Ponder was behind from the minute he was chosen 12th overall, with the NFL lockout preventing him from meeting with coaches and practicing with teammates at the Vikings facility all summer long. His practice snaps were limited in training camp because the team was trying to get veteran Donovan McNabb acclimated as quickly as possible, and he was thrust into a difficult situation on a team that was already out of the running in the NFC North before he started his first game.
Now, as Ponder enters the first voluntary offseason workouts of his young NFL career, he feels much more comfortable in asserting himself on a team looking to bounce back from a miserable 3-13 season.
"It was weird being a rookie. Not only a rookie, but a rookie that shows up right at training camp," Ponder said. "It's hard to establish yourself as a leader. Having Donovan here, obviously he was a leader and some of the other guys. Now being in a position where I can comfortably say, `this is my team,' it definitely helps."
His mind racing while he tried to digest a new offensive system and his eyes bulging as he looked for receivers he was just getting to know, Ponder endured a rocky first season. He threw for 236 yards, a touchdown and a 102.7 rating in a victory over Carolina in his second start and 381 yards and three TDs in a loss to Denver on Dec. 4.
But he completed more than 52 percent of his passes just once in his last four starts, and too often took off and ran before checking all his options on passing plays, leading to injuries to his right hip, right hand and a concussion. He finished the season with a 54.3 percent completion rate, 1,853 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 11 games.
The affable Ponder has spent plenty of time in the film room this offseason dissecting his performances, and he's not his own biggest fan.
"I get so frustrated watching myself last year, watching myself escape from the pocket too early, making bad reads and doing pretty dumb stuff," Ponder said. "You just watch that stuff and it gives me so much more confidence that I can be so much better next year. There's so much to learn from. It's just good to be with the coaches and see what they see and talk over things after being a couple months removed from the season."
The Vikings gave Ponder a hefty vote of confidence this offseason by not pursuing a quarterback in free agency or the draft, choosing instead to add pieces to build around him and give him a better chance to succeed in 2012. They drafted left tackle Matt Kalil with the third overall pick, Arkansas receivers Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, and USC tight end Rhett Ellison in the fourth round and signed veteran tight end John Carlson and receiver Jerome Simpson to be the deep threat the team has lacked for the last few seasons.
"I think that shows that they have confidence in me and trying to establish guys around me on the offensive side," Ponder said. "Obviously on the offensive side of the ball we have a lot of improvements to make. We have so many good guys on this team already that can go out and prove themselves, but to add additional guys that bring a lot to the table is really going to help us."
His teammates are already recognizing a difference in the way he carries himself.
"He's really turning into a leader," third-year running back Toby Gerhart said. "I know from experience, it's hard as a rookie. You don't know your place, you don't want to speak or lead necessarily when you've had vets there for a while and you haven't proven anything.
"For him, this year he's definitely taking ownership, he's being vocal, he's pushing everybody to stay after, catch some routes, stuff like that."
That's the way it's going to have to be if the Vikings are going to have a chance to compete in the rough and tumble NFC North. Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago all have established quarterbacks who are proven leaders.
"He's always been a great leader since the moment he stepped in there," center John Sullivan said. "That was the most impressive thing for a lot of us. He made mistakes, they rolled off his back. He'd come in and take command of the huddle and it's not always easy for a young guy to do that. I think he's continuing in the correct direction in terms of his development."
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