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.
It's easy to hate the Eagles. Their fans most-famous for throwing snowballs at Santa Claus. The team that houses PETA most-despised Michael Vick. They play in the media-bloated NFC East. Philadelphia knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs in 2004 and 2008, the latter a home loss.
And then came the movie Silver Linings Playbook.
It was a tremendous sports movie that in part focused on the die-hard fan. Suddenly I had a new-found respect for Philly fans. They care about their team and take their wins and losses to heart. As a die-hard Vikings fan I identified with superstitions, unwavering support, and anger toward others with less investment.
The Vikings are a community family.
At 3-9-1, one has to have unconditional love in order to support the 2013 Vikings. The defense is still on path to give up the most points per game in our fifty plus year history. The quarterback carousel has included many dismal performances by Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel. Coach Leslie Frazier keeps telling us that the team is getting better. And the 2-3-1 record in the last six games supports that compared to the overall record.
And now Adrian Peterson is injured.
Most fans are focused on our present draft position. It is fourth. However, there are five teams a mere half-game behind, at 4-9. Tampa Bay and Oakland, two of the five, have schedules that suggest they will not win again in 2013. Of the teams presently ahead of Minnesota in draft position, two (Atlanta,Washington) play each other this week. So a win by Minnesota could move the 2014 pick from a third overall selection to at least sixth or worse.
Cheer for a loss?
The reason the movie Silver Linings Playbook resonated with so many is that it rightly showed how loyalty is prized. In our anxiety-based, stressed-filled, crazy lives that we endure football has become an emotional outlet for millions. It is why we tolerate owners and players making millions while we work year round in jobs that pay much less. We fork over hundreds of dollars to attend games where you get a hot dog and beer for the cost of a family meal.
They are us.
I have no doubt the players and coaches want to win. It appears Minnesota has played hard despite all the losses.
We care too. We cheer for Audie Cole to have a chance to prove himself. We are excited with every touch by Cordarrelle Patterson. We want Adrian Peterson to run to a NFL rushing title, overcome another injury, and prove he is the best running back in football.
And so many of us want our team to win on Sunday.
It will be difficult.
The league's leading rusher is an Eagle: LeSean McCoy. He has 1,744 combined yards in thirteen games. Nick Foles, drafted 88th in 2011, has 20 TD passes to one interception. His passer rating is 120.0. Comparatively, Christian Ponder has a 77.9 rating and Matt Cassel has a 84.9. The Philly offense is ninth in scoring, third in total yards, and first overall in rushing. They have won five straight by outscoring opponents 158 to 90.
They are on fire.
But we die-hard fans look for victory. We know CB Xavier Rhodes is doubtful, CB Chris Cook questionable, and the Eagles run a spread offense featuring DeSean Jackson, who has 65 catches for over 1,000 yards. Despite the prime position present in the 2014 Draft, we loyalists want a win. We rationalize that management probably would misfire on a franchise quarterback anyway (the track record on hurlers being what it is). Top underclassmen quarterbacks are opting to stay in school. We have already lost the Teddy Bridgewater sweepstakes.
We are looking to win.
As crazy as that appears.
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.
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.
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