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 confess, I am spoiled. I grew up watching the Vikings in the 1970s. To this day I can still name every member of our defenses. My favorite players were all defensive, at least until Chuck Foreman arrived. One of the first heroes of mine was a Vikings' safety who set the record for most interceptions in a career: Paul Krause.
Krause came to Minnesota in 1968 via Washington, where he had made a name for himself with 28 interception in his first four years in the NFL. Krause would start at safety for the next ten years, and Minnesota would go to four Super Bowls in that time. Only one year (1974) did Krause not start every game.
That is not to suggest he was the main reason we were so good defensively. Included in those great defenses were Hall of Famers Alan Page and Carl Eller. Jim Marshall was there. The Vikings front four was so dominant that Krause is still the leader in all-time interceptions with 81, He had an ability to find the ball when it was desperately in the air.
Karl Kassulke was probably the other well-known safety of the early Vikings. Drafted by Detroit in 1963, Kassulke ended up a starting safety in his rookie season, and stayed there for his ten year career. While he is probably best remembered for his tragic accident that left him paralyzed before the 1973 season, those that actually watched him play would say he was known for his ferocious hits.
Other players have played safety for Minnesota since Karl and Paul in the early years. While most have been forgettable, a few have left their imprint in Viking lore.
Joey Browner. Browner was with Minnesota from 1984 to 1991. He went to six straight Pro Bowls. He finished with 37 interceptions, good for fourth all-time in Minnesota. But Joey was best-remembered for his tackles. He finished with 1,098 in all. His hands were so strong he could bring down a runner simply by getting a hold of them. In 1984, Browner's rookie season, budding superstar Billy Sims of the Lions learned exactly that. Browner's tackle-by-hands ended his career.
Orlando Thomas and Robert Griffith. Both manned the backfield in the late 1990s, including the 1998 season where Minnesota may have had its best team. They both made top ten in career interceptions, but like Browner were better-known for their bone-jarring hits. Thomas made All-Pro his rookie season after being drafted in the second round, while Griffith, who was undrafted, had back-to-back All-Pro season in 1988-89.
Harrison Smith. Drafted in the first round in 2012 from Notre Dame, Smith returned two interceptions for touchdown in his first year. Fans love him. He hawks the ball and hits harder than the many no-names we have put at safety since 2001. Most purple-loyal are convinced Smith is part of the solution to our defensive woes, and one of the few spots that the new regime might not need to fix.
If one was to rank the best teams in our history, nearly all would have at least one of these safeties in the defensive backfield. The only exception might be the 2009 Vikings, who lived off the ability of Brett Favre. Otherwise, a key ingredient to team success appears to be strength at safety.
Tonight's second preseason game versus the Arizona Cardinals will be a true test for Defensive Coordinator George Edwards, Head Coach Mike Zimmer, and the growing number of safeties coming out of Mankato. Carson Palmer led Arizona to a strong season via the pass. Wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are talented. Most NFL talking heads will agree ever so much better than Oakland and Matt Schaub. This game could help solidify who will join Smith at safety.
Presently on the depth charts at strong safety for a 4-3 base defense is Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Andrew Sendejo, and Kurt Coleman. Other safeties include: Robert Blanton, rookie Antone Exum, and maybe newly acquired Chris Crocker. It would not surprise to see all of these guys have shots with the first unit, though early couch-fan money is on either Sanford or Coleman.
Sure, there is still the quarterback battle (though it appears to be Cassel all the way). There is the concerns at linebacker positions. Rookies to play or not. First big cuts are merely a week or so away. So much to focus on it is hard to know where to begin.
I say, when it doubt, focus on the safety.
Because if that position can help resurrect Minnesota's -9 margin on turnovers, then who knows where this season could end up? If two talented safeties are present, maybe the 37 touchdowns via the pass are a thing of the past?.
Certainly it gives Vikings' fans a chance to think bigger.
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.
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.
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