Teddy Bridgewater started his first NFL game last week. And it was almost perfect. Minnesota defeated a hot Atlanta Falcons team, scoring over forty points in a lopsided home win. Bridgewater danced like Fran Tarkenton, and brought a steadiness combined with no turnovers that has Vikings' fans doing cartwheels looking at the future.
And it was almost perfect.
Bridgewater suffered an ankle sprain late in the game that will have him sidelined for tonight's Thursday game versus hated Green Bay. Green Bay, fresh off a destruction of the Chicago Bears, is primed to "relax", as quarterback Aaron Rodgers put it, and play good football. A perfect storm in which a strong home team is facing a rival without their best running back (ever), key position players, and now their top two quarterbacks who received all the repetitions in summer camp and preseason with the first and second unit.
Enter Christian Ponder.
I have tried to impart on my fellow fans and the players I coach that football is a team game. Wins are made by a combined effort of most of the players on the squad. For example, last week was highlighting Teddy Bridgewater, and his ability to escape pressure and throw passes the opposition could not intercept. Never mind that offensive guard Brandon Fusco was out, and his replacement, Vladmir Ducasse, filled in admirably. That the line including Phil Loadholt created holes for the running game over and over again. Or that we finally saw the best of cornerback Josh Robinson. The running of Matt Asiata and Jerrick McKinnon. The linebacker play of rookie Anthony Barr or Gil Hodges. The stellar tenacity of Harrison Smith. Even kicker Blair Walsh impressed.
But we focused on Teddy.
And I do not blame we fans for that. Since Fran Tarkenton graced us with his rookie year in 1961, to Joe Kapp's entering the NFL in 1967, Tommy Kramer drafted in 1977 and promising start in 1979, and Daunte Culpepper's amazing season in 2000, Minnesotans have adopted exciting new quarterbacks. Even old Brett Favre, Warren Moon, and Randall Cunningham received the hearts of our fans. At least for a long while.
And then there is Christian Ponder.
Ponder was vilified after his occasional strong play at the end of the 2012 season was dismissed with the announcement he would be unable to play in the Vikings playoff game vs. these same Packers. It was hard to notice given Adrian Peterson was having maybe the second greatest season ever by a running back. And Ponder's biggest flaw might be Bridgewater's greatest strength: keeping possession of the football.
But fear not fans, some very good Vikings QBs have struggled with ball control. Kapp's first two years as starting quarterback resulted in passer rating lower than 60, 18 touchdowns to 34 interceptions in 25 games, and a completion percentage near 50. That's not good. Tarkenton's first three seasons saw 45 touchdown passes, but 57 interceptions. No wonder Bud Grant wanted to trade him. Kramer's first big season had 24 interceptions. In his first three years, Kramer threw 71 interceptions while going 22-23 as a starter. After Culpepper's amazing 2000 season, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the next two seasons (34 to 36).
Which is why we like Teddy.
Ponder comes into a tough situation. Only a few days to prepare, a tough opponent, a team decimated by missing players. Aaron Rodgers coming off an excellent game. The Packers at home.
And without the support of the fans.
Which is why I am praying for a special moment. One in which Ponder plays well. One in which the team picks him up like they did Bridgewater. The defense creates turnovers. The offensive line creates holes. And everyone chips in. All Ponder has to do is play smart football.
And that is what has everyone worried.
But not me. I think teams win and lose football games, not single players. If Minnesota is to pull off an upset (now a large upset), everyone must contribute. Ponder will have to play better than he did prior to losing his job to Matt Cassel (now out for the season).
Or we may see Jabari Price or Jerrick McKinnon under center.
Green Bay was 5-2, atop the NFL North, and facing the rival Chicago Bears at home when they lost Aaron Rodgers to injury. Since then, the Pack has not won, cannot score, and find themselves out of the playoff picture for the first time in a while. The last two games, one at home, Green Bay has been outscored 54-26. 81-46 in the last three, two being at home.
Good quarterbacks make a difference.
Minnesota has not had a Rodgers-like quarterback since 2009, when Brett Favre came to Minnesota via New York. Prior to that, one could argue the last great quarterback was Fran Tarkenton. Sure, Randall Cunningham and Jeff George had big years. Daunte Culpepper too. But each of these recent quarterbacks could only produce one good year, including Favre.
The truth be told, other than Tarkenton, Minnesota has never had a great franchise thrower. And Minnesota has never won a Super Bowl.
Tark made it to three, however. The 1970s Vikings were a force that ruled the NFC for many years. A great defensive line, smart head coach, and an offense that relied on strong blockers, a talented running back, and a creative quarterback.
But times have changed.
As much as Minnesotans rue their quarterback situation, they might rejoice similarly in what has happened to the Packers. Now they know how we have felt for the last few years. Looking for positive qualities in Seneca Wallace or Scott Tolzein is a Sisyphus-like exercise. Tolzein has thrown for 619 yards in less than two games... but he has five interceptions and a QB rating in the 60s.
Today's game will feature two proud franchises without a great quarterback. The Packers have been accustomed to having one for nearly the last twenty years. Minnesota, on the other hand, has had a handful of great QB seasons in that same time frame. Only with a different quarterback each time.
This game today comes down to which team can reduce the shortcomings of their starting QB. The 5-5 Packers have surrendered 81 less points than the Vikings' defense, which is rated among the worst in the league. But it is no coincidence that Green Bay has averaged giving up 27 points a game since losing Rodgers. They were never very good, but were exposed far less when Rodgers could control the ball at will.
This is a game Minnesota can win. If Christian Ponder plays decent, the Vikings have a chance. Certainly Ponder had looked better until he completely fell apart in the latter portions of the last game in Seattle. In those moments he looked horrid. We few Ponder-hopefuls (that are left) winced with each pass. Even we now confess a new quarterback is needed.
The trouble is finding one. And keeping him healthy.
With the trading of Percy Harvin for multiple draft picks in the next two years, the Vikings had added fan attention/concern to the upcoming NFL Draft. It was painfully obvious Minnesota lacked wide receiver talent in 2012, Letting go the only receiver to perform well last year seemed insane. But when players express a desire to be traded, the reality is they are probably not worth much to you. Getting a first round pick (among others) was better than could have been hoped.
And now with the signing of Greg Jennings, another in a slew of former-Packers players who seem to want to play for their rival, it seems Minnesota has already addressed the loss of Harvin in part. And with the 23rd and 25th pick in the upcoming draft, are poised to further amend the neediest of positions on the present roster. For after Jennings, the next most-highly regarded receiver is probably Jarius Wright. Or perhaps Jerome Simpson. You see the problem?
We need receivers now.
That is not the only need unfortunately. With Jasper Brinkley leaving for Arizona, there is an immediate hole at the vital position of middle linebacker. There has been talk of stealing Brian Urlacher away from another rival, the Chicago Bears. WLB Erin Henderson, entering his 6th year, is also a concern to some fans. Only Chad Greenway is above reproach at SLB, and he in his 8th season and thirty years old.
We might need a linebacker or two.
Antoine Winfield, easily the most consistent performing cornerback, was let go to free salary cap room. At thirty-five years old, Winfield is in the twilight of his career. Yet he would have been a starter for certain, Chris Cook and Josh Robinson give fans hope for a good future. A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels remind us of how badly we need the aforementioned corners to stay healthy. Brandon Burton should be in the equation in 2013, and Sherels is a decent return guy, but even a blind man can see the need for help here.
Cornerback is in Spielman's front brain.
Adrian Peterson is entering his 7th season, and coming off of one of the greatest seasons in football history (and that is not hyperbole). He is in the prime of his career. The front line did an admirable job helping him find holes. They did less of a job protecting a skittish Christian Ponder. The loss of OG Geoffrey Schwarz creates a further need to improve at the guard position.
It is important to note that the Super Bowl champion Ravens had two former Vikings (Birk,McKinnie) on their front line. While Matt Kalil is proving an upgrade, and John Sullivan more than solid at center, there is a need to improve the depth and talent of guard. The right guard position presently belongs to Brandon Fusco. Charlie Johnson was recently signed to man the other guard. He is entering his 8th season, and was not resembling former All-Pro (happy retirement!) Steve Hutchinson in 2012.
Guard is a need in 2013.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings have serious talent. DT Kevin Williams has given us ten good years at defensive tackle. DE Jared Allen enters his 10th year as a pro, and all have been exceptional since coming from the Chiefs. Add improving DE Brian Robison and you have one of the better front fours in football. But also maybe one of the oldest. All three will be thirty years old (or older) at the start of the season. Only NT LeTroy Guion at 26 is considered young in this group.
Luckily, Minnesota possesses others at defensive line who are ready to contribute. Everson Griffen showed signs of life in 2012, and in only his 4th season, is probably ready to replace someone at end. DT Christian Ballard is entering his 3rd season, and appears capable. So to is NT Fred Evans, though he is entering his 8th season. D'Aundre Reed should be back at defensive end, but has yet to get a chance to prove himself.
Defensive line is needing youth.
And so over the next forty days I will be offering reviews of prospects for this year's NFL Draft. Minnesota has eleven selections in the draft. They have five in the top one hundred. Now is the time for the return to atop the North division. The Packers, still the team to beat, are an Aaron Rodgers injury away from mediocrity. Their defense is suspect. And now they are without Jennings on offense. The Bears and Lions are good, but so are we. We might even be better?
Thirty-Nine days and counting...
Adrian Peterson already holds many Vikings' records. He is first in rushing attempts (1754), yards rushing (8,849), rushing TDs (76), 1,000 yard seasons (5), yards per game rushing (99.4), to mention just a few. The awesomeness of these records is: one, that he has accomplished it all in six years; and two, the decisiveness with which he is shattering previous records. Presently, Bill Brown and Chuck Foreman are second in TDs, only 24 behind. Robert Smith is second in rushing yards, though he trails by 2,031 yards despite playing two more seasons. The next closest yards per game rusher? Smith again, at 69.6 yards, about 30 yards short of AP.
After we witnessed Peterson's Herculean efforts last Sunday in the dramatic 37-34 win over the Packers, most Minnesotans are certain that number twenty-eight is this year's NFL MVP. Sure, Peyton Manning has done amazing things in Denver this year. He has kept pace or surpassed Tom Brady and/or Aaron Rodgers. He is alongside Drew Brees. And his team is winning. The Broncos have secured the one-seed in the AFC.
But how long ago was it Tim Tebow winning there? And if Tebow was able to lead Denver to victories last year, how less valuable does that make Manning? Add to that fact that the voters have already given Manning three MVPs, and most could see why they might decide to give the award to AP in 2012.
Adrian fell nine yards short of the all-time yards rushing title last Sunday. As he stated later in the week, it was bittersweet. The perfect story book ending would have had him score in the waning seconds on that final run, not be stopped near the ten yard line. Blair Walsh's field goal that just snuck inside the left goalpost gave Minnesota an improbable ticket to the playoffs while ending one of the greatest seasons ever assembled by any football player.
Just how great?
Peterson finished with 2,097 yards. But his yards per carry was 6.0 in 2012. His yards per game 131.1. Dickerson averaged 5.6 yards per carry in his record setting year in 1984. And he finished 0.5 yards per game higher. Only Jim Brown in 1963 (6.3, 133.1) and O.J. Simpson (6.0, 143.1) in 1973 were better. Ever.
Chris Johnson in 2009 had 2,006 yards, averaging 5.7 a carry, and 125.4 yards per game. He was close.
Another way to measure RB greatness is to total how many times they led the league in rushing. Jim Brown won eight rushing titles in nine seasons, or 89%. Barry Sanders, with four titles in ten years, is at 40%. Earl Campbell won three titles in eight years, or 37.5%. Next is Eric Dickerson at 36.4%. Adrian Peterson is presently at 33.3%, having won his 2nd in his six seasons. Emmitt Smith won four titles, but played 15 seasons, and is at 26.7% despite being the all-time leading rusher.
This would mean that Walter Payton was not very good, as he won only one title in 13 years. Payton was runner-up to Campbell three times. Or Jim Taylor of the Packers would be lesser ranked because he happened to play in the same era as Jim Brown.
No, maybe the truest measure of a running backs' greatness is yards per carry?
Which would mean one of the greatest seasons ever belonged to Beattie Feathers of the Chicago Bears. You remember him, right? He was the first 1,000 yard rusher back in 1934. In that magical season he ran for 1,004 yards with an average yards per carry of 8.4. However, his yards per game a mere 91.3.
And that LB-RB Marion Motley of the Cleveland Browns (1946-53) may have been better than his predecessor, Brown. Motley averaged 5.7 yards a carry for his career, easily ranking him first all-time among qualified backs. However, Motley averaged only 47.6 yards per game with the Browns.
So, if we decide to add yards per carry to yards per game, and sprinkle in lifetime achievements like rushing titles and career yards, we may find how to truly measure a running back's greatness. And that is just what I did.
Here are my top ten RBs of All-Time...
10. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans (2008-present). I know what you are thinking. He doesn't belong in the top 50 until he earns it. But hear the numbers out. Johnson has 6,888 yards in five years. He has recorded five straight 1,000 yard seasons. In 2009, he ran for 2,006 yards. He has a lifetime 4.7 a carry, which ranks him fifth on this list. His 87.2 yards per game ranks sixth. He is already 57th all-time is rushing yards. He belongs.
9. Bo Jackson, Oakland Raiders (1987-90). Despite playing only four seasons, and starting only 23 games, Bo makes the list. Bo averaged 5.4 yards every time he ran the ball, better than any other on this list. He had season long runs over 90 twice, and 88 in another year. Bo ran a 4.1 at the NFL combine. He was wicked fast, and maybe the most dangerous player of all-time. His career was cut short by injury. He would go on to be a major league baseball player. And a good one.
8. Earl Campbell, 2 teams (1978-85). Playing most of his career with the Houston Oilers, Campbell won the rushing title in each of his first three seasons. In the six full seasons Campbell was an Oiler, the team was 43-46-0 overall. He was so impressive to watch, a giant guy running over, through, and by anyone. He finished with 4.3 yards per carry, and 81.8 yards per game. Those numbers are skewed as he was little used in three of his final four seasons. His brutal approach to carrying a football was the cause for an early demise. Still, he ranks 31st overall in career rushing yards.
7. O.J. Simpson, 2 teams (1969-79). Simpson was with the Buffalo Bills for most of his career. The Bills were 43-81-2 during that time. During an era where most teams learned to use the pass as a weapon, Buffalo relied on running the ball. Simpson had four rushing titles in a five-year span (1972-76). He was the first to cross the 2,000 barrier in 1973 with 2,003 yards. The next closest rusher that year was John Brockington, only 859 yards away. O.J. averaged 4.7 yards per carry, and 83.2 yards per game over his career. Simpson ranks 18th overall in yards rushed.
6. Emmitt Smith, 2 teams (1990-2004). Smith is the all-time rushing leader at 18,355 yards. So why is he so low on this list? Smith averaged 4.2 yards per carry, and 81.2 yards per game. His was longevity as much as greatness. He did win four rushing titles in a five year span (1991-95). He had 11 straight 1,000 yard seasons. The Cowboys were 116-92-0 during his time there. He was great, but there were better...
5. Walter Payton, Chicago Bears (1975-1987). Payton played all 13 seasons with the Bears. Like Smith, he led them to the Super Bowl win. Payton averaged 4.4 yards per carry, and 88.0 yards per game. He finished with 16,726 yards, at that time the most ever. He would have won more than one title, but he happened to play during an era that included O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, and Eric Dickerson. His nickname was "Sweetness" and those that watched him would agree... he was. He had ten 1,000 yard seasons, only interrupted by the strike-shortened season of 1982 (9 games). In Payton's only season leading the league (1977), he won his rushing title by 579 yards.
4. Eric Dickerson, 4 teams (1983-1993). Dickerson was unique in that he is not associated with one team. He spent parts of five seasons with both the Rams and the Colts. He finished with 13,259 yards rushing, four titles including the all-time rushing mark of 2,105 in 1984. He had seven straight 1,000 yard seasons to start his career. He had over 1,800 in three of his first four seasons. Dickerson finished his career averaging 4.4 yards a carry, and 90.8 yards per game. He was a work horse that averaged over 100 yards per game in five of his first six seasons. But those seasons took a toll. In his final four years, had 2,033 rushing yards total in 45 games for the Colts, Raiders, and Falcons.
3. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (2007-present). You have seen him for six years. His lifetime achievements are still waiting to unfold. At present, Peterson is 33rd all-time in rushing. His 5.0 yards per carry bettered by only Brown on this list. His 99.4 yards per game 3rd best. AP won the 2012 rushing title by 484 yards over Alfred Morris. This coming off of knee surgery that had many fearing for his career. He has two rushing titles in six years. He was runner-up to LaDainian Tomlinson in his rookie year. Minnesota is 49-47-0 in those six years. Maybe some homer-bias, but his numbers hold out.
2. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions (1989-98). Sanders was the most elusive player I have ever seen. He won four titles in his ten years (1990,94,95,97), three after his fifth season. He lost a title in 1991 by five yards. He got better with age. His final rushing title included an MVP award. He was honored as much for his demeanor as his feats. Sanders finished with a 5.0 average yards per carry, and 99.8 yards per game average, both 2nd on this list. He left the game when he was within reach of Payton's all-time record, still fully capable. Detroit's losing ways had returned and he did not want to be a part of another rebuild. Sanders takes a backseat to no one, except...
1. Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns (1957-65). Many fans never saw him play, including me. So how does he keep ending up atop a list such as this one? Try eight rushing titles in nine years. Or 5.2 yards per carry, or 104.3 yards per game. He was a three-time MVP. He won the 1958 title by 791 yards over Alan Ameche, setting a new NFL record by 95 yards over Spec Sanders of the defunct AAFC, with 1,527 yards. He broke his own record in 1963, by 336 yards, with an 1,863 yard effort that stood until Simpson broke in ten years later. That year he bear runner-up Jim Taylor by 845 yards, or nearly double. Further, in 1963 he averaged 6.4 yards per carry. His final season, his ninth, he won the title by 677 yards over rookie Gale Sayers. And that just scratches the surface of his greatness.
There were serious absences from this list that deserve mention. All-time rushing leaders like: Curtis Martin, Tomlinson, Jerome Bettis, Tony Dorsett, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Marcus Allen, and Franco Harris to name a few. Other older generation rushing title holders like Steve Van Buren, a four-time title winner from the Philadelphia Eagles post-WW II. Or Joe Perry of the 49ers, the first to rush for 1,000 yard seasons back-to-back in 1953-54.
We will learn who is MVP in a short while. He will watch All Day's career unfold. But these are personal achievements, and should not outweigh the team matter at hand. This Saturday AP will once again have to prove to skeptics why a guy like me would value him so greatly.
AP Knows what it is all about...
or was that Bo.
I know many Vikings' fans were trying to reason it is OK to run just one more time. After Adrian Peterson's incredible performance which included two touchdowns, 199 yards rushing, and countless cut-backs and jukes that had the crowd in a raucous mood.
"Give him the ball. He will get the record. You can still call timeout. We want the ball on the right hash mark."
But in the end we had to concede that Adrian's heroic effort in 2012 would fall nine yards short of setting the NFL record still held by Erick Dickerson. Earlier in the day Dickerson had made it clear on national television that he wanted to keep the record. He was hoping Peterson would get 180 or so and win the game, but fall short of his hallowed title. He laughed, but he was serious. The rushing record is one of the most prized individual records in football.
And as Minnesotans celebrated Blair Walsh's winning field goal that just snuck inside the left goalpost, there was a sadness that the running back we love was denied the individual glory we all wished for him. Not so much that we did not jump up and down and think of all of our Packers and Bears friends we could Facebook.
We beat the blessed Packers.
The loss cost Green Bay a bye, and forces them to play us again next week.
How good does that feel?
The win knocked out the Chicago Bears from the playoffs. The 2012 Vikings eliminated someone. And it was someone we don't like very much.
And we have so many players to thank. Besides AP, there was Christian Ponder. While not perfect, and scary a few times, Ponder was brilliant and steady most of the game. His down field throws, decision-making, and precision under pressure were foreign to most fans. But I am certain that the slew of fans who insisted we need a new quarterback for 2013 are having doubt. Maybe Ponder might be just what we need?
There was pressure at times on Aaron Rodgers. He was hit hard by Everson Griffen often and Brian Robison made a huge play stripping him of the ball on a sack. Jared Allen was a force early in the game. Minnesota did not want to blitz and left it up to their front four most of the game. While Rodgers knifed through the defense often, he also gave up five sacks (three to Griffen). In the end Rodgers had 365 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. But the lack of a running game cost Rodgers pressure.
Jarius Wright became the favorite of many young fans today with his circus catch of a deflected pass that could have been a costly Ponder error. Instead, Wright's questionable grab that was undisputed, was a key first down when Rodgers was heating up. And Wright's big catch of a Ponder bomb (what is that asks most fans) was an even bigger play. Michael Jenkins, almost a goat earlier, made a couple of big catches. Even Jerome Simpson looked the part. All-Pro fullback Terry Felton even looked good on the other side of a perfect Ponder spiral.
I could always point out mistakes. Every game has them. The late timeout in the first half that seemed to give Rodgers enough time to get a field goal. Phil Loadholt's foolish decisions and penalties. Mistral Raymond overran a tackle that seemed to give momentum to Green Bay. Marcus Sherels leaves Jordy Nelson on a deep route. Even Adrian almost fumbled.
Or not, as replay overcame.
I choose not to dwell on these sobering events. I want to bask in the glory of another playoff visit to Lambeau Field. I want to think about winning three games in 2011, and then ten in 2012. I want to tell all the Ponder haters that I was right about him, he ain't so bad. He is just young. I want to call my Vikings' friends. It is a happy time.
And then I think about the record. Peterson came back in less than a year from a career-threatening knee injury. He dominated against defenses sole bent on stopping him. He ran so hard that most every time he touched the ball everyone in the room got excited. He even stayed in-bounds late in the game (see that Robert Smith?).
I want everyone to buy an Adrian Peterson jersey tomorrow. Celebrate his greatness. Nine lousy yards.
Skol, MVP, Skol.
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