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.
I remember the day football became more important than Christmas. I was at my grandmother's house for the holiday, and for the first time I was allowed in the basement to watch football with the adult men of the family. It was 1971, December 25th.
While the fine cooks of our family fretted, the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins battled to double overtime in the longest overtime in NFL history. Miami eventually won 27-24. There were missed field goals in the overtime that had half of the family praying for a miss (more football) and the other half cursing the same miss (the turkey was getting cold).
When it was finally over it ended up being the majority of discussion at the table. My mother, who sided with her mother, had more steam coming out of her ears than I saw from the green bean casserole. It was clear to a seven-year-old that a power play had occurred inside my family, and football had won.
More than four decades later, nothing has changed.
My passion for Vikings' football rose out of the basement of my grandparents' house. The 1970s were a very successful time for Minnesota in the NFL. I watched Super Bowls. I witnessed Super Bowls. 12-2 seasons were expected. The Purple People Eaters defense controlled games.
Life was good.
Each season that begins anew rekindles that love I had for football dating so long ago. It does not matter to me if Minnesota is picked to finish last, or not expected to contend for the playoffs. when the first Sunday rolls around in September and we take the field with a 0-0 record, I am filled with hope.
And so today, the Saturday before the first Sunday, we anticipate. I have already coached a middle school football scrimmage at nearby Watertown-Mayer. I have rode on a bus with tough hitting kids who want to sing "The Wheels on the Bus" in unison. I have mowed the lawn. Checked my fantasy baseball team. Pet the dog. Grilled steaks. Talked football on the phone...
This is a very long day.
I eagerly await tomorrow. The Vikings have a feel-good story about them. A new stadium was approved. New coach Mike Zimmer is a long-time assistant who finally gets his chance. Matt Cassel is finally given control of this team. Nearly every rookie made the team, and three 7th-rounders look to see meaningful action. Adam Thielen came from local Minnesota State via the practice squad in 2013, to find an opportunity to contribute in 2014. Teddy Bridgewater is an instant fan favorite (sorry Matt). Free agent additions look to shore a porous defense. Adrian Peterson is rested and ready.
Add to that the Green Bay Packers were already roughed up in front of a national television audience. The St. Louis Rams, our first opponent, lost their starting quarterback Sam Bradford to an injury..
Life is good.
And so we wait for tomorrow. Unless you read this on Sunday..
Which would mean you have survived the longest day.
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.
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.
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.
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