Vikings GM Rick Spielman loves Christian Ponder's promise

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The present and future Minnesota Vikings quarterback never played with the famous former one.

Brett Favre had finally, really, seriously thrown his last pass by the time Minnesota selected Christian Ponder 12th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, and it was actually an aging Donovan McNabb whom Ponder sat behind until he was handed the keys to the franchise on Oct. 18. But No. 4 influenced Ponder nonetheless.

The former Florida State star begins his second season hoping to become the face of a team turning it around, and he's not just focused on the field. There is a lot more to being a quarterback than finding the open guy.

"I had a conversation with somebody yesterday about Brett Favre and how great of a leader he was, because he knew every single one of those guys on the field," Ponder said Wednesday, following the Vikings' second session of OTAs. "I've taken that to heart and am trying to go out to dinner with Jerome Simpson and trying to get to know those younger guys and know my teammates. If they're going to follow me, if we're going to play close together as a team, we have to get closer off the field, as well."

As would be the case during most first dates, Ponder usually splits the bill. Most of the time. When he took new left tackle Matt Kalil out for dinner, Ponder paid. Smart move, considering Kalil might have his back for the next 10 years, if everything all works out.

"Yeah, he owes me big," Ponder joked, before explaining to his goals for the bonding sessions. "Communication is always key at this position, and to be able to talk to those guys. ... No one's going to listen if I'm just riding his ass the whole time, and that's it. It's important to cultivate that relationship off the field and become buddies."

During these dinners, sometimes the participants talk football, sometimes they talk about nothing. Ponder is trying to take the reins of a Vikings team that stumbled to a 3-13 record last season, and the hope is that the foundation is being built in those talks.

Ponder isn't just worried about the offensive guys. For every dinner with Simpson or Kalil, there is a chit-chat session with safety Jamarca Sanford or defensive tackle Kevin Williams.

"At the position he's at, you need other guys around you to feel comfortable with you," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "I don't think he's too young for that to happen."

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On the field, there is promise.

Ponder, the 6-foot-2, 229-pound 24-year-old, completed 54.3 percent of his passes last year with 13 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He had a 70.1 passer rating over 11 games.

Those aren't awe-inspiring numbers. But the Vikings believe Ponder is on the right track, based on his age, experience and some statistical analysis done by general manager Rick Spielman. Spielman explained his methods to during an interview in his office.

"If you look at his statistical analysis, and where (Ponder) was at the point in the season when he came in, he compared to some other (accomplished) quarterbacks," Spielman said. "Like when Eli (Manning) took over for Kurt Warner (with the New York Giants). When Jay Cutler took over for Jake Plummer (with the Denver Broncos). I went back and researched all this stuff. It was almost bizarre that Christian's (results) were very close to those guys, that are maybe top-five or six quarterbacks. I remember when Eli took over, he had one game where it was a zero quarterback rating (against the Baltimore Ravens in 2004). It just kind of gives you an indication of what to expect. ... You're trying to predict things."

Spielman's right. Ponder's passer rating was better than Manning's as a rookie, better than Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick's, better than Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman's, better than San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith's. He only comes up short against Cutler (now with the Chicago Bears), but not by a huge margin.

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Spielman has done all sorts of other "outside the box" research, including looking at intelligence scores, to compare Ponder to others. He notes that Ponder was the NFL's best quarterback in the red zone last year. To go further, Spielman explored Ponder's productivity in seven key areas, including last-minute drives, his play in third-and-6 or longer situations, and his performance while facing a seven-point deficit. Just to be sure, Spielman looked at Ponder's college stats, too.

And all signs point to a player who will be part of the solution, not the problem. In his second year, as the No. 1 quarterback, with the benefit of an offseason, everything should improve.

"It's just him knowing that it's his team now," Spielman said. "You can see the difference in him from where he was a year ago, just where he's at with the offense now. (Offensive coordinator) Bill Musgrave and (quarterbacks coach) Craig Johnson, they've done a great job. That presence about him is totally different from where he was a rookie."

Spielman said he wouldn't wonder if Ponder would have been better served to play immediately, instead of sitting behind a deteriorating McNabb. Ponder would only say that "It kind of stinks to sit back and watch everything."

There's no watching now. Ponder ran the offense on Wednesday, and aside from one OTA interception on a pass he intended to throw away, he looked sound. Perhaps the learning process will be accelerated in Year 2. The strong-armed Texan need only make smart plays to succeed, and that's his focus anyway. As Frazier said, "He's going to do a better job as far as making decisions with the football, where it should go."

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Ponder has plenty of weapons, with rehabbing running back Adrian Peterson, electric receiver Percy Harvin, new wideout Jerome Simpson, and two sound tight ends in Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. Spielman said the goal was to surround Ponder with emerging talent (Kalil included) and allow everyone to mature together.

"The thought process is to have those guys together the next three, four, five years, so they can grow," Spielman said. "The more you can keep that group together -- and we're going to be a young group -- we can continue to progress, that's kind of the thought process where we're at right now."

Ponder is appreciative, to say the least.

"I just got to get the ball in their hands at some point when they get open and they'll make some plays," Ponder said. "I think that alleviates a lot of pressure for me."

It's early. Just two practices into OTAs. But teammates have noticed a different Ponder.

"Christian has a little chip on his shoulder this year," Harvin said. "He's trying to get it together on some of the things he struggled with last year."

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet

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