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.
A humbling loss Sunday, in a humiliating season, did little to help Minnesota's 2014 NFL Draft selection.
No, the chances are Minnesota will draft 8th no matter if they win or lose next Sunday vs. the sinking Detroit Lions. Given that the 49ers will win tonight hosting the Atlanta Falcons, there will be five teams 1/2 game "ahead" in the standings. Minnesota at 4-10-1 won one too many. Atlanta, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Cleveland are all 4-11 and are facing playoff contending teams. Each of these teams cunningly lost in Week 16. There are a few teams at 6-9, but thankfully the Vikings are safe from them.
Houston and Washington are going to finish ahead as well.
So barring an NFL miracle, Minnesota's position will not be changed whether they win or lose.
After Sunday's 42-14 loss to the Bengals, fans simply do not have enough fingers to point at the problems. From the owner, to the management, to coaching, and players, there is blame to be had. Hopefully, 2014 can see a rebound from the abyss that is the 2013 season.
The 2012 playoff visit a mere memory. And maybe one of the most fortunate records in Minnesota sports history, because apparently this team lacks a lot of talent we thought was there.
Everyone is aware of the quarterback issue. Hopefully, Week Sixteen enlightened enough to realize that we need a new quarterback. That does not mean we have to take Johnny Manziel with the eight pick. It does mean we should be looking over time for a franchise quarterback.
We need to look at the possibility of trading Adrian Peterson. He is incredible. Our Kevin Garnett of football. But like KG it may be time to set him free. He has paid his dues. We still love him. Many of us simply want him to experience a Super Bowl, and that may not occur here for the rest of his career. Others of us want to sell a commodity that keeps us from getting good draft picks.
The offensive line is struggling. From my couch view I saw Phil Loadholt and Matt Kalil fail more than they succeeded. Christian Ponder's demise was in part due to the lack of protection from these two. Kalil, a Pro Bowler his rookie season, looked slower. Loadholt even slower. The guards were worse Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco seemed to disappear often. Johnson, an older veteran, has to be nearing the end.
Offensive line must be addressed.
Running backs are a strength, but backup Toby Gerhart should take the Free Agent train to anywhere. Minnesota may need to replace him with an heir apparent to AP. Wide receivers are probably a need, but the poor protection and passing this season left a few receivers without chances to showcase. Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson will be back. The rest a mystery.
Defensively, Minnesota will need to replace Jared Allen. And while he is a beloved Viking, his gotta-sack mentality seemed to negatively impact the run defense. And Kevin Williams is getting older, soon to be retired. There seems to be some depth with Everson Griffen, Letroy Guoin and others. Still, Minnesota could use Sharrif Floyd to step up next year. He contributed little in 2013.
The linebackers are a definite sore spot. Minnesota drafted two Penn Staters last year in the latter part of the Draft, both ended up contributing only on special teams. Chad Greenway could not keep up with the faster running backs, and seemed to be less definitive about tackling in 2013. The rest of the LBs are worse. Fans like Audie Cole, but realistically, Minnesota could pick up three free agents who would not do much worse.
As bad as the linebackers appear, the defensive secondary might have been worse. High draft selections Chris Cook and Josh Robinson are not getting it done. Robinson has become a word synonymous with Swiss cheese. Cook is often hurt, a PR cancer, and not dependable on the field despite talent. Only S Harrison Smith and CB Xavier Rhodes appear talented enough to start for any other NFL team.
We must find more DBs.
As for coaching, nice guy Leslie Frazier appears to have the confidence of the team and the owner. But not many fans. Like Ron Gardenhire, this coach appears to have a free pass on success or not. If Minnesota is as bad as many now fear, maybe Frazier should have been coach of the year in 2012.
Rick Spielman, coming off of serious accolades for his shrewdness in handling Percy Harvin and the 2013 Draft, appears vulnerable. Christian Ponder's lack of success his albatross. Letting Antoine WInfield escape, Josh Robinson stay, and assembling the worst defense in Vikings' history.. telltale. Probably not enough to lose his job. But maybe lose some fans.
And the owner.
Ziggy WIlf won a new stadium. They won community support, not to mention a lot of future dollars. He puts out a product that is poor for the third time in the last four years. Despite bad press, law suits, and a sluggish economy, Wilf got everything he wanted.
We call that entrepreneurship.
So with nothing to play for, a dismal near future ahead, and a new stadium only a couple of years away, this game vs. Detroit is one for the players. We will see if our beloved Vikings want to beat up the Lions in Week 17. They will be deflated. Their fans more angry than even us.
Should be a good one.
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.
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.
All the teachers are doing it. Or should. We use rubrics to measure performance and create standards for use in evaluation. Once established, everyone should know what is expected of them, and what is needed for grading purpose.
4 - exceeded standards of position
3 - met standards in all areas
2 - met standard partially; stood out in areas
1 - partial standard met at best
Only a few Vikings will be evaluated in Week One.
Antoine Winfield. A Four.
Winfield had a hand in ten tackles, many of them bringing down Mike "Marion Butts" Tolbert. Antoine sacrificed himself throughout the game. He also forced a fumble; and had an interception. Minnesota could not have asked for much more from Winfield.
Adrian Peterson. Three.
Peterson, coming off of the 100 million dollar signing, ran for 98 yards on only 16 carries. While he was bottled up early by Chargers' linebacker Taeo Spikes, he created holes later in the game. If Minnesota would have had the ball for more than the 22:43 they did, Adrian would have better numbers. But he looked real good at times.
Brian Robison and Jared Allen, DEs. Three.
The Vikings' ends created pressure at times. They were also asked to drop into coverage as Minnesota relied heavily on the blitz to create pressure, which they did in the first half, but not the second. Allen had an important interception; but combined with Robison to have only a single sack. Allen finished with six tackles, Robison three. They were decent.
E.J. Henderson, Erin Henderson, and Chad Greenway, LBs. Two.
The linebackers made tackles. E.J. Henderson had nine with a sack, Greenway eight. But the trio was asked to blitz frequently and only got to Rivers a few times in the game. In addition, the LBs are often responsible for running backs out of the backfield. Mike Tolbert and Ryan Matthews were held to 80 rushing yards on 24 carries. But they combined for 131 yards on 12 receptions. The backers might be a victim of the defensive scheme, but the grade stands.
Letroy Guion, Donovan McNabb, Bill Musgrave, and Bernard Berrian. One.
Each made costly mistakes.
Guion's two offside calls late in the game sealed the loss, though the lack of passing game made that future probably moot. Still, how does a defensive tackle jump twice while staring at the football? My 7th graders will jump less.
McNabb threw for a total of 39 yards. His early mistake throwing low to Percy Harvin resulted in his first ever Vikings' pass being intercepted and cost Minnesota 7 points. McNabb made a couple of nice runs, and was the victim of a drop or two, but overall, Brett Favre was better last year.
The Vikings' offense was pathetic in the second half. Bill Musgrave, brought in from Atlanta, did little to change that. The insertion of Joe Webb cost the Vikings one of the few series they had the ball in the second half. Percy Harvin was looked at too often early, but not enough late. Minnesota did amass 159 rushing yards, but even Tarvaris Jackson threw for more yards in week one. Realizing Harvin returned the opening kick for a TD, the Vikings managed only 10 points on offense.
Berrian was supposed to be the go-to-guy in 2011. He was thrown to twice, and once he dropped a relatively easy pass. Sure, Phil Loadholt did not do enough to protect McNabb on the play, and Berrian had his man easily beaten; but the short ball still was catchable. Go-to-guys make that catch.
A very frustrating loss to start the season, considering it was 17-7 Vikings at half time. But there were signs that things might be better. I liked the improved play of the secondary, and the special teams coverage was decent. Minnesota won the turnover battle 2:1.
The Chargers ended up with 407 yards, but the receivers were shutout for the first third of the game. Despite the strong beginning, San Diego finished with 31 first downs. Tolbert was unstoppable in the red zone. And unfortunately, Minnesota had 9 penalties for 78 yards. Many hurt.
Minnesota had better do some homework before the next test.
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