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.
I remember the day football became more important than Christmas. I was at my grandmother's house for the holiday, and for the first time I was allowed in the basement to watch football with the adult men of the family. It was 1971, December 25th.
While the fine cooks of our family fretted, the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins battled to double overtime in the longest overtime in NFL history. Miami eventually won 27-24. There were missed field goals in the overtime that had half of the family praying for a miss (more football) and the other half cursing the same miss (the turkey was getting cold).
When it was finally over it ended up being the majority of discussion at the table. My mother, who sided with her mother, had more steam coming out of her ears than I saw from the green bean casserole. It was clear to a seven-year-old that a power play had occurred inside my family, and football had won.
More than four decades later, nothing has changed.
My passion for Vikings' football rose out of the basement of my grandparents' house. The 1970s were a very successful time for Minnesota in the NFL. I watched Super Bowls. I witnessed Super Bowls. 12-2 seasons were expected. The Purple People Eaters defense controlled games.
Life was good.
Each season that begins anew rekindles that love I had for football dating so long ago. It does not matter to me if Minnesota is picked to finish last, or not expected to contend for the playoffs. when the first Sunday rolls around in September and we take the field with a 0-0 record, I am filled with hope.
And so today, the Saturday before the first Sunday, we anticipate. I have already coached a middle school football scrimmage at nearby Watertown-Mayer. I have rode on a bus with tough hitting kids who want to sing "The Wheels on the Bus" in unison. I have mowed the lawn. Checked my fantasy baseball team. Pet the dog. Grilled steaks. Talked football on the phone...
This is a very long day.
I eagerly await tomorrow. The Vikings have a feel-good story about them. A new stadium was approved. New coach Mike Zimmer is a long-time assistant who finally gets his chance. Matt Cassel is finally given control of this team. Nearly every rookie made the team, and three 7th-rounders look to see meaningful action. Adam Thielen came from local Minnesota State via the practice squad in 2013, to find an opportunity to contribute in 2014. Teddy Bridgewater is an instant fan favorite (sorry Matt). Free agent additions look to shore a porous defense. Adrian Peterson is rested and ready.
Add to that the Green Bay Packers were already roughed up in front of a national television audience. The St. Louis Rams, our first opponent, lost their starting quarterback Sam Bradford to an injury..
Life is good.
And so we wait for tomorrow. Unless you read this on Sunday..
Which would mean you have survived the longest day.
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.
The 2012 surprise Vikings' playoff visit ended with a thud. We watched as Joe Webb showed us that Christian Ponder might not be so bad. Webb completed only 11 of 30 passes, and his lone TD pass came when the game was already 24-3 Packers. Just a week earlier Ponder had thrown for three touchdowns as Minnesota scored 37 points in a victory over their hated rival. The loss was not shocking, but it was definitely a case of "what could have been". Without Ponder, MVP Adrian Peterson was given extreme attention by the Green Bay defense. Minnesota became one-dimensional on offense. On defense, Aaron Rodgers picked apart a rag-tag secondary to the tune of 274 yards.
Minnesota, which had snuck in the playoffs with a season-ending four game win streak, was finished.
The off-season started poorly. CB Antoine Winfield, rightly unhappy about a lack of an offer, left Minnesota for Seattle. Then, WR Percy Harvin, coming off of a solid season, decided he did not like playing for the Purple. He was whisked away to Seattle for a group of draft picks, including a first-rounder in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Minnesota entered the draft with serious holes to fill at CB, QB, WR, and MLB (with the departure of E.J. Henderson). On top of that, there was growing concern that DT Kevin Williams was beginning the end of his great career, and there was no "blue-chip" replacement for his key position in the 4-3 defense. Further, many felt the Vikings should use one of the two first-round draft choices to solidify the quarterback position, as Webb had demonstrated the talent pool was only one player deep.
Enter Rick Spielman.
In the course of a few months, highlighted by the NFL Draft, Spielman seemingly fixed everything. You lose aging but solid Winfield? No problem, we draft Xavier Rhodes. Missing Percy Harvin? How about the SEC all-purpose yardage leader Cordarelle Patterson. Kevin Williams' age is concerning? No worries, let's add Sharrif Floyd. Spielman added a third first-round pick in the draft and took care of three major needs.
But there were still critics.
Some complained that we did not fix the quarterback issue. What if Ponder crumbles? We had a chance to upgrade the most important position and we passed... Also, who was going to play middle linebacker? Minnesota decided not to draft a few solid inside linebackers in the early stages of the draft and now were praying that Brian Urlacher wanted to jump ship and be healthy at the same time. Why not use key picks for these two vital positions?
Further, even before Harvin left for Seattle there was concern about wide receiver. None of the other receivers did much of anything, and the collection of rookies and journeymen produced little. And now without Harvin, Minnesota might be resigned to running the ball and looking for TE Kyle Rudolph too much.
Do not fear, Spielman is here.
Spielman maneuvered through free agency the signing of two former Packers. Greg Jennings was signed to fill the gaping hole at receiver. Desmond Bishop was later added to shore up the linebacker position. Both have question marks surrounding them about age and/or injury, but the talents are hard to ignore. Jennings finished the 2012 season with near 300 yards and four touchdowns in his final four games to silence concerns that his impressive career was waning. Bishop, who missed the 2012 season with serious injury, had admirably replaced Nick Barnett at MLB, and was instrumental in the Green Bay Super Bowl victory over the Steelers in 2011.
And now they were both Vikings. There is a certain feeling of satisfaction when Green Bay players come to Minnesota. Ryan Longwell, Brett Favre, Darren Sharper... the list was already healthy before the 2013 off-season. Now, it feels like some type of action plan. Hone your skills in Wisconsin, and enjoy them in Minnesota.
And for icing on the cake, Spielman snagged veteran quarterback Matt Cassel from Kansas City. Cassel has had some success in the NFL, He had ten win seasons in both New England and Kansas City. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010. This appeased the Ponder critics somewhat. For we Ponder faithful, it gave us assurance that Joe Webb would not be backing up Ponder in 2013.
And so the 2013 Training Camp open in Mankato. This will be the 48th year Minnesota has trained at Minnesota State. There is much to follow this summer. Who will win the starting middle linebacker job? Is Patterson capable of making us forget Harvin's exciting kick returns? Will Ponder improve? Which defensive backs will step up to fight Green Bay (and others) three and four receiver sets? How good is this Floyd kid?
And many more...
But one thing I am not questioning. Do we have the right guy behind the desk?
As I read the articles on Percy Harvin's placement on the PUP list and Packer coach McCarthy's retorts to Greg Jennings' observations regarding his former team, I can answer a whole-hearted YES.
Every Vikings' fan feels the same. We all loved Percy Harvin's athleticism.
We will miss him.
Minnesota reportedly tried to land Anquan Boldin from the Ravens, but their 7th round offer was usurped by the 49ers' 6th round pick. I do not even want to believe that we had a chance to give Baltimore a 6th round pick to get Boldin. Because that is as no-brainer as wanting to make room for MLB Brian Urlacher.
Minnesota did use available salary cap room to land Greg Jennings earlier this month. Jennings became another in a growing line of ex-Packers who want to play for the Purple. And while Packer fans will tell you it was a smart financial decision, one can see through their bravado. They liked him.
More than any of us liked Harvin.
So now the NFL Draft approaches and Minnesota sits on two first-round picks, three of the top fifty-two, and five picks in the top one hundred. Meanwhile, the receiver group, sans Harvin, looks like it could use an infusion of talent.
Besides Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings, the pool of talent is unproven. Jarius Wright showed signs late in the 2012 season. Greg Childs, a 4th round pick last year, had promise before a freak injury in the preseason. Stephen Burton, a 7th-round pick in 2011, is also present. That is pretty much it, unless you think Joe Webb may become a wide-receiver in 2013.
Lord knows he will not return as a quarterback.
So Minnesota will construct a shopping list for the Draft in late April. Hopefully, in the back of their minds is the value of what receivers have meant to this club's success over the years. In each of the four Super Bowl visits, Minnesota had a legitimate deep threat. In 1969 it was Gene Washington. I remember as a little kid the only thing I would yell all game was "throw the bomb to Washington". It kind of rhymed. And it worked. Even if Joe Kapp was the thrower. Washington averaged 17.9 yards a catch in that first Super Bowl season.
The 1973 and 1974 seasons featured John Gilliam. Chuck Foreman, a running back drafted in 1973, was the feature ball catcher in those days. Stu Voigt, a slow but steady tight end, was among Fran Tarkenton's favorite targets. Gilliam caught just 42 passes in 1973, but for over 900 yards at 21.6 yards per catch. In 1974, he only caught 26 passes, but at 22.2 yards per catch. Jerry Burns' offense was run and throw to running backs, with an occasional bomb to keep the defense honest.
In 1976, Minnesota added two new wide receivers to their roster. Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White. Rashad, a free agent, would become the best possession receiver to date, while the rookie White brought a new level of speed that would open up the opposing secondary. With Foreman doing everything and multiple receiver options, the 36 year-old Tarkenton got us back in another Super Bowl. Three in four years.
Minnesota would not get to another Super Bowl, but they had teams that came close. Very close. And in each of those seasons, a strong receiving corps was present. In 1987, the year of the replacements, Anthony Carter was on fire, and TE Steve Jordan a competent second option. In 1998, the 15-1 season featured a trio of great receivers for Randall Cunningham: rookie Randy Moss, Cris Carter, and Jake Reed. And of course, the 2009 team had rookie Harvin, with Sidney Rice, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, and Bernard Berrian.
If 2013 is to be a Super Bowl return year, adding a few receivers seems important. But there are other holes. Most notably, there is no starting middle linebacker. The defensive line is aging. And the defensive backfield is missing Antoine Winfield, and was in need of help PRIOR to that fact. The landing of OL Seth Olsen from the Colts may put offensive line on the back burner.
It would not be surprising if the Vikings went to other needs with their first two picks. Or three.
Still, we should create a list just in case....
1. Cordarelle Patterson, Tennessee. 6'2, 216 lbs. Ran a 4.42 at the combine. Grades out as a top two receiver in the draft, expected to in the middle of the first round. Miami (12th), St. Louis (16th), and Pittsburgh (17th) all seem to need WRs and pick ahead of Minnesota. Houston (27th) is definitely hunting and may have to jump in front of us and them. Patterson had only one good season at Tennessee, but the talent and specs are there. A legitimate deep threat.
2. Tavon Austin, West Virginia. 5'8, 174. Ran 4.34. Many grade as top receiver in draft. He is very small, incredibly athletic and tough. Now who does he remind me of...? He had 114 catches last season, ran the ball well, and returned kicks. Austin could go anywhere in the first round, but he will not make it to the second. A slot receiver.
3. Kennan Allen, California. 6'2, 206. Did not run at combine. Also an excellent return man. Allen is more a possession receiver, as he averaged about six catches a game in his 34-game college career. Expected to go in the later first round.
4. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson. 6'1, 214. Ran a 4.57. Bigger than most, but also a bit slow of foot comparatively. Hopkins had a big final season, hauling in 82 catches for over 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns. Hopkins had six 100 plus yard games last season. Very dependable. Returned punts.Expected to be selected in first two rounds somewhere. A possession-type receiver?
5. Justin Hunter, Tennessee. 6'4, 196. Ran 4.44. Had trouble with drops which hurt his stock. But no one denies the speed. Had better stats than Patterson for the Volunteers, including 73 catches last season for over 1,000 yards. Averaged a touchdown every six catches in college. Could go anywhere from late first to third round. Bona fide deep threat.
6. Robert Woods, Southern California. 6'0, 201. Ran 4.51. Maybe biggest pedigree of the group, but under-performed at times for USC. Anywhere from round one to three. A possession receiver.
There are more...
Possession-receivers: Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech; Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee Tech; Aaron Dobson, Marshall.
Slot-types: Stedman Bailey, West Virginia; Ryan Swope, Texas A&M; Marquise Goodwin, Texas.
Deep Threats: Terrance Williams, Baylor; Markus Wheaton, Oregon State; Kenny Stills, Oklahoma.
The draft appears deep with mid-round receivers. Minnesota could address defensive line (Short, Williams) and linebacker (Ogletree, Reddick) with first few picks, or even a defensive back (Trufant). Some receivers will still be there with the 83rd and 99th pick.
Is there a John Gilliam, Jr.or Gene Washington clone out there?
Because it feels like we are one deep threat away....
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