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.
Numbers lie sometimes. I know when I watch the presidential debates numbers can say just about anything. The same economy can show growth or recession depending on view point. Or like in the upcoming Nov. 6, Rockford referendum, I have watched opposition to passing the upcoming referendum become quite creative in explaining why they refuse to support their children in education. Somehow, being 137th out of 156 (something like that) is a good thing when paying property tax toward schooling. Never mind that nearby Delano and Buffalo kids get two or three times as much money from citizens. They can twist numbers faster than Adrian Peterson runs through a five hole.
And so looking at the team statistics of Sunday's game one can be fooled. The overall yards were 356 to 209 in favor of Arizona. Arizona had 21 first downs to a mere 12 by the Vikings. The Cardinals held the ball for over 35 minutes in the game, compared to just under 25 for Minnesota. Christian Ponder threw for 58 yards. You would think we lost by a few touchdowns.
I could pull up numbers in such a way that you would know Minnesota won. Like Adrian Peterson running 23 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. Or that the defense managed seven sacks and two turnovers. Or holding Arizona to 50% in the red zone. The Vikings being 100% in the red zone. Or 82 penalty yards vs. Arizona compared to 35 vs. Minnesota.The Cardinals 0-2 on 4th downs..
Yes, there are numbers that can say anything.
But the brightest number is the 5-2 record we now hold. There are only a few teams in the entire NFL who can claim better (Atlanta, Houston, Chicago). If the playoffs magically began today our Vikings would be in. But there is much more football to play.
The NFC North presently has the best overall record in football. Barring a tie on Monday Night, the NFC North's overall record will be 16-10. The next closest divisional overall record is the NFC West at 16-12. The only other winning division is the NFC East at 14-12.
We have our work cut out for us.
Cynics will point to the schedule ahead. The Packers are hot. The Bears are too. They are four of our remaining nine games. Add Houston and Seattle, and we have a tough road ahead.
One set of numbers I believe that lie less than others is points for vs. points against. In a single game it is crucial. Over a half of a season it is a trend. The present plus/minus leaders in the NFL are as follows (with record in parentheses):
1. Houston (6-1) + 88
2. Chicago (4-1) + 78
3. New York Giants (5-2) + 68
4. San Francisco (5-2) + 65
5. Atlanta (6-0) + 58
6. New England (4-3) + 54
7. Minnesota (5-2) + 36
8. Green Bay (4-3) + 29
9. Baltimore (5-2) + 13
10. San Diego (3-3) + 11
11. Seattle (4-3) + 10
12. Pittsburgh (3-3) + 8
13. Arizona (4-3) + 6
14. Miami (3-3) +3
Strength of schedule play an important role in this statistic, but you can only beat whom you play. At the end of seven weeks, Minnesota has done admirably vs. their schedule. And with the upcoming game Thursday vs. Tampa Bay, Minnesota can solidify its' hold on a playoff spot. For now..
And for all the Christian Ponder worriers/haters remember, it is his 2nd year in the league. Last week he threw for 350 yards and we lost. Maybe his role is more to balance an attack then lead it. I would think our money be best invested in AP and that offensive line.
Running parting one line thoughts...
Save a little love for Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, and Brian Robison. They are coming on.
Has a safety ever had so much positive impact in Minnesota history as Harrison Smith's rookie season?
Did Chris Cook really just shut down Larry Fitzgerald?
Is Stephens-Howling related to Barry Sanders or did we struggle tackling?
Did we have six three and outs in 2nd half because of poor coaching or fear of mistakes?
Was our 1-10 3rd down efforts someone's fault? How do you win getting 10% 3rd down conversions?
Was Percy Harvin's TD return that was nullified a mental set back?
How did Arizona start 4-0?
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.
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