Saturday, January 07, 2012

Despite a difficult rookie season, there's still hope for Vikings Christian Ponder

I think every Viking fan should acknowledge that rookie quarterback Christian Ponder mostly stunk (when he wasn’t getting injured) in three of his final four games of the 2011 season.

Those performances (and the play of backup Joe Webb when Ponder was out) has more than a few Viking fanatics concerned. Might the 12th overall pick in the 2011 college draft be a budding bust, rather than the quarterback of the future the Vikings have needed since Daunte Culpepper shredded his knee in 2005?

It’s an important question, and attempting to answer it requires a little perspective. So I decided to see how Ponder’s passing statistics compared to the first year’s of the 31 other starting QBs in 2011 who saw their first significant playing time in the NFL. Is there anything we can learn from those statistics? Let’s take a look.

Below I’ve compiled the passing stats from those seasons for all 32 quarterbacks who were essentially starters for their teams in 2011. The one QB listed who doesn’t fit this criteria is the Colts Peyton Manning, who didn’t play at all in 2011 because of a neck injury. But I’ve included his rookie numbers because he obviously would have been the starter if not for his neck woes, and there’s no point in mentioning Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky unless I have to. Anyway, have a gander at the following QB stats.

NFC North
Christian Ponder: 54.3 %; 1,853; 13 TDs; 13 INTS (rookie)
Aaron Rodgers: 64.7 %; 4,038; 28 TDs; 13 INTs (4th year)
Jay Cutler: 59.1 %; 1,001; 9 TDs; 5 INTs (rookie)
Matt Stafford: 53.3 %; 2,267; 13 TDs; 20 INTs (rookie)

NFC East
Eli Manning: 48.2 %; 1,043; 6 TDs; 9 INTs (rookie)
Tony Romo: 65.3 %; 2,903; 19 TDs; 13 INTs (4th year)
Michael Vick: 54.9 %; 2,936: 16 TDs; 8 INTs (2nd year)
Rex Grossman: 54.6 %; 3,193; 23 TDs; 20 INTs (4th year)

NFC South
Matt Ryan: 61.1 %; 3,440; 16 TDs; 11 INTs (rookie)
Cam Newton: 60 %; 4.051; 21 TDs; 17 INTs (rookie)
Drew Brees: 60.8 %; 3,284; 17 TDs; 16 INTs (2nd year)
Josh Freeman: 54.5 %; 1,855; 10 TDs; 18 INTs (rookie)

NFC West
Alex Smith: 50.9; 875; 1 TD; 11 INTs (rookie)
Tarvaris Jackson: 58.2 %; 1,911; 9 TDs; 12 INTs (2nd year)
Kevin Kolb: 60.8 %; 1,197; 7 TDs; 7 INTs (4th year)
Sam Bradford: 60 %; 3,512; 18 TDs; 15 INTs (rookie)

AFC North
Joe Flacco: 60 %; 2,971; 14 TDs; 12 INTs (rookie)
Ben Roethlisberger: 66.4 %; 2,621; 17 TDs; 11 INTs (rookie)
Andy Dalton: 58.1; 3,398; 20 TDs; 13 INTs (rookie)
Colt McCoy: 60.8 %; 1,576; 6 TDS; 9 INTs (rookie)

AFC East
Tom Brady: 63.9 %; 2,843; 18 TDs; 12 INTs (2nd year)
Mark Sanchez: 53.8; 2,444; 12 TDs; 20 INTs (rookie)
Matt Moore: 61.6 %; 1,053; 8 TDs; 2 INTs (3rd year)
Ryan Fitzpatrick: 59.4 %; 1,905; 8 TDS; 9 INTs (4th year)

AFC South
Matt Schaub: 66.4 %; 2,241; 9 TDS; 9 INTs (4th year)
Matt Hasselback: 54.8 %; 2,203; 7 TDs; 8 INTs (3rd year)
Blaine Gabbert: 50.8 %; 2,214; 12 TDS; 11 INTs (rookie)
Peyton Manning: 56.7 %; 3,739; 26 TDS; 28 INTs (rookie)

AFC West
Tim Tebow: 46.5 %; 1,729; 12 TDs; 6 INTs (2nd year)
Philip Rivers: 61.7 %; 3,388; 22 TDS; 9 INTs (3rd year)
Carson Palmer: 60.9 %; 2,897; 18 TDs; 18 INTs (2nd year)
Matt Cassel: 63.4 %; 3,693; 21 TDs; 11 INTs (4th year)

Now, those stats might take a few minutes to digest on your own, so allow me to speed things along. Is there anything in these numbers that gives us hope that Ponder’s play late in his rookie campaign isn’t a sign he was a wasted pick?

I think there is. First of all, the data shows that it’s normal for rookie QBs to struggle. In the list above 14 other QBs did what Ponder had to do in 2011 – they saw their first significant playing time during their rookie season. Seven had what we’d consider good (Cutler, Ryan, Flacco, Bradford) or very good (Roethlisberger, Newton, Dalton) years. Only four completed 60 per cent or better of their passes. And six of the 14 threw more interceptions than touchdowns – even Peyton Manning.

Ponder suffers this year from being compared to two guys from his draft class that had outstanding years – Newton and Dalton. But overall, his numbers compare favorably with most of the QBs who got extended playing time in their rookie seasons. We can also be encouraged that Ponder probably played better in his first season than Detroit’s Stafford and New York’s Eli Manning did in theirs, and those two guys are coming off outstanding seasons in 2011.

The other bit of knowledge I take from the stats is that sitting on the bench and learning the NFL game for a year or two seems a better way to develop a quarterback than to throw him to the wolves in his first season. Look at the numbers posted by the likes of Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Rivers, Vick, Romo – even Matt Cassel. I wonder what their passing stats would have looked like if they had been asked to do what Ponder did in their first season?

This isn’t meant to criticize the Vikings coaching staff and management’s handling of Ponder – Donovan McNabb’s play didn’t give them much choice. But I point this out because if Vikings fans expected Ponder to be consistently dynamite – or even consistently average – this season, they haven’t been paying attention to how rookie QBs typically fare in the NFL.

Ponder’s got a lot to work on this offseason. Much of the improvement is on him. The two biggest flaws Viking observers saw in him in 2011 were horrible decision-making when he passed the ball and skittishness in the pocket (ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer thinks this is a fatal flaw.) But those things seem correctable given Ponder’s intelligence, work ethic and athletic gifts.

However, if Ponder is to take a significant step forward in 2012 – and he must if the Vikings don’t want to be in the same situation in 2013 that they are in now – new general manager Rick Spielman also has a huge role to play.

First, Spielman needs to bring in offensive line help, particularly a legit left tackle, so Ponder has the time to throw and so he won’t get beat up like he did this year. Spielman must also give Ponder somebody to throw to other than Percy Harvin. The Vikings had no deep passing threat in 2011 and really no one you could count on to make a play or get open other than Harvin. Tight end Kyle Rudolph shows promise, but the Vikings need to add more talent at the receiving position. If Spielman can do that (hint: the Chargers’ Vincent Jackson is a free agent), and Ponder makes the appropriate improvements in his game, fans won’t be clamoring for Webb in 2013.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

How come no Webb stats?? As for Webb not knowing the offense, remember that Ponder received a playbook when he was drafted. Ponder received first string repetitions. Webb was stuck on the scout team. Webb was playing WR. Webb was wasting time in that worthless blazer package .The Vikings were jerking Webb around. It would be interesting to see what Webb could do , if he could just concentrate on the QB position and receive more meaningful reps. Ponder could be good, but Webb could be elite.

Darren Campbell said...

Anon:

There are no Webb stats because he doesn't have enough numbers over one season to make a meaningful comparison with other QBs. Ponder did.

Ponder was also drafted in the first round to be the Vikings future QB. He's been named the starter for next season. Webb has not. So I focused on Ponder in this post.

lotgk said...

Also to throw into the mix, Musgrave installed a new offense in a strike year. No OTA's, no mini camp, a much shorter time to absorb the nuances of the offense.
I think Ponder will be a very good quarterback for the Vikings. However, I would also like to see Webb given an equal shot at the starting role. Just because Webb was a 6th round pick doesn't make him not capable of being great. Tom Brady was a 6th rounder and he has a few rings on his fingers.

Darren Campbell said...

lotgk:

That's all true, but it didn't seem to hamper Newton and Dalton too much. I think we'll know a lot more about Ponder in year two. Other QBs took big steps forward in their second year. If Ponder doesn't, I'll start to worry.

I don't think Webb will ever be great. I don't even know if he will ever be good. My guess is he won't get a legit shot at the starters job next year. Only if Ponder completely falls on his face will Webb get consideration, which likely won't happen until 2013.

lotgk said...

Darren,

About Newton and Dalton,
From the very first snap, both were working with the first team. Both forged the much needed chemistry and timing between the line and receivers.

Ponder took to the bench in favor of McNabb, who was brought in to supposedly make a run at the playoffs. That put Ponder more than half a season behind in maturity. Most of training camp, preseason games, and the first 7 games of the regular season.

Add to that mix a new head coach Leslie Frasier and new OC in Musgrave who installed a new offense and it wasn't just the QB that needed to learn the system, but all the offensive players.

And, about Daltons numbers, they were not very impressive. Newton however had a fantastic rookie season.

Darren Campbell said...

lotgk:

Dalton completed 58 per cent of his passes, threw for almost 3,400 yards and had 20 TD passes and only 13 INTs. And the Bungles made the playoffs.

What's not to like about those numbers from a rookie?

lotgk said...

Darren,

Dalton achieved these numbers with being the #1 from day one in training camp. He compiled those numbers in 16 games.

Ponder as I said did not have that luxury, he was behind McNabb but in the 8 complete games he played, he threw for 1800 yards and 13 td's and 13ints.

If you take Ponders numbers and stretch them to 16 games, he would have 3600 yards passing and 26 td and 26 ints.

And I don't believe just because the Vikings failed to make the playoffs makes Ponder an unworthy quarterback.

Darren Campbell said...

lotgk:

Yes, Dalton did achieve those numbers in 16 games. And for a rookie they are still very good numbers. We'll never know what Ponder would have done for a full season at the helm as a rookie (although 26 INTs is way too much in today's NFL) but if he puts up Dalton-like numbers in 2012, Vikings fans should be pleased. I think he's definitely capable, as long as the Vikings give him some help along the O-line and at wide receiver.

lotgk said...

Also keep in mind what Dalton had to work with compared what Ponder had to work with. Besides Harvin, the receivers were sub par. And Peterson was out for several games and the O line was not adequate at protection so the numbers Ponder did put up were average compared with the rest of the rookie quarterbacks throughout the years.

lotgk said...

So, who do the Vikings take, Blackmon or Kalil?

Darren Campbell said...

lotgk:

They've got to take Kalil if he's there. I know Blackmon had a great season and a helluva of a bowl game, but you don't pass up on franchise left tackles just like you don't pass up on franchise QBs. I think St. Louis will take Blackmon anyway.

I've read the free agent wide receiver crop is going to be very good this year, so Rick Spielman could focus on going that route and get a guy who can help right away. It's rare for a great left tackle to be allowed to walk via free agency.