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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.