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.
If I read just one more "we need a new QB" post, hear one more rant, or join in a conversation about how awful is Christian Ponder,I will just die. It is not that people are not justified in calling out Ponder for his play, rather it is like blaming the large toll of deaths of the Titanic sinking on a part-time navigator. Sure he could have navigated better, but he was not in charge of lifeboats. He did not build the ship. He was not in command.
After Minnesota's 44-31 debacle on Monday Night Football, the team stands at 1-6. We have now lost to each of our divisional opponents, lost every game on American soil, and are setting records at a furious pace. Like most points Packers ever scored vs. Vikings, or highest-rated passer vs. single team in Aaron Rodgers...
This team is so bad, Jared Allen can be caught saying it. Only he was referring to the defense. And he is more right than a right end could be. This may be the worst defense in our fifty plus years. Christian Ponder is 0-4, and in four starts the team has scored 112 points.
Yet HE is the problem.
The builder of this present ship is Rick Spielman. While Spielman basked in last year's surprising playoff season, and the fleecing of NFL teams for three first-round draft choices this year. he has become a recent target of critics. Most blame Spielman for drafting Ponder. Some are more bold, and blame him for the Josh Freeman signing. Even a football idiot (which most of us would qualify for) knows there is no future help on the present ship at quarterback. Where we all differ is on whom to play.
The commander of Minnesota is head coach Leslie Frazier. It is assumed by most that he will go down with this ship. Only in Minnesota if we really think you are a great guy, we let you continue to coach no matter how bad your team (see Twins, Wolves).
And Frazier is a great guy.
Minnesota's defense has surrendered 225 points in seven games. Not only are we bad, but we seem to be medicinal in nature. Opponent's offenses wake up with a new found confidence. The Giants 0-6? No problem, beat us and you are suddenly on fire a week later. Carolina struggling? Come on over to the Metrodome and you can become one of the hottest teams in the NFL in a few weeks.
This defense is bad.
Last year a few players had big seasons on defense to overcome other shortcomings. Harrison Smith was a vital cog in 2012. So was Chad Greenway, Jared Allen, and Brian Robison. Not so much this year. Smith is one of many not playing, while the others disappear more than ever before.
I noticed something this last game as I prepared to defend Ponder once again. Early in the game Ponder made a throw to Jerome Simpson that was a little behind the receiver running an 'out' pattern. The defender stepped up inside his cut and nearly had a pick six. Simpsons' cut was rounded and easily defended. A poor effort. Meanwhile, Jordy Nelson, despite everyone on the field knowing he would be targeted, could make a sharp cut left or right and have a well delivered ball waiting.
Yes Rodgers good, Ponder bad. But also Nelson good, Simpson bad.
I blame Ponder for panicking. Running before waiting. Not seeing the whole field at times. And throwing most passes like you are trying to complete one in gym class to the kid who cannot catch. A purposeful soft throw. He has looked bad often. But tell me one offensive lineman that has had a good year so far? Please.
But where I seem to differ from the majority is in specific finger pointing. I believe Ponder could win on a good team. He did last year. I do not believe Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, or Andrew Luck could save the 2013 Vikings. Our coaches, defensive line, linebackers, secondary, offensive line, receivers, and even running backs have contributed to this 1-6 team.
The ship is sinking. And liability falls with the builder, commander, navigator, and a whole lot of other people.
How can we automatically spend a top pick on a quarterback in the 2014 NFL Draft, when we cannot trust who is picking. For every Matt Ryan there are two Jamarcus Russells. And are we so sure that a great quarterback will save this team more than a blue-chip linebacker, guard, or defensive back?
Tom Brady was a sixth-rounder.
To late for a do over?
Minnesota decided in the course of the last two weeks to turn to the fourth quarterback to lead the team in the last seven games. Josh Freeman stepped in on Monday Night and was gawd-awful, if that is a serious enough adjective to describe what a national audience witnessed last night.
Others might say roll-overed..
It has become clear to many that Minnesota's issue runs much deeper than who is at the helm of the ship. Christian Ponder, vilified for his indecision and short pass only approach, is suddenly looking like gold. To those of us that watched the entire performance of Freeman, as he set records for futility in an embarrassing loss, we were certain the coach would come to his senses and put in Ponder. Or Cassel. We were sure a change would mean a win vs. a poor New York Giants team.
We just waited.
I must remind the reader that I speak with Purple Love. I am indentured, betrothed, committed.. a Purple loyalist. Since 1970 I have lived with the Vikings being a part of my everyday life. When they won playoff games and dominated the NFC Central, I was there grinning. When they lost tragic games like the ones vs. the Cowboys, Redskins, Falcons, and Saints, I cried. And when they were completely incompetent like the Les Steckel season, or more recent ends in 2011, and this season, then I am angry.
But always a Viking.
Part of me felt bad for Freeman. Being asked to come in to a new system, and start on Monday Night, is a tall task. When the offensive line seems to be allowing more rushers through then a Black Friday Mall opening, you empathize. To the future, I can say that Freeman threw the ball stronger than either Cassel or Ponder. Really strong. Like too strong.
It got to the point that receivers were barely looking up anymore, as if they knew the ball was overthrown.
But I understand why we are committing to Freeman. At 1-5, with the toughest part of the schedule ahead, 2013 is a wash. A disaster. Freeman is young, like Ponder. It was reported than Minnesota coveted Josh prior to his NFL Draft selection by Tampa Bay. We think that Freeman's strong arm will best utilize the Vikings' receiver talent, and thus free up a frustrated Adrian Peterson.
But did we really have to suffer in such a way?
There are a few very good quarterbacks in the upcoming draft. With each poor performance Minnesota moves closer to having another shot at drafting a franchise quarterback. But if that is the case, why did we go and get Freeman? His passer rating was lower than Ponder's, and lower than Matt Cassel. Not to be harsh to Matt, but has anyone noticed how his 2-14 Chiefs' team of 2012 is doing this year with Alex Smith in his stead?
And I am not sure how to feel. I want to say I told you so, Ponder was the best option we had. I want to say Adrian, I think you were wrong about the 2,500 yards. That is probably closer to the amount of fourth quarter yards we will surrender this year. I want to say Leslie Frazier, which coaches are gone? Do we miss Coach Dunbar that much? What happened to our offensive line? How could you not make a change last night?
I am, and always will be a true fan of Minnesota. If they were to not win another game, I wold love them no less. I am in this relationship to the end.
But because I have committed to such a relationship I feel I can also criticize. I am not happy with the effort. In any other world, heads would roll. I have lost faith in the Vikings' management, brain trust, and owner. I think it was foolish to chase bad money after good.
We are free falling, as Tom Petty would say.
And while I do not see hope for this season, I do not want to see the team quit like they did yesterday. Zero points offensively against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Early in the season we were losing because the defense could not stop anyone. Last night the defense played well. It was four turnovers, more three and outs than I can ever recall, more incomplete passes than I can ever remember.
I still love you Minnesota, but you disappointed me greatly.
And I am most worried we cannot fix it.
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.
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