GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Everyone has their own method for judging young quarterbacks and projecting their futures. The standard for many NFL evaluators, however, holds that the quarterback will reveal his potential -- or lack thereof -- somewhere between his 20th and 25th start.
Sunday, Christian Ponder made his 22nd start for the Minnesota Vikings. He didn't look a whole lot different than he did in start No. 18 or No. 15 or No. 12, and it's now fair to wonder whether he can stabilize his game enough to merit the team's long-term confidence.
The Vikings dropped a winnable 23-14 game to the Green Bay Packers largely because Ponder threw two interceptions in the third quarter amid another brutal display by the entire passing offense. He didn't have a single completion for a stretch of 38 minutes, 46 seconds between early in the second quarter and late in the fourth, he completed only one pass to a wide receiver and only a meaningless late flurry prevented him from recording his third sub-100-yard game of the season.
At his best this season, Ponder has been efficient. At his worst, he has looked like a career backup. Most disturbing, there has been little evidence that Ponder is on his way to becoming the kind of dynamic starter who can win games on his own, the type that happen to be stationed in every other NFC North market.
Sunday was discouraging not just because of that performance, but also because many of his mistakes were repeats of what we've already seen. For that reason, I thought coach Leslie Frazier would have been justified in benching him at least for the fourth quarter of this game. Whether or not backup Joe Webb would have fared better, I wonder what message the rest of the team hears when an underperforming player routinely is held unaccountable for his play.
Committed as he is to establishing Ponder as his starter, of course, Frazier considered no such thing. He reiterated after the game that "Christian, he's our quarterback." Ponder's teammates remained supportive as well, and tailback Adrian Peterson -- whose 210-yard rushing effort was wasted -- pulled him aside afterwards to offer words of encouragement.
"The fight he showed," Peterson said, was indicative of future success.
So we established that Ponder is well-liked and well-supported throughout the organization. And it's only fair to note that he has been saddled with a sub-par group of pass catchers, especially with Percy Harvin continuing to be sidelined by an ankle injury. But even if Ponder isn't going to be a game-changer, it's fair to expect him to make most, if not all, of the plays he is given the opportunity to make.
Sunday, as with many of his games this season, Ponder missed on most of them.
Perhaps the most egregious was an underthrow of Peterson in the third quarter. Peterson had a step on Packers linebacker Brad Jones down the left sideline, and a better pass probably would have led Peterson into the end zone. That play came on top of two really poor interceptions, including one that squandered a red-zone possession early in the third quarter.
Ponder rolled right from the Packers' eight-yard line, looking for receiver Michael Jenkins the whole way. Jenkins was never open, and instead of throwing the ball away or running, Ponder threw a soft pass across his body that Packers safety Morgan Burnett easily intercepted.
"As a quarterback," Ponder said, "don't throw the ball across your body."
Ponder is absolutely right with that analysis, and perhaps most damning is that we've heard it before from him. He made a similar mistake in Week 7 against the Arizona Cardinals. You expect mistakes from young quarterbacks, but after 22 starts you would like for them to at least be different.
It appears Ponder will get the rest of this season to prove himself. He said afterwards that "I can't let this get me down," and with the support he has from the organization, there is no reason for him to. But at some point, what you see is what you're going to get from a young quarterback. Ponder is getting close to that threshold.