When the Minnesota Vikings selected Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, most experts were perplexed at what they thought to be an overdraft. And after he completed just 54.3 percent of his passes and threw just 13 touchdowns to 13 interceptions in his rookie campaign, it was believed that Ponder had a lot of growing up to do in an NFL sense.
In 2012, Ponder has shown the effects of an accelerated growth program. Through his first two games, Ponder had the NFL's best completion percentage, hitting the mark on 75.8 percent of his throws. However, he had done so against the relatively weak defenses of the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars, and those same doubters were sure to assume that Ponder would struggle far more against the tough defense of the San Francisco 49ers.
If Ponder did struggle, it wasn't evident. He completed 21 of 35 passes for 198 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, leaving him without a single pick this season. Ponder managed the game marvelously, making key throws under pressure, and he also ran for a 23-yard score as the Vikings upset the 49ers, 24-13. Minnesota's much-maligned defense did its part by forcing three turnovers and two possession changes in the fourth quarter.
"We knew through the summer that everyone was counting us out -- everyone was probably counting us out of this game," Ponder said. "But we know what kind of personnel we have. Coach [offensive coordinator Bill] Musgrave came up with a brilliant gameplan, and all we had to do was to execute and finish. We believed we could do it, and we did it."
The 49ers were clearly ambling up for a heavy dose of running back Adrian Peterson (who gained 86 yards on 25 carries), which gave Ponder more and better windows to hit his targets. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who caught both of Ponder's touchdown passes, caught his first from the San Francisco 1-yard line at the end of a marathon game-opening drive that took 16 plays and 7:40 off the clock. Confident enough in Ponder's ability to make plays under duress, the Vikings went for it on fourth-and-goal and were rewarded. Ponder was flushed out of the pocket and threw a nice little fade-away jumper to Rudolph for the score.
"We stayed out there, assuming we would go for it," Ponder said when asked if the decision surprised him. "That set the tone for the whole game ... we talked about starting fast, and we started fast."
The touchdown run, which came late in the second quarter, happened after Ponder dropped back and found none of his options open. With a wide berth up the middle, Ponder broke several tackles on the way to the end zone.
The Vikings appear to be doing with Ponder what the 49ers did with quarterback Alex Smith in 2011 -- turn their signal-caller into the positive version of a "game manager," and leave the mistakes by the wayside. It didn't work quite as well for Smith in this game -- he threw his first interception since Week 12 of the 2011 season, capping off a string of 249 pickless passes that was a franchise record.
Of course, the 49ers should have put forth a better showing, getting help as they did from the league's replacement officials. San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh received two second-half challenges he should not have had after he ran out of timeouts.
Ken Roan, the same official in charge of the crew that so clearly couldn't keep control of last Monday night's game between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, was also calling this game. After the contest was over, Roan admitted the mistake.
"I'd mess it up to try to explain it to you," said Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier after the game, when he was asked if the officials tried to explain it to him.
One thing Frazier doesn't need explained at this point -- he's got the right kind of quarterback to help him through the rebuilding of the Vikings.
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