The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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Jim Rueda

July 25, 2012

Rueda: Vikings' improvement depends on Ponder

It’s that time again.

The Vikings officially check in at the Minnesota State campus Thursday afternoon and training camp practices begin on Friday.

Although optimism is normally high this time of year, 2012 might be a little different. The team is coming off a 3-13 season, there’s no Brett Favre being courted by the front office and no marquee free agents have been signed.

In short, expectations are probably a little lower than usual. Still, there is reason for hope.

Matt Kalil has been drafted and is expected to anchor the team’s left tackle position for the next decade and beyond. Former Cincinnati Bengal Jerome Simpson has been signed to bolster the receiving corps, defensive back Chris Cook is back in the team’s good graces and Adrian Peterson is ahead of schedule with his rehab from knee surgery.

Despite all those things, there is really only one player who will determine the team’s forturnes in 2012. That player is second-year quarterback Christian Ponder.

The NFL has evolved into a passing league. Over the last decade the Super Bowl winning team has had a big-time quarterback who is proficient at airing it out. Guys like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, the Manning brothers and Ben Rothlisberger are the one who win rings.

Ponder needs to get better, plain and simple. He completed 54 percent of his passes (158 of 291) for 1,853 yards with 13 interceptions last season. The yardage and completions have to go up and the interceptions have to come down.

If Ponder improves a lot, the team should be in most of its games and may be able to hide some of its weaknesses on defense. If he progresses as a second-year player should, the Vikes will be better but will be hard-pressed to have to a .500 season. If he improves only a little, fans could be looking at another three or four-win season.

Obviously, the arrival of Kalil and a healthy Peterson can make a big difference in how Ponder performs. But Kalil is bound to make some rookie mistakes and, even if Peterson continues to recover rapidly, the best case scenario is that he’ll be nearing 100 percent by midseason.

It’s tough to put the weight of a franchise on the shoulders of a second-year signal caller, but that’s the nature of the position in the NFL.

Ponder was considered a poised, mature and accurate passer coming out of Florida State. He’ll need all those attributes if he’s going to be successful this year.

Jim Rueda is the Free Press sports editor. To contact him, call 344-6381 or email him at jrueda@mankatofreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @jimrueda.

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