This Sunday's game vs. the Packers will be big. The biggest game since the "Assault in New Orleans", or otherwise referred to as the NFC Championship in the 2009 season. If Minnesota wins, they will have gone from back-to-back losing seasons, including last year's 3-13 season to a 2012 10-6 record and a playoff berth. Unbelievable.
Still, Minnesotans refuse to embrace quarterback Christian Ponder. And for solid reasons. His passer rating lies in-between Michael Vick and Blaine Gabbert. He throws for under 100 yards. He had five fumbles lost and twelve interceptions. His decision-making is much maligned.
Yet here we are at 9-6.
Adrian Peterson is demonstrating how important a running game can be. Peterson's 126.5 rushing yards per game dwarfs the next closest runner by nearly 30 yards per game. AP's 6.0 yards per carry are second to only C.J. Spiller, and his due mostly to running against prevent defenses, as opposed to 8 or 9 in the "box". Adrian's 2012 season ranks 8th all-time for rushing yards in a season, with Earl Campbell only 36 yards away, and O.J. Simpson's 2,003 yard performance a mere 105. Peterson's season ranks 79th all-time in all purpose yards, and if he can manage to set a single-season record by rushing for 208 yards vs. Green Bay, will finish in the top 30 all-time. He is 2nd in the league in rushing TDs. 2nd in attempts. And he has only lost two fumbles.
The defense is anchored by more than just Jared Allen and Chad Greenway in 2012. Brian Robison and Everson Griffen have been impressive, combining for 12.5 sacks. Kevin Williams, along with Fred Evans and Letroy Guion, have kept the middle solid throughout the season. Jasper Brinkley is starting to dominate at the middle linebacker. Harrison Smith and Antoine Winfield pound would be runners and receivers, and the cornerbacks have been better than any in recent memory. A total team defense.
Even Blair Walsh deserves credit. All he has done is set team and NFL records with nine consecutive field goals of 50+ yards. He is 32 of 35 on the year in field goal attempts. His kick-offs are pinning opponents deeper than in years past. He could very likely be an All-Pro is 2012.
And then there is Ponder.
Ponder lost favor by mid-season. Whether it was Bill Musgrave tightening the reins, or a lack of good decision-making, Christian stunk up the place for a while. And Minnesota lost games they had opportunities to win. Certainly the Washington loss, the Green Bay loss, and a few others drew pointed fingers at Ponder.
Despite a good game yesterday, most still feel he is not the quarterback of the future, and will be the demise of 2012. These fans want Minnesota to draft another quarterback next year, and open the door to potential free agent QBs or others out of favor with present teams. The list includes: Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith, Philip Rivers, and more. Even Tarvaris Jackson would be an upgrade in the more pessimistic fan's eye.
But let's look at a few past drafts before we come to judgment...
2012 NFL Draft included a slew of apparent strong quarterbacks. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin headline a strong class. But would it surprise you to know that Luck's present passer rating is below Ponder? And other than the top two draft picks overall, only Russell Wilson (75th pick) is looking good. Miami's Tannehill (8th) and Cleveland's Weeden (22nd) have had mixed reviews.
The 2011 NFL Draft saw four quarterbacks chosen in the top twelve, six in the top thirty-six picks. Cam Newton, first overall, has been impressive. Jake Locker (8th) less so. Blaine Gabbert (10th) a disappointment. After Ponder, Andy Dalton was chosen 35th and Colin Kaepernick 36th. Both look better than Ponder to date.
In 2010, five QBs were draft in the first four rounds. The top pick was Sam Bradford, chosen 1st overall. Next was Tim Tebow, who went with the 25th pick. The remaining QBs include Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, and some guy named Kafka. Only Bradford holds hope for a solid future.
In 2009 only three QBs are of note still today. Matthew Stafford, first overall, has been great and terrible. Mark Sanchez, fifth overall, is now washed up after his fourth season. And Josh Freeman (17th) continues to struggle with Tampa Bay. In this their fourth year, this class has taken a mighty step back.
2008 had of note Matt Ryan (3rd) and Joe Flacco (18th) and maybe Chad Henne (57th). Flacco has his detractors while Matt Ryan has proved himself year after year. The rest? Nothing.
So go ahead and hate on Ponder. Wish for another quarterback to take over. You may end up right, Christian might not be that good. But do not forget, Minnesota will not have a top ten pick. Probably not a top twenty. That means talent like Griffin, Luck, Newton, etc.. will not be available. We will have to find a Russell Wilson, or a Colin Kaepernick. In the meantime, most fans understand we still need to improve at other positions, such as wide receiver or offensive guard.
In the meantime, I will support Ponder as he beats Green Bay (along with AP and the defense), and brings us back to the playoffs in 2012.
Onward Christian Ponder. I will march off to war with you.
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.
Two roads converge in Chicago on Sunday, and the Vikings will take one. But which one?
The first, as you recall, defeated the big, bad 49ers 24-13. They swept the Lions by a score of 54-37 in two games. And they beat the Jaguars, Titans, and Cardinals as they should have.That is the team led by Adrian Peterson, at 5.8 yards a carry. It is the team that features Christian Ponder not turning the ball over. All this accented by a hard hitting, aggressive defense which creates turnovers and makes sacks. Names like Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Antoine Winfield, and Harrison Smith clutter the media broadcast.
The second, not as fair, is the one that suffered double-digit losses to Washington, Tampa Bay (at home), and Seattle. And was unable to hold on to a victory in Indianapolis. That team often allows sacks, throws interceptions, gives up first downs on third, and cannot seem to bring down elusive backs. This team does not seem to find Kyle Rudolph. This team sees OL on their backs or staring at their fallen quarterback.That team is the one most fresh in fans minds, given the present 2-3 record in the last five games.
And the two paths converge upon Chicago, where the Bears are coming off of a pair of rancid offensive games. Jay Cutler has been out with a concussion, and Jason Campbell is reminding teams why counting on old, slow, and weak-armed reserve-quarterbacks can be dangerous.The celebrated Bears' defense torched on national television last Monday Night. The Chicago offensive line looking more battered than a Mike Tyson opponent, the early years.
Vikings' fans are hoping Cutler is not ready. Maybe praying. Cutler has his faults, but defenses must respect his strong arm. And their is a gritty toughness about him that seems to be of leadership quality. Even when throwing an occasional interception. With Matt Forte, Chicago usually gets something on the ground or through the short passing game. It is the opportunistic Bears' defense that often feels like more of an offense than their own offense. Or their opponents' offense. That is often enough to win in the NFL. The Bears used this formula for a 7-1 start.
Many predict Chicago will play extra angry.
There is no doubt this is a crucial game for Minnesota's hope for the playoffs. They have a tough schedule ahead. Splitting games with Chicago and Green Bay will not be enough. A win this Sunday and the path to the playoffs suddenly becomes alive. A loss and the path to a .500 season looms. Given the 3-13 season last year this is progress either way. But in the modern NFL, teams turn around much more quickly than in the past. Just ask the 49ers of 2011. They improved by a total of seven games in a single season. It can be done.
Two paths will leave the Windy City. It is my hope that we choose the one where we win.
Because that will make all the difference.
Coming off of the loss in Seattle, Minnesota finds itself at 5-4 and facing a difficult schedule. In fact, besides the road game at St. Louis ahead, this home game vs. the Lions might be the only game in which the Vikings will be near favored. (Oddsmakers are actually favoring Detroit by a little). And they will play without Percy Harvin, out with an ankle injury.
I have listened to my fellow Vikings' fans lament the play of Christian Ponder. And truthfully, he has been awful. Ponder helped the Vikings get off to a fast start by reducing mistakes, finding Harvin and Kyle Rudolph, and escaping the rush well enough to avoid sacks. But lately he has faltered. Ponder did not throw an interception in the first four games, where Minnesota went 3-1. In the last five games Ponder has thrown eight interceptions and Minnesota is 2-3 in those games. Ponder was sacked nine times in the 4-1 start, 14 times in the 1-3 stretch we have just endured.
But as any coach or knowledgeable fan knows, there is much that is hidden. From the television angle, I can see pass rushes are now getting through our line. Recently I have watched replays where John Sullivan,Charlie Johnson, Brandon Fusco, and Phil Loadholt have been beaten. Blitzes are not being picked up by running backs and/or tight ends. Even phenom Matt Kalil has allowed hits to Ponder. Opposing defenses are pressuring Ponder. Other than Harvin, no one else appears to getting open regularly. If quarterbacks face pressure without open receivers it gets ugly quickly. Just ask Michael Vick.
And the defense is suffering from the lack of passing offense. The Vikings have surrendered 30 or more points in their last three losses to Washington, Tampa Bay, and Seattle.Those teams are 23rd, 13th, and 32nd in passing offense. And that has not mattered because it has been through running games that Minnesota has collapsed. Against Washington Robert Griffin III slipped through countless tackles on his way to 138 yards in only 13 carries. Doug Martin did the same in his 135 yards on 29 carries (which turns out not so bad compared to other Martin games). And there is no shame in allowing Marshawn Lynch 124 yards on 26 carries, other than that means you do not have the ball. Inability to stop the run is the death of many teams.
And excuses are available. The defensive secondary misses the play of Chris Cook and Mistral Raymond until recent. Cook was having a great year and that freed up guys like Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford to make tackles. Josh Robinson, along with others, is raw and will be beaten at times.
Losing to ground games is often at the fault of the 'front seven'. In the case of RGIII, the front four needs to contain him within the rush and often a linebacker is assigned to quicker QBs. Neither did their job. It seemed in the loss to the Bucs and Seahawks that linebackers were simply missing assignments and/or tackles. Chad Greenway tackles so many people that we tend not to see fault in him, but the microscope is on Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. And one cannot help but wonder if the "have to get that sack" mentality of Jared Allen and Brian Robison is negatively impacting the run defense, as most yardage allowed appears to be leaning to the outside gaps.
Fast forward to today. At 5-4, and this being the easiest of the three remaining home games,today's game vs. the Lions becomes a must win to entertain a winning season or slim remaining playoff hope. Having beaten them earlier in the season Minnesota should have a winning recipe. Contain the run and put pressure on Stafford with the front four. Offensively, do enough with the passing game to allow Adrian Peterson just a little wiggle room. And avoid mistakes in your own territory.
With Percy Harvin out that job just became harder. Harvin has been electric in all aspects of his game. Harvin is on pace to shatter personal receiving records in this his fourth year. While his receiving efforts are probably most missed today, the idea of not having Harvin return kickoffs is also disheartening, He was averaging almost 36 yards per return, with four returns over forty plus yards in sixteen attempts.
Can Minnesota right the ship with a season sweep of the Lions? Without Harvin, it appears that the job of kick off returning us to winning football just became available. Marcus Sherels, the punt returner, appears to be most likely to have that chance. And this also means someone like Jerome Simpson. Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, or Kyle Rudolph will have to pick up the slack receiving.
Because Lord knows Adrian Peterson cannot do it all.
Christian Ponder has critics. It started mostly around the loss to Washington, where Ponder made a few mistakes deep in Vikings' territory. Never mind that he threw for 352 yards and a pair of touchdowns, the interceptions were too much to overcome. That, and an inability to tackle Robert Griffin III.
He did nothing to impress in the win over the Cardinals in the Dome. That win was attributed to Adrian Peterson's big game and a stalwart defense which produced seven sacks and stops in the red zone. Ponder threw for less than 100 yards.
Now with his poor statistical performance on Thursday Night, which resulted in a blowout loss at home to the Buccaneers, many fans are calling for Joe Webb.
Ah, the fickle fan.
Lest one forget, Minnesota is 5-3 after half of a season, and Christian Ponder has had a decent season overall to date. Not compared to the elite of the NFL, but certainly in comparison to other Minnesota quarterbacks in our history. Let's compare Ponder to two other successful young Vikings draft choices: Fran Tarkenton and Daunte Culpepper.
Tarkenton was drafted 29th overall, in the 3rd round of the 1961 NFL Draft. He was the third quarterback taken after Norm Snead went 2nd overall, and Billy Kilmer drafted 11th.
Culpepper was drafted 11th overall, in the 1st round of the 1999 NFL Draft. He was the fourth quarterback taken after Tim Couch (1), Donovan McNabb (2), and Alkili Smith (3).
Ponder was drafted 12th overall, in the 1st round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He was the fourth quarterback taken after Cam Newton (1), Jake Locker (8), and Blaine Gabbert (10).
Minnesota was an expansion team in 1961, and Tarkenton started 10 games (of 14) his rookie season and went 2-8-0. In his second year Fran started all 14 games and was 2-11-1. Statistically, Tarkenton had 40 TD passes and 42 interceptions in his first two years. His passer ratings respectively were 74.7 and 66.9. Tarkenton's first winning season would be 1964, his fourth in the NFL.
Daunte Culpepper joined a team that had been one of the best in all of the NFL. He did not start any games his rookie season, but started all sixteen in 2000, going 11-5-0. The next year Daunte started all eleven games and went 4-7-0. His third season of full-time action saw a 6-10-0 finish. Culpepper had 33 TDs and 16 interceptions his rookie season. The next year he had 14 TDs to 13 interceptions, and then 18 TDs with 23 interceptions. Culpepper never had a winning season after his first in the league.
Christian Ponder joined a team that had imploded in the 2010 season. The previous year they had been one of the best in football. Ponder started ten games in his rookie year, and was 2-8-0. This year he is 5-3-0 surprising most everyone who follows football. Ponder threw 13 TDs with 13 interceptions in his first year. This year he has 10 TDs with 7 interceptions. His passer rating year one was 70.1, and this year it is presently 85.8 and falling.
Of course Fran Tarkenton would go on to a Hall of Fame Career. He was traded in 1967 to the Giants, and that trade proved to be the impetus for a dynasty of purple. Tarkenton returned in 1972 and led Minnesota to three of its' four Super Bowl visits in a ten year span.
Daunte Culpepper excited fans much like the scrambling Tarkenton. His 2nd year performance (2000) was incredible, and one of the best years by any Vikings quarterback. But then came the fumbles and the losses. He would be gone by 2006. His career fizzled.
And now Ponder. His overall record is 7-11-0. His poor decisions causing turnovers has created an impatience with the fan base. One could argue that the offensive line's play has also impacted his performance, but so could one argue the same for Daunte and Fran. And like Fran, he was given a team that presently does not stack up against the NFL elite.
So what should we fans do? Cut him some slack, knowing others have struggled as young QBs? Granted this is harder to do when young QBs like RG III, Andrew Luck, and even Russell Wilson are seemingly playing much better.
In fact, there are so many teams with young quarterbacks these days that fans have a right to expect more. Andy Dalton is playing well in Cincinnati, Gabbert looks decent in Jacksonville, Tennessee's Locker was impressive until hurt, and many others. Further, now veteran QBs like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Schaub, and Joe Flacco are winning consistently. None of them appear to be going anywhere soon.
Minnesota was 9-23-0 its' last two years. This year was supposed to be a rebuilding one, and after Thursday's poor performance, combined with the knowledge that the schedule will be much harder, most are reconsidering the fast start. Acceptance may overtake optimism, if it has not already done so.
Still others remain hopeful. While the defense has suddenly forgotten how to tackle against the Doug Martins and the Griffins of the NFL, they still are playing with a new found toughness. The offensive line's struggles have made life difficult for Ponder and OC Musgrave's playbook, but they are finding holes for the powerful Adrian Peterson.
And anything can happen in the NFL these days.
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