Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Christian Ponder and the art of improvement

If you are a frequent visitor to The Daily Norseman website or the Vikings section of the Bleacher Report, a talented blogger by the name of Arif Hasan is pumping out loads of cool Vikings content on those sites. (Check out this novella, explaining the intricacies of the Tampa Two defence by Hasan.)

I decided it might be a good idea to ask Hasan if he'd write a guest post for Kick Ass Blog. I'm happy to report he agreed to do so. The subject of his guest post should interest every Vikings fan out there: what does quarterback Christian Ponder need to do this season to become an effective quarterback? What follows is Hasan's take on the matter.     

Vikings fans are well aware of the need for improvement at the most important position in the NFL — quarterback.

We've seen what our team can do with a fantastic quarterback, and how it struggles with mediocrity under center. The National Football League has evolved into a passing league, and any NFL offense will need a skilled quarterback in order to compete at a high level.

For Vikings fans, that means Christian Ponder, the presumed quarterback of the future. While Ponder showed signs of promise in 2011, his rookie season did not inspire confidence. He needs to improve in a big way if the Vikings are ever to compete and enter the playoffs with him as their starting quarterback.

Naturally, it is simple to say that a quarterback needs to get better by reducing interceptions, increasing completion percentages, and increasing touchdowns — all significant statistics in need of work for Ponder — but these don't present actionable items or resolve the nature of the problem.

Getting through reads quicker is a normal demand for any sophomore quarterback, so it's not really important to analyze that here. Suffice to say a full offseason of film work and soft installs should provide young quarterbacks with effective lessons in reading defenses, and will go a long way towards making sure Christian Ponder can start in the NFL.

Instead, Vikings fans should be looking at the specific problems that plague Ponder.

The first and most obvious problem for the cerebral leader is his play under pressure. The disparity between Ponder's passes with a steady pocket and his performance with collapsing protection is stark; his quarterback rating drops by nearly 50 points and his completion rate falls by 26 percent.

It's not just that the young quarterback doesn't trust  his offensive line, either. When pressured, he moves too early out of the pocket and can't generate torque by setting his feet. When he does step up into the pocket, he'll square his shoulders and put enough zip on the ball to get to the receivers, so Ponder simply needs to accept the pressure and throw through it. It's much easier said than done, but this single change could improve his overall performance by noticeable margins.

More than that, Christian Ponder does not often exploit the holes in blitzes. He isn't the greatest at throwing over defenders, but also isn't worryingly bad, either. He needs to accept that a defender will be in his passing lane on blitzes and trust the timing he has developed with receivers in order to exploit the risks that defenses take when they rush more than four men at him.

So Ponder's play under pressure is the most important area for development, and should help increase his overall completion percentage. However, the gap between his completion percentage (54.3) and the league average (60.5) is fairly large. Resolving how he performs under pressure will only be part of the way to making him an effective quarterback.

The second specific area that will create large gains for Ponder is ball placement. He's consistently had issues creating catchable balls for his receivers, and this has to do with where the ball goes in relation to the receiver's motion and body. Often, these balls will be thrown high or behind the receiver, limiting big play potential.

This is important not just because it increases yards after the catch (and therefore increases the yards per attempt), but because it also makes the football easier to catch for the receiver. Ponder needs to find ways to increase his yards per attempt (he ranked 30th in the league, below even Tim Tebow), and increasing his completion percentage is just a small part of the equation. Ponder also ranked 20th in yards per completion. If he can find ways to manufacture more yards, he'll be in a good spot.

Ball placement is a very important part of yards per completion, because poorly placed throws will force receivers to lose momentum in adjustment and leads to one or two "lost" yards on a completion on average. Receivers catching off their back shoulder or stuttering back on their slant cannot advance the ball to the best of their ability.

Beyond that, the catches are much less likely with poorly placed balls because of the difficulty of moving the entire body to adjust to the catch. It requires more energy and focus to twist the torso and cover the ball with the leading hand reaching across the body if the ball is thrown behind him.

Another problem with ball placement also deals with completions, but largely because of defensive back coverage. If the football is thrown in an awkward position, it is easier for the defensive player to knock it out of the hands of the receiver before he can secure it.

Finally, poor ball placement leads to interceptions. This is simple and intuitive, but it bears emphasizing. A ball in the wrong spot doesn't just lead to tipped passes, it leads to jumped routes from savvy defenders. A ball thrown ahead of a receiver entering a zone has a good chance of being picked off, while a ball thrown behind a receiver with lagging coverage does the same.

So, it's important to improve ball placement. It's not that hard to fix as an actionable item, and becomes second nature to quarterbacks once they accomplish the goal. But there are a few keys in fixing the problem, some of which cannot be taught.

The first key is that the quarterback has an excellent sense of distance. Nearly every quarterback in the NFL is a great judge of distance, but good quarterbacks can judge with precision — within several inches — of the distance between themselves and the receiver. Knowing that is important in determining how much power needs to go behind the throw not just to reach the receiver, but to reach the receiver at the appropriate height.

NFL players will work within a margin of inches, and a pass thrown between the chin and the armpits will be harder to catch than a pass above or below those points.

In addition to that, the passer needs to develop rhythm and timing in order to properly anticipate where a particular receiver will be when running a route. That comes with repetitions, but those aren't always enough: passers will need to figure out the lag that certain press coverages will cause. Because each receiver is different, the timing on these different receivers will require a different degree of speed and placement on thrown balls.

Work in the offseason should resolve most of these issues, but Ponder needs to pay particular attention during the season in film sessions on the likely lag and release times for his receivers as well as changes as a result of game speed. Making gains here will not only increase his general yards after the catch, which is average for the league, but also his completion percentage.

If Ponder improves his passing under pressure so that he completes half of his passes while the pocket is collapsing, his completion percentage jumps up to 58 percent. Marginal increases from ball placement and better form will likely increase his accuracy further; enough to well exceed the average for a quarterback. Given commensurate increases in yards after the catch (the standard deviation is half a yard), Ponder's yards per attempt should hit around 7.5, which is average for a quarterback in the league.

Coupled with those optimistic projections will be Ponder's inevitable (and necessary) growth in his ability to read defenses. Studying film, reading defenses, and developing a feel for the speed of the game will also bring positive changes to his play, and will most likely contribute to lower interception rates, higher completion percentages, and more yards per completion.

If Ponder only makes minor changes in these actionable areas, he'll improve in significant ways. This is the year that the Vikings' quarterback should see the most improvement, and if he doesn't develop some of these skills, he may never be able to. The history of sophomore quarterbacks is extensive, and it all points to substantial growth. If Ponder doesn't showcase that growth, the Vikings may as well move on.


  1. I wonder if a lot of rookie quarterbacks from last season will show their biggest growth NEXT offseason because of the labor dispute that short-sheeted last offseason.

    I didn't realize ball placement was as big of an issue with Ponder as it seems to have been. That could be because Harvin was amazing at adjusting to poor throws and still squeeking out good yardage after the catch..?

    Playing well under pressure seems to be the biggest issue to me at the moment. I'd like to see Ponder step forward when pressure comes so he can see well to do reads and set his feet to throw accurately. That could go a long ways toward better ball placement (and blitz exploitation) in itself. I hope Sullivan continues to improve (I thought he was pretty good last year) and Kalil proves to be a great upgrade to the whole line.

    1. I've commented about this before, but our buddy, Trent Dilfer, predicted Ponder wouldn't pan out because he doesn't perform well in a messy pocket. One rookie season does not make a career, but his play when the pocket got crowded last year (which was often) was not encouraging. When he had time to throw though (second half of the Denver game; Carolina), he looked pretty good. Better offensive line play will help any QB. However, it seems Ponder really needs that to thrive, so the investment in Kalil is important.

      I think the Oline will be greatly improved this year. Sullivan looked good last year and I think Loadholt (contract year!) is going to shine. The question is whether the Johnson/Fusco guard combo will be any better than the Hutchinson/Herrera combo last year. I think it will.

    2. I doubt that it is the case that their improvement will be delayed. I don't know for sure, but my intuition is that the greatest leap in playbook familiarity, reading defenses and comfort in the pocket happens in the second year more than any other year, and I think those might be why second year improvement is so stark. I don't know how much the first half of training camp is critical to that, but my gut feeling is that it is not that important in the grand scheme of things.

      Harvin was amazing at adjusting to the ball, and so was Rudolph. You'll find that Simpson is, too.

      Hopefully good line play will help resolve his play under pressure, and Sullivan and Kalil go a long way into ensuring it. Still, pressure is inevitable, and if you aren't good under pressure, you aren't good.

  2. Great article. Thanks.

  3. Now that's what Thornehammer is looking for,skol. So, fellow sufferers, why is it I feel Frazier is again in denial over the actual state of his team. Wishing it was different does not make it so, and it's not encouraging to see it coming from a coach who wished the whole season away last year. I'm about to bring down the hammer on Frazier--WTF with the WRs, the LBs. It's so easy to see the difference between ours and other teams' players here. Did you see SF's LB Larry Grant last week against us? Second teamer blowing people up, again. He was a RFA with no offers...hammer,hammer, hammer.

    1. Frazier is not involved in the draft or in grabbing free agents.

      I'm not too invested in the game against San Francisco, incidentally. Mistral and Jasper are shaking off rust and will get better, while the problematic offensive line is not a real worry. Murphy and Pasztor were going to get cut anyways, Berger and DeGeare actually looked good, and Brown is at the bottom of the depth chart.

  4. Thornehammer:

    I'm about as worry-free as I could possibly be heading into 2012. Hoping for the best - expecting the worst. Judging from Frazier's comments throughout camp, and in that Tom Pelissero story on ESPN 1500 last night, Frazier doesn't seem to be in denial about the state of the team. And there are so many holes and depth issues, you can't address them all in one year.

    As Pacifist Viking wrote recently (http://kab-vikings.blogspot.ca/2012/07/national-friday-league-leslie-frazier.html), Frazier is in his make it or break it year anyway. He probably needs to finish 7-9 at least to keep his job. And if he does that with this young roster, I think we can feel good about him as the Vikings head coach of the future. If the Vikings finish 6-10 or worse (likely), he's gone and we start with a new HC, staff and offensive and defensive philosophy.

    1. Thanks for the replies. Ok, ok, I will back away from the edge. You are both right, let's just sit back and watch how it unfolds. I just can't help but think that Frazier is not quick enough on the assessment side for the NFL, we will see.

    2. Thornehammer:

      Thanks for comments. If you keep coming back to the site you will notice I (almost) always reply to comments by other people who read our stuff.