MANKATO, Minn. - Christian Ponder remembers a time he considered the deep ball one of his strengths. Then he tried to tackle Clemson defensive back DeAndre McDaniel during his junior year at Florida State in 2009, and everything changed.
Ponder suffered a complete separation of his throwing shoulder, had surgery and spent the next three years slowly regaining the feel for all his passes - none more challenging than the downfield throws he and the Minnesota Vikings believe will be more effective this season.
"I'm getting back to how I was throwing the ball my junior year in college and getting that rotator cuff back where it's supposed to be," Ponder told USA TODAY Sports at the Vikings' training camp. "I feel like I'm throwing the ball well."
No qualifying NFL quarterback last season had a lower percentage of attempts at least 20 yards downfield (7.5%), nor a lower completion percentage on those attempts (25%) or lower average depth of target (6.8 yards) than Ponder, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
It's not entirely Ponder's fault. The Vikings offense runs through reigning MVP Adrian Peterson, who ranked second in the NFL with 348 rushing attempts in 2012. And they haven't had a legitimate vertical threat since Sidney Rice had hip surgery before the 2010 season.
But considering the way defenses try to gang up to stop Peterson, the Vikings know there are opportunities downfield they need to exploit. They had 28 completions of 20-plus yards last season - last in the NFL.
"That's one of the reasons we addressed the receiver position the way we did," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "We want to be able to be a more balanced offense. We don't just want to be Adrian left, Adrian right. We want to be able to throw the ball effectively. It's hard to win a championship if you can't do that."
The Vikings gave a five-year, $45million contract to Greg Jennings, who is a superior route-runner but does most of his damage in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
When it comes to going deep, the Vikings are relying on a return to health by Jerome Simpson, plus raw first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson and second-year pro Jarius Wright to give them what Bernard Berrian, Randy Moss, Devin Aromashodu, and a hobbled Simpson couldn't the past three years.
"We know that Cordarrelle can run by you. We know that Jerome can run by you," Frazier said. "We have some deep threats. Now, it's a matter of our being able to connect on some of those."
Coaches spent time in the offseason studying other teams' "go" balls, which were a particular point of frustration last season. Among other changes, receivers now have more freedom in how they release at the line of scrimmage, treating each situation as a one-on-one with a single assignment: Beat your man.
But it's up to Ponder, 25, to give them a chance.
And it's a work in progress.
In the first padded practice of camp last week, Ponder threw for a streaking Simpson along the right sideline and carried him several yards over the boundary.
"For me, a lot of it's physical side more than mental," Ponder said. "That one, I had to move out of the pocket and had to step up and my momentum carried me and pushed the ball out of bounds. It's more footwork and everything than that."
Ponder improved in almost every statistical category in his second NFL season, completing 62.1% of his passes for 2,935 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The one dip was in yards per attempt, which slipped from 6.37 in 11 games (10 starts) in 2011 to 6.08 in 2012.
He had a few memorable deep connections - none bigger than a 54-yard rainbow to Wright on Nov. 11 in a win against the Detroit Lions.
Ponder has the arm strength and mobility. Sometimes, he just needs to stop aiming the ball and let it fly.
"The biggest words are 'trust' and 'tempo,'" Ponder said. "Trusting my ability and the receivers to get open, where they are and where they're going to be and then the tempo of always treating everything like game speed ... I think that'll help."
So will staying healthy. Ponder has had more than his share of throwing arm issues, including a forearm that needed to be drained repeatedly in his senior year at Florida State and a deep triceps bruise that kept him out of the Vikings' playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers in January.
But the shoulder no longer is an issue. And Frazier hopes that will help Ponder make opposing defenses pay - and perhaps lead to even more production for Peterson.
"If you do that and let us run against seven-man fronts, that 2,500 (yards) Mr. Peterson's been talking about - it becomes a realistic possibility," Frazier said.
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