DETROIT -- Perhaps the reason Christian Ponder is such a compelling topic for Minnesota Vikings fans is that it's never cut-and-dried whether he's heading in the right direction. The third-year quarterback has moments where he appears to be developing, and others where he still looks woefully behind the curve of a first-round pick with 26 career starts headed into this season. Aside from the fact that the Vikings invested the 12th overall pick to draft Ponder, and both the team and its fans have plenty of reason to want Ponder to be their answer at the position, he makes for a good debate because he waffles so much between two extremes.
His performance on Sunday was no exception. The raw numbers weren't good -- 18-for-28, 236 yards, a touchdown, three interceptions and a botched exchange with Adrian Peterson after Brandon Fusco tripped Ponder -- but Ponder did offer his backers a few moments on which to base their optimism. Then again, were his bright spots of his own making, or were they dressed up by an improved receiving corps? Welcome to the wondrous labyrinth of the Ponder debate.
Let's look at a few aspects of what he did on Sunday: Ponder was more willing to throw downfield than he was last season, throwing five balls that traveled 20 yards or more in the air (as many as Aaron Rodgers and one fewer than Drew Brees, according to ESPN Stats & Information). He connected on a pair of those throws, too, completing two deep balls to Jerome Simpson in the receiver's best game with the Vikings. But on both deep shots, it appeared Simpson had to slow up just slightly, fighting off Chris Houston for a jump ball (and earning a pass-interference penalty) on the first one and making a diving catch on the second. On the second one, especially, if Ponder had put just a little more on the throw, Simpson might have been able to catch it in stride for a touchdown.
He hit Peterson for a 4-yard touchdown from an odd arm slot, showing he could make a throw when things were less than perfect. But with the Vikings on the Lions' 38-yard line in the second quarter, Ponder threw while trying to escape Ndamukong Suh and let loose a wobbly pass that Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch easily intercepted. Throwing the ball away -- or eating a sack -- would have been a much better decision (though that's what coach Leslie Frazier claimed Ponder was trying to do when his arm got hit). In any case, the turnover, which came three plays after the Vikings recovered a fumble, led to a Lions touchdown.
Ponder still wasn't good under duress on Sunday -- all three of his interceptions came in those situations -- but no one was ready to put the loss solely on the quarterback. The Vikings' offensive line struggled to protect him and open holes for Peterson, the defense gave up 469 yards and two late penalties helped the Lions to a decisive touchdown.
"It wasn't all Christian," Frazier said. "We didn't play well as a team. There were some things he'd like to do better. But a lot of other guys, too. When they look at this tape tomorrow, we're going to see that it wasn't just Christian. We've got to do better all the way across the board."
That may be true, but Ponder has plenty to improve upon, and in numerous points in his game he's still trying to be more consistent. Until he does that, he'll probably be a better talk-radio topic than a cornerstone quarterback.