Vikings fans had mixed feelings after the Thursday Night victory over Washington. I would say a majority of us were happy, we like to win, and the 34-27 result showed what a little defense can do.
Washington had nearly 500 yards in total offense, they scored 24 of their 27 points in the first half. When Robert Griffin III guided his team to a second half opening field goal, it marked the first time in thirty years or so that Washington had scored on their first five possessions. The first five drives were as follows:
1) 11 plays, 50 yards, FG, 4:53 Time of Possession (TOP)
2) 7 plays, 78 yards, TD, 3:53 TOP
3) 13 plays, 80 yards, TD, 7:57 TOP
4) 11 plays, 77 yards, TD, 3:57 TOP
5) 12 plays, 59 yards, FG, 5:38 TOP
After 35 minutes of football Washington had a time of possession of more than 26 minutes. They had amassed nearly 350 yards in just over a half.
And then the defense woke up.
Kevin Williams, given single blocking coverage, ripped through the line for 2 1/2 sacks. Linebackers such as Chad Greenway decided to tackle people in the second half, and defensive backs like Andrew Sendejo were making their presence felt with some bone-jarring hits. A late goal line stand to end the game gave Minnesota a rare win and some confidence for our defense.
Not so much for coach Leslie Frazier.
Frazier's timeout as Washington scrambled late in the game for a tie was seen as a bad decision. So bad, that Greg Jennings was seemingly doing cartwheel tantrums upon news of the timeout. Radio shows and callers insisted it was a bonehead move, like so many others the last few seasons. I assumed the coaches were trying to conserve time, knowing we would give up a last-second touchdown.
But we did not, the team won, and now we get to analyze a win.
For starters, Christian Ponder play very well, save for a pathetic down field attempt early in the game. A deep lob into double coverage on third and long was returned to near mid-field. If Ponder was loved, some might have assumed it was one of those pass-punt type plays. But he is not loved, and the play rightly ridiculed.
After that Ponder looked very good.
Critics will point out that most passes were short. He still does not have pocket presence. We call those people haters. If Minnesota could get that type of performance from Teddy Bridgewater next year, they would be ecstatic. Ponder completed a few third and longs, and a slip by Jerome Simpson ended a drive. Otherwise, Ponder drove the Vikings like we would want. A lot of Adrian Peterson with quick passes to everyone. When John Carlson is getting near 100 yards receiving, you know you are clicking.
Matt Cassel came in when Ponder was injured trying to run in his fifth touchdown on the season, and did a fine job finishing the deal. That was why we got Cassel. We are still trying to figure out why we acquired Josh Freeman.
But most of our local talk shows, and pockets of fans focused on the tragedy of winning. They want Minnesota to tank the season, and secure a franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft. I can see how many thought that was the Vikings' plan when they fed Freeman to the Giants on national television. While I love the idea of an early pick, I am not the kind of fan that wants the team to lose. Ever.
Too much purple pride.
The remaining schedule is tough. Minnesota is leagues behind the rest of the division. Only an optimistic fool would hold out hopes of a 9-7 finish. Even a 4-12 is looking difficult. There are only two teams with fewer wins than the Vikings (Jacksonville and Tampa Bay), and both are winless. This victory probably cost Minnesota a top two pick.
There are presently four other teams with two wins: Pittsburgh, New York Giants, Houston, and Atlanta.
There are five teams with three wins: St. Louis, Buffalo, Baltimore, Oakland, and Washington.
The final two losing teams at this time are Cleveland and Philadelphia, each with four wins.
Minnesota presently is on course for a pick somewhere between the third and seventh pick. But another couple of wins, and the Vikings may be picking somewhere between eighth and twelfth. All told, Minnesota has had 55 first-round selections in the 53 NFL Drafts they have participated in. Of those picks, 17 have been top-ten choices. Five top-ten choices since 2000. Most of those selections have been very good, like Adrian Peterson (chosen 7th in 2007) and Kevin Williams (chosen 9th in 2003); some less so (Troy Williamson 7th in 2005).
By position, Minnesota tends to favor defensive line in their first-round picks. Eighteen times the Vikings have chosen a defensive linemen in the first round, compared to ten running backs, eight offensive linemen, six wide receivers, five linebackers, five defensive backs, and three quarterbacks (including supplemental draft picks).
Those concerned about landing a franchise quarterback may take solace in the fact that 2014 is considered the draft year of the quarterback. From Bridgewater to Marcus Mariota (Oregon), from Brett Hundley (UCLA) to Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), the blue-chip quarterbacks possibly available is large. Even lesser ranked quarterbacks like Aaron Murray of Georgia or Zach Mettenberger of LSU are considered decent prospects. Some analysts have the latter two ranked outside the top ten.
After watching the first half of Thursday's game, and thinking upon the previous eight, I am convinced Minnesota needs to address defense before quarterback. And maybe even offensive line. The Vikings had two starters out from the line and no one noticed. What we did notice was missed tackles. Lots of them. Chad Greenway looked like a kid in a pool trying to capture a greased watermelon in the first half. And he is our best linebacker.
Fans have the right to cheer, boo, or look to the future. I am just not sure they see that the reason this team is fighting for a top pick in 2014 is due to numerous problems on defense.
All they want is to draft a franchise quarterback.
We won. We beat the Chicago Bears 21-14 offensively behind the front line and the legs of Adrian Peterson. Christian Ponder reduced his mistakes and that was enough for a win. Of course, two long defensive interception returns played a large part in the outcome. Once again, Ponder's stats (11-17 for 91 yards, 1 interception) look like an AA high school quarterback's in a foot of snow. Yet we know the Dome was able to hold off the snow this time around.
History tells us to be patient. We are not. The boos rained on and on throughout the game, though with the amount of Bears' fans with season-tickets in the Dome (apparently) yesterday, it was difficult to tell just who was booing. One thing is certain: the Vikings' fans collectively are finished with Ponder.
Maybe we need to learn patience?
Just to give a background of great quarterbacks in the NFL and their career starts, below is a compiled list of some of the better QBs in the modern NFL.
Johnny Unitas started in 1956. He went 3-4 with a 74.0 rating. He would raise his game immediately, going 15-7 the next two years with ratings near 90. Of course, he was playing for a powerhouse in the Colts. But even the great Johnny U struggled. Between 1960 and 1962 Unitas threw 64 TDs to 71 interceptions, with passer ratings averaging near 70.0 His powerhouse team would be 21-19 with Unitas at the helm.
Fran Tarkenton was 8-27-2 in his first three seasons (1961-1963) with a new franchise. He threw 55 TDs and 57 interceptions in those first three years. His passer rating never reached 80.0 in those first years. The Hall-of-Famer would eventually be traded.
Terry Bradshaw started eight games in his rookie season (1970). His rating was 30.4. He had six touchdowns and twenty-four interceptions. I wonder how Vikings fans would have treated that? I know Steelers fans were unhappy back then. The next year Bradshaw threw 13 TDs and 22 ints., with a 54.7 rating. The team went 5-8. Luckily, the defense and running game would improve, Pittsburgh would be 11-3 the next season despite Bradshaw throwing only 12 TDs with a 64.1 rating. Four Super Bowls later, Bradshaw would become a legend.
Miami's superstar Dan Marino was an exception. He was great from the start. His rookie season he went 7-2 with a 96.0 rating. The Dolphins would then go 14-2 in 1984, and 12-4 in 1985. Marino was amazing. But even he struggled at some point. Between 1987 and 1989 his teams went 21-23. And Marino would never win a Super Bowl.
Joe Montana was a quarterback who did win Super Bowls for the 49ers. But he started only eight games in his first two years, and sported a 2-6 record. By his 3rd season (1981) he evolved into one of the elite QBs in NFL history.
Brett Favre was drafted by the Falcons in 1981 and threw four passes his rookie season. Two were intercepted (insert joke). While Favre did turn around a losing Packers franchise, his first two seasons were not stellar. While the team went 17-12 in his starts, Favre's first three seasons resulted in 37 TDs and 39 ints. His rating in 1983 was 72.2.
Drew Brees started games in his 2nd year after a year on the bench. In an 8-8 season Brees threw 17 TDs with 16 picks. The following year, a 2-9 record, 67.5 rating, and 11 TDs to 15 ints. Maybe that explains why he became a Saint? The Chargers had their sights set on a better quarterback.... Ryan Leaf.
Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers benefited from being a back-up his first three seasons. His ratings in mop-up roles were 39.8 and 48.2 in his first two seasons. His fourth season he started 16 games and went 6-10. I wonder if he would have been as great if he had been thrust into a starting role his rookie year?
OK, so ratings are not the same these days. The NFL has done more to advance scoring than the NBA and the shot clock, no zone, and 3-point line. Cornerbacks might as well play in handcuffs these days. Understood.
And some of those great quarterbacks had less to play with than Ponder. How many had a powerful back like Adrian Peterson? Were a year removed from the NFC Championship? Not too many.
But if you took emotion out of the equation and looked at numbers and results, you might see that Christian Ponder is not struggling more than many great HOFers in their beginnings. This is not to suggest he is headed for Canton. Rather, it is a plea to Vikings' fans to lighten up. This team won six games in two seasons. Now in 2012 they are 7-6 with a chance to win even more.
Go ahead and plan for other QBs to compete for the starting job in 2013 and beyond. But do not tell me that Joe Webb (66.6 passer rating lifetime) or McLeod Bethel-Thompson (never thrown an NFL pass) are the answer. Because then I will not listen to you.
My 7th grade football team at Rockford is pretty good. There are presently only twelve players, but their record stands at 6-2. And that includes a visit to Benilde St. Margaret's, where we were mostly in awe at their turf and playing under the lights as 13-year olds. Just this past week they avenged a 40-8 road loss to Maple Lake (big rival) with a 16-12 win that involved kids committing depite being tired, hurt, outsized, and outnumbered. I did not expect to win, simply to improve greatly. Boy, was I wrong. I witnessed heart triumph. The high from the game has carried into my weekend.
The Vikings are 4-1 and I am happy. Not ecstatic, but very content. And a little worried. I keep waiting for the 3-13 team of last year to appear. But they do not.
I talk to many fellow VIkings' followers daily. Everyone is happy, but no one is thinking playoff runs just yet. When I pushed a previously loyal fan the other day to commit, he replied that he will not give his heart to Minnesota, he has been hurt too many times. He was around for the four Super Bowl losses; the NFC Championship losses; Hail Marys; the brutalization toward Brett Favre and the 12-man huddle; the sitting on the ball before halftime and missed chip shot by a perfect kicker; Nelson's dropped touchdown; the embarrassment vs. the Giants. I cut him off...
He is waiting for a Super Bowl win.
Twins' fans were rewarded in 1987 and again in 1991. But Vikings' fans remain wounded. Despite being a very successful franchise (in terms of wins, division titles, playoff appearances), Minnesota remains without the ultimate football prize. And it hurts.
Arguing with Packers fans, or Bears fans becomes impossible. We can have double or triple the division titles but it means nothing, We are second-class fans. My childhood was spent watching us dominate these teams, they were terrible, but I have to bow to their Super Bowl wins. It is disheartening.
Still, I remain committed. I am willing to put heart on the line for this 2012 team. They are a feel good story. We were so bad last year and now we play with a toughness not seen in many years. Matt Kalil must be really, really good. Same with Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson, because we suddenly are much better. This team is very similar in name to the 2011-12 team and yet the results are polar opposite.
Which is why I bring up a game of 7th grade football. All week in preparation for a rematch against a team that basically destroyed us, fellow coach Tyler Maher and I tried to convince our small team that they could compete and win despite our previous failure with the same team. Actually, minus a few players. We were different now. We played better under our schemes. We had more heart than they did. And that would make a difference.
So, VIkings fans, I think it is time to commit. The team is playing hard for you every weekend. I know you are hurting, you have been disappointed, embarrassed, and wounded. So have I,
But investing emotion often brings greater return. And in some unexplainable way, I think it really helps. The team feels that support and gives you more than the sum of its' parts.
Maybe it is time?
I was browsing an NFL site on the internet, looking at expert's picks of this week's upcoming games. I was a little surprised to note that the entire group of prognasticators universally picked Minnesota to beat Tennesseee today. Wasn't it not too long ago that we won just three games? Now we are the unanimous favorite?
There has been some impressive single season improvements in the NFL through history. The 2008 Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5. The 1999 Colts went from 3-13 to 13-3. Also in 1999 the Rams went from 4-12 to Super Bowl winners the following year. In the NFC North the biggest turnaround was probably the 2001 Chicago Bears, who were 5-11 in 2000, and 13-3 the following year. It has been done.
Winning creates expectations. The difference between hope and expectation is larger than words. Most Vikings fans have hoped for a Super Bowl their whole lives. But there have been many years where we expected one. In the 1970s it was the consistent expectation that Minnesota would make it to the Super Bowl. Maybe the greatest expectations were on the 1998 team that went 15-1. After Minnesota drubbed the Cowboys in the 2009 playoffs, just about everyone expected another visit. But Minnesotan expectations for a Super Bowl have been the source of great disappointment. We have learned not to expect, but rather hope.
Hope is eternal. Despite a 3-13 season last year, many of us came into the season with hope. Maybe in 2012 we could overcome a poorous defense and return to winning football? If Adrian Peterson was back, if Jerome SImpson played well, if the young defensive secondary was legit... we had a chance. Throw in an "easy" schedule in the first half, and loyal fans hoped for a .500 or better start.
Well they got it. And more.
We are 3-1, at home, and prohibitive favorites vs. the Titans. There is a good chance we will win and surpass last year's win total in five weeks! Even the most purple homers around would have taken 4-1 out of the gate. And that is when doubt creeps in. When you are coming off a 3-13 season, and most of the players/coaches/management are the same, it is difficult to feel confident. The expert's can say we are going to win, the media, Las Vegas.. it does not instill expectation in most of us. The hope has always been there. The confidence is growing.
But we fear expectation. It leads to disappointment around here.
And that is something we know quite well.
As talk of a trade for Donovan McNabb looms, I find myself excited. The drafting of Christian Ponder is precursor to a future unknown. The signing of Tarvaris Jackson by the Seahawks strange. Free agent quarterbacks like Kyle Orton and Vince Young just do not do it for me. Questions at QB are not good to have going into a season where the Packers are defending champions, the Lions expected to be much improved again, and the Bears looking decent. So we may bring in the aged McNabb.
I remember when Donovan McNabb visited in September, 1996, with the Syracuse Orangemen. They were nationally ranked, and faced my Golden Gophers who had just eked out a three point win versus Ball State in the Metrodome a week earlier. It did not look promising. McNabb was strong-armed, fast, and impossible to contain. I sat with my 6 year-old son among the older alumni and expected the worst. Sure enough, McNabb impressed early and the Gophers trailed. Unfortunately, a ticket had been given to a Syracuse fan who would sit among the Minnesota faithful. Every play that McNabb made, every score, this guy would scream how it was "over" for the pathetic Gophers. He laughed at our team. He knew how good McNabb was.
My son complained to me. I complained to him. We hated this fan in orange. What was he doing sitting among the alumni? I silently cursed the person who surrendered their ticket to this outsider. I did not want to spend the game being humiliated by a fan from another team. I whispered to my son (like a nice Minnesotan) that he was a bad man. He would get his someday, just probably not by a Wacker led Gopher team. But then the tide changed. I recall turnovers turning into touchdowns. The Syracuse fan grew quieter. All of the elder fans I sat with started to smile. And then my son, whom I love dearly, started to say the things we alums could not. He taunted the Orangeman. He laughed at him. And it was a glorious day. Minnesota pulled off an improbable upset against McNabb and Syracuse (who would finish the year ranked and 9-3). I never hugged my son more than that day.
Some twelve plus years later I took that same son to the Vikings playoff game versus the Eagles. We had Adrian Peterson, we had won the NFC Central, and the aging Donovan McNabb came to town with his Eagles and their vaunted defense. Gus Frerotte had led Minnesota in 2008 to a respectable year. I am not sure many thought we would get to the Super Bowl, but most hoped we could defeat the Eagles at home in this first round of the playoffs, McNabb was good. We were not. The 26-14 loss was a low point for my son, myself, and our relationship with the Vikings. Next to the 1998 playoff loss to the Falcons, this was the worst we had encountered. It was the last game I would watch live with him before he went off to college. Not a good way to end.
And now the Vikings are wanting to bring McNabb in to push/educate Christian Ponder. Or maybe to start and return Minnesota to the respectability of just a season ago, when we were a play away form the Super Bowl? Minnesota has had success bringing in older quarterbacks before. Guys like Fran Tarkenton, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Brad Johnson, Frerotte, and Brett Favre have done exactly that. Why can't it be McNabb, too?
It will be difficult at best. But one thing is certain, Donovan McNabb brings a history that warrants hope. He was the facilitator of a football fan friendship I have kept with my son for many years. Maybe he can help some other father/son duo enjoy moments like we have had?
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