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.
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?
When one talks playoff droughts in Minnesota, only the oldest of fans can give a knowing nod. The 1960s was home to the beginning of the expansion franchise, and those first seven years. It was the Norm Van Brocklin years, the coach for the first six fledgling years. Van Brocklin went 29-51-4 with the 1964 season (8-5-1) our only winning year. Bud Grant was pursued and accepted the position in time for the 1967 season. Grant went 3-8-3 that year, before the Vikings' winning ways would begin.
The Vikings' first division title (1968) would precede a run of ten playoff visits in eleven years. Four Super Bowl visits. An NFL Championship. Three NFC championships. Ten division titles. Numerous individual awards, most notably Alan Page's MVP award in 1971. Fran Tarkenton was traded for valuable draft choices by Minnesota in 1968 and then re-acquired in 1972. After a missed playoff, Tarkenton led a run of three Super Bowl visits in four years (1973, 1974, 1976) interrupted by the Hail Mary loss to the Cowboys.
We thought the good times would never end.
The first time since expansion that Minnesota ever missed the play-offs for more than one consecutive season after the expansion years was the drought of 1983-1986. Minnesota finished playing at the Met (1981) and made the playoffs in a strike-shortened 1982 season. Grant started 7-2 in 1983, but finished and retired with an 8-8 season. Les Steckel followed it what is known as the worst of years with Pecos River and a 3-13 mark. Grant was then reinstated and went 7-9 before retiring again, a la Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan. Jerry Burns was then hired and went 9-7 but missed the playoffs. That winning season signaled the end to the losing way of 1983-86.
Jerry Burns led Minnesota through its' second drought in 1990-91. It was a year after the blockbuster trade that sent the Vikings' future off to Dallas for Herschel Waker. After Minnesota surprised the NFL in 1987 with its' run to the NFC Championship despite suffering an 0-3 beginning with replacement players, the Viking brass felt they were one player away from a Super Bowl win. Boy, were they wrong. Walker was released in 1991 and Jerry Burns quit. Minnesota returned to their winning way.
The Vikings made the playoffs eight of the next nine seasons. When present day Packers and Bears fans make fun of the present day Vikings, the older Vikings' fan can smile. They remember stretches like this one and the 1970s. In 1998, Minnesota amassed one of the greatest offenses in all of NFL history. Rookie Randy Moss, Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter and more. The loss at home to the Falcons by a missed short kick may be the single greatest disappointment in Minnesota history. The 15-1 team would probably be voted Most Likely to Win the Super Bowl in a Do Over, though fans of 2009, 1975, or 1969 may disagree.
Minnesota won playoff games in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. They were not just making the playoffs, they were knocking on the championship door. And then that is when the weather changed. Minnesota has only made the playoffs three of the last eleven seasons. The 2004 team backed in at 8-8 (but upset the Packers in Lambeau so they are revered). In 2008, Minnesota made a run with Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson at the helm. In 2009, Minnesota famously added Brett Favre and made a serious bid for their first Super Bowl, only to be beaten (literally) by a very aggressive Saints team.
A pair of three year droughts ensued in 2001. We will call this the 2000s Famine.
First, the 2001-03 drought where Minnesota went 20-28. The successful but turbulent Denny Green was let go for Mike Tice at the end of the 2001 season. Tice had a good thing going in 2003, starting 6-0, only to finish with a 9-7 record and missing the playoffs after a last-second Cardinals loss.
Minnesota started 5-1 the next year, only to fall to 8-8 by season's end. The victory over Green Bay kept his job for another year, but eventually Tice would be replaced by Brad Childress.
The drought of 2005-07 was one of mediocrity. The Vikings actually had only one losing season (2006, 6-10) and went 23-25 over the three years. In 2007, Minnesota drafted Adrian Peterson and that seemed to change their fortune. Peterson's 296 yard game in his rookie season typified the type of rain to change a landscape.
Minnesota was decent in 2008, going 11-5 and winning their first division title since 2000. And then there was the addition of Favre, and as any fan who is of reading-age knows, the 2009 season. But the 2009 team was not one of longevity. The holes began to appear. Players left or were injured. A great team disassembled rapidly. Brad Childress would be replaced by Leslie Frazier after a 3-7 start to the 2010 season, one filled with false promise.
Our present drought 2010- is at the two year mark. We are 9-23 in that time, making this the barest drought of all time, including the expansion years. Many feel we are in rebuilding mode and will not see the playoffs for a time. Others remain optimistic that this drought will be no longer than other recent ones.
Many good signs are appearing. A rejuvenated Adrian Peterson. A defensive end that is capable of having season's like Alan Page, Chris Doleman or Keith Millard. Again. A sharpening of the skills of young Christian Ponder. The explosiveness of players like Percy Harvin and Jerome Simpson. The addition of an offensive tackle (Matt Kalil) with hopes of a Ron Yary or Gary Zimmerman type future. Good signs.
But drought is tough to cure. Usually when it is dry in one region (ours) it is fertile somewhere else (the rest of the division). It will take good farming but maybe an added dose of hardship elsewhere. Not to wish ill on my rival teams, but maybe a plight of some kind. Like turnovers from your star player. Or missed field goals.
Because I do expect it to rain soon. And the promised land still waits for us all.
Glory and Skol.
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