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.
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.
Listening to a local call-in show after the game, it turns out a lot of fans are realizing 2013 is not going to be the year. Instead of having their anger pointed at one person (Christian Ponder), or maybe a couple (add Leslie Frazier and/or Rick Spielman); the fans were finding fault everywhere.
It was easy to do.
Matt Cassel's first interception was a terrible overthrow that killed a drive and set the tone for the offense. And after Jamarca Sanford dropped an interception that would have killed a drive, Cam Newton and the Panthers waltzed up and down the field. From that point Carolina controlled the game.
Every time Carolina got into Minnesota's "red zone", they scored a touchdown. But an even bigger problem was that the Panthers held the ball for near 37 minutes. They scored on seemingly every drive, save for a kneel down, when the game mattered. And they never turned the ball over. Cassel was intercepted twice.
Defensively, our Vikings are playing as bad as any in recent memory. It is almost unfair to point out the worst offenders, because no one is playing well. Josh Robinson, who had a miserable rating covering receivers his rookie year, is no better. Marvin Mitchell is out of plays. On one touchdown drive by the Panthers, two first-round rookies (Floyd,Rhodes) had penalties that kept the drive alive on third down stops. Newton had far too much free time in the pocket.
Offensively, Cassel was only sharp on short passes (where have I heard that before?). He was not given enough time because the offensive line took the day off. Again. Adrian Peterson had a 31 yard run, and otherwise thirty yards the rest of the game. And when the Vikings trail by two TDs or more, they insist on throwing the ball despite not being very good at it.
And when the team went bad, the fans got quiet. Who could blame them? I think maybe the crowd walked in as cocky as the players, assuming this would be an easy win.
The problem I have is we tried to fix the 2013 season by signing a struggling quarterback for millions of dollars at the beginning of the week. This may or may not have sent the message to Cassel he was not the answer. Now we have millions pumped into a third flailing quarterback for a team with defensive issues. Not sure the logic there?
The coaches have to be looking for pink slips these days. Maybe the general manager, too. Certainly the fans want someone's head to roll. Last year's playoff visit seems suddenly so distant. A tough schedule ahead, a division where everyone won this week, and all three teams have winning records in the North. A season's franchise with a few close losses just got humiliated at home.
It might be time to take a realistic assessment.
And let some people go.
Can you feel it?
It is purple excitement and it is growing. One tries to be subtle, humble, approach the preseason with reserve.. but we cannot. We read the pundits saying we were a flash in the pan in 2012, and the 'patterns' say we will fall back down.
We don't see it.
The list of blue-chip players on this team is growing, and as a regular drinker of purple kool-aid, we are drunk with giddiness. A little concerned Greg Jennings is talking trash so early, but hey, we have his back now that he is in purple. Aaron Rodgers a pompous ass? OK, if you say so, our new favorite receiver. Week one was a glimpse at a few players fighting to make the squad, and impressive efforts by players such as Stephen Burton and John Carlson. We saw that Matt Cassel throws just a wee bit better than Joe Webb. Sure we lost, but that is not a worry week one.
This week the Vikings will play against the Buffalo Bills. Their rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel is all the rage, and Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are a very good 1-2 punch at running back. They scored 44 points in the first preseason game, albeit much of the scoring through reserves. The Bills are not an elite NFL talent, having finished 6-10 last year, but their first team is decent, and even strong at pass defense last year. Christian Ponder will face a test in the one or two quarters he is expected to play.
And that is what we can get focus on here. How will Ponder handle his new receivers? What does the addition of Jennings and Patterson do to the pass offense, but maybe equally important, opponent's run defenses? If Minnesota presents any kind of a solid passing attack, AP may have undercut himself at 2,500 yards.
I know what you are thinking. I am a gung-ho homer. The experts are not convinced. And you would be right.
This time of the year how can I be anything else?
But I am not alone...
There are many fans who feel as I do. We are trying not to talk cocky, or sound like complete homers, but we are. Most of us remember the winning ways of this franchise, the NFC Central domination, the frequent visits to the NFC Championship and/or Super Bowls. We know talent when we see it. And this team is loaded.
Tonight the Vikings play a relatively meaningless game against the Bills. The first few series on offense and defense will have merit, and fuel homers like myself to great heights should we do well. Most understand that this is not the time to judge a season, however, and these games are for coaches and scouts to evaluate talent.
Let's call it an appetizer.
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.
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