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Ponder makes big progress with Vikings

Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has led Minnesota to a 4-2 record this season. (Associated Press)
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has led Minnesota to a 4-2 record this season. (Associated Press)

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Christian Ponder has started 16 NFL games, the equivalent of a full season. Already he sees the world differently.

He sits at his locker on a Friday, and a handful of reporters ask about his dating life.

“Oh, my gosh,” he said later. “That’s embarrassing.”

He pulls up to a restaurant and pulls on a baseball cap.

“I can go out,” he said. “But I try to keep it low-key.”

He walks to the line of scrimmage against one of the NFL’s best defenses, and his options click into place like a combination lock.

“Now, it’s innate,” he said.

Ponder has completed 68.6 percent of his passes this season, second among NFL starters. His improvement has been the key to the Vikings winning four of their first six games.

Friday, after being queried about his relationships in the locker room, Ponder explained the difference between his two NFL seasons.

Last year, he was a rookie unable to work with his team during the offseason because of the NFL lockout. He was thrust into the starting lineup after Donovan McNabb was benched, and only then did Ponder start working with the first team. This year, he’s the unquestioned starter and benefitted from a full offseason and training camp.

So when he walked to the line of scrimmage in the second quarter against San Francisco on Sept. 23, Ponder knew what to look for.

“Last year, I was just worried about running our offense,” he said. “Against San Francisco, I was able to concentrate on the defense.”

The play call was a fake screen pass to Percy Harvin and a throw to tight end John Carlson running deep.

“That screen is going to be taken away by man coverage, so that’s not an option,” Ponder said. “Then they took away the deep route. Last year, I probably would have forced it to Percy. This year, I knew there would be running lanes. I didn’t even have to think about it.”

Ponder ran 23 yards for a touchdown.

In his 16 NFL starts, Ponder has completed 60.3 percent of his passes, with 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

Among the former quarterbacks who have reached out to him is former Viking Rich Gannon, who provides an interesting comparison to Ponder. Gannon, like Ponder, was smart and athletic and became a starter before the Vikings were ready to win. In Gannon’s first 16 NFL starts, he completed 61.3 percent of his passes, with 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

Ponder’s record in his first 16 starts is 6-10. Gannon’s was 7-9. Gannon became a star in Oakland. Ponder figures to wear purple for a while.

“It’s been good,” Ponder said. “I’m a starter in the NFL, and we’re sitting here with one of the better records in the NFL. I’m happy where I’m at, but you’re never satisfied. We’re going to continue to grow and, hopefully, at the end of this season there will be a ring on our fingers. Then we’ll be satisfied for a couple of months, and then we’ll move onto next year.”

Not many quarterbacks could talk about Super Bowls without sounding presumptuous. Ponder pulls it off.

“I’m just a goofy kid who likes football,” he said. “I try to be as normal as possible. I love football, but it doesn’t consume my life. I’m working extremely hard in trying to get better at it, but I’m also enjoying it. It’s a fun job to have.

“There is so much that goes into it. Especially on our team, the other guys are doing the hard work. Then there are the fans. They’re the ones paying the bills and supporting us. It’s really not about me. I’ve always taken that approach, and my parents always did a good job when I was a kid of keeping me humble.”

He goes to bed at 9:45 on work nights and is fascinated that anyone might find that fascinating.

“It’s a weird deal,” he said. “It’s very interesting to me that people are interested in what I’m doing off the field. I’m really not that cool.”