Before last season, Christian Ponder's critics asserted that any improvement to the Minnesota Vikings' offensive or team success would be directly related to the second-year quarterback's improvement.
Well, Ponder improved his accuracy and decision-making, and the team won seven more games, surprisingly qualifying for the playoffs. Yet, that hasn't seemed to calm the concerns about Ponder heading into this season.
"It's tough to be in that position because there's so much spotlight and pressure," said tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has quickly developed a relationship in two seasons with Ponder. "It's not fair to single him out. There's a lot of moving parts with this team, and we all have to do our part for this offense and team to be successful."
Coming into his third training camp, Ponder remains the focus of critics. With Adrian Peterson coming off a 2,000-yard rushing season, an offensive line that returns intact and an upgraded receiving corps, some of the same hot topics are Ponder and his inconsistency.
"I have more confidence," Ponder said. "It comes with experience. Last year, we were a playoff team. That gave everyody confidence."
Last season, Ponder improved his completion percentage from 54.3 percent to 62.1 percent. He threw 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions after throwing 13 of each as a rookie. His quarterback rating rose from 70.1 to 81.2, but the Vikings passing game ranked 31st in the NFL at 171.9 yards per game as the offense was fueled by Peterson's historic season.
Ponder guided the Vikings on a season-ending, four-game winning streak that clinched a playoff berth, though he missed the postseason game with an injured elbow.
"I want to be the guy with the ball in my hand and a chance to win the game," Ponder said.
It's the inconsistency that seems to cause the concern. In the first four games and last four, Ponder completed 64.9 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and only one interception, and the team went 7-1.
In the eight games in the middle of the season, which the Vikings won only three, Ponder's completion percentage was 59.8 with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In two games, he failed to pass for more than 65 yards and had four games with two interceptions.
This offseason, the Vikings upgraded the backup position by signing Matt Cassel as insurance against Ponder's struggles.
"The biggest thing is my decision-making," Ponder said. "I want to play smart football."
During practice, Ponder has done little to quash any concerns. On one play, he'll zip a pass down the middle as a receiver breaks clear, then he'll sail a short out well over the target. Most of his throws in team practices still go less than 10 yards downfield, another knock on the quarterback.
Receiver Jerome Simpson, one of Ponder's returning targets, said it's not fair to put everything on the quarterback, who he said seems more confident in his play-making ability.
"It's not a one-man team," Simpson said. "We all have to pull our weight and help him out."