nice leisurely pace. That’s not an option now. Ponder is no longer being graded on a curve. He’s expected to step up and contribute to a winning program. Not just some of the time but consistently.

For Ponder, the slow growth approach has given way to a trial by fire. And that fire is only going to get hotter. The Vikings’ schedule in the second half is the toughest in all of football. The formula that has worked for the most part during this 5-2 stretch likely won’t work against improved competition. The Vikings won’t be able to just run it down people’s throats, mix in some Percy Harvin and win it on defense. The passing game will have to contribute in a big way. The onus will be on Ponder.

This may seem melodramatic but I’ll say it anyway: The 8-game stretch coming up after Tampa Bay will make or break Christian Ponder. Either he will prove he can be a winning NFL QB or he will prove he can’t. I personally have my doubts. I don’t know about his arm strength and I don’t know about his pocket presence. I don’t know if his mobility is an asset or a detriment. Maybe he would be better off with limited mobility, because then he’d be forced to stay in the pocket. Ponder’s future will be made in that pocket. Until he learns to stick in there and deliver the ball, even if it means getting hit, he will continue to flounder.

Of course it’s not all on Ponder. Other areas of the team need to improve as well. The pass protection can be better. The receivers outside of Percy Harvin must perform at a higher level. Bill Musgrave must find ways to get Kyle Rudolph and Jerome Simpson more involved. The defense must be stronger on third down.

But, Ponder’s performance will still be the #1 factor in determining this team’s fate over the next couple of months. Is he ready for that? It doesn’t matter because it’s here. The pressure he wasn’t supposed to face until year 3 at the earliest is now upon him. For Ponder, these raised expectations can be a great burden or a great boon. He can either falter under the pressure or use it as fuel.

Yes, this new accelerated growth plan can still work out for Ponder and the Vikings. If Ponder responds to the pressure by playing better. This can teach him how to be a winner. He can become a true leader. In the end, raised expectations might be the best thing for Ponder. They might push him to become better than we had hoped.

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