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.
Christian Ponder has critics. It started mostly around the loss to Washington, where Ponder made a few mistakes deep in Vikings' territory. Never mind that he threw for 352 yards and a pair of touchdowns, the interceptions were too much to overcome. That, and an inability to tackle Robert Griffin III.
He did nothing to impress in the win over the Cardinals in the Dome. That win was attributed to Adrian Peterson's big game and a stalwart defense which produced seven sacks and stops in the red zone. Ponder threw for less than 100 yards.
Now with his poor statistical performance on Thursday Night, which resulted in a blowout loss at home to the Buccaneers, many fans are calling for Joe Webb.
Ah, the fickle fan.
Lest one forget, Minnesota is 5-3 after half of a season, and Christian Ponder has had a decent season overall to date. Not compared to the elite of the NFL, but certainly in comparison to other Minnesota quarterbacks in our history. Let's compare Ponder to two other successful young Vikings draft choices: Fran Tarkenton and Daunte Culpepper.
Tarkenton was drafted 29th overall, in the 3rd round of the 1961 NFL Draft. He was the third quarterback taken after Norm Snead went 2nd overall, and Billy Kilmer drafted 11th.
Culpepper was drafted 11th overall, in the 1st round of the 1999 NFL Draft. He was the fourth quarterback taken after Tim Couch (1), Donovan McNabb (2), and Alkili Smith (3).
Ponder was drafted 12th overall, in the 1st round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He was the fourth quarterback taken after Cam Newton (1), Jake Locker (8), and Blaine Gabbert (10).
Minnesota was an expansion team in 1961, and Tarkenton started 10 games (of 14) his rookie season and went 2-8-0. In his second year Fran started all 14 games and was 2-11-1. Statistically, Tarkenton had 40 TD passes and 42 interceptions in his first two years. His passer ratings respectively were 74.7 and 66.9. Tarkenton's first winning season would be 1964, his fourth in the NFL.
Daunte Culpepper joined a team that had been one of the best in all of the NFL. He did not start any games his rookie season, but started all sixteen in 2000, going 11-5-0. The next year Daunte started all eleven games and went 4-7-0. His third season of full-time action saw a 6-10-0 finish. Culpepper had 33 TDs and 16 interceptions his rookie season. The next year he had 14 TDs to 13 interceptions, and then 18 TDs with 23 interceptions. Culpepper never had a winning season after his first in the league.
Christian Ponder joined a team that had imploded in the 2010 season. The previous year they had been one of the best in football. Ponder started ten games in his rookie year, and was 2-8-0. This year he is 5-3-0 surprising most everyone who follows football. Ponder threw 13 TDs with 13 interceptions in his first year. This year he has 10 TDs with 7 interceptions. His passer rating year one was 70.1, and this year it is presently 85.8 and falling.
Of course Fran Tarkenton would go on to a Hall of Fame Career. He was traded in 1967 to the Giants, and that trade proved to be the impetus for a dynasty of purple. Tarkenton returned in 1972 and led Minnesota to three of its' four Super Bowl visits in a ten year span.
Daunte Culpepper excited fans much like the scrambling Tarkenton. His 2nd year performance (2000) was incredible, and one of the best years by any Vikings quarterback. But then came the fumbles and the losses. He would be gone by 2006. His career fizzled.
And now Ponder. His overall record is 7-11-0. His poor decisions causing turnovers has created an impatience with the fan base. One could argue that the offensive line's play has also impacted his performance, but so could one argue the same for Daunte and Fran. And like Fran, he was given a team that presently does not stack up against the NFL elite.
So what should we fans do? Cut him some slack, knowing others have struggled as young QBs? Granted this is harder to do when young QBs like RG III, Andrew Luck, and even Russell Wilson are seemingly playing much better.
In fact, there are so many teams with young quarterbacks these days that fans have a right to expect more. Andy Dalton is playing well in Cincinnati, Gabbert looks decent in Jacksonville, Tennessee's Locker was impressive until hurt, and many others. Further, now veteran QBs like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Schaub, and Joe Flacco are winning consistently. None of them appear to be going anywhere soon.
Minnesota was 9-23-0 its' last two years. This year was supposed to be a rebuilding one, and after Thursday's poor performance, combined with the knowledge that the schedule will be much harder, most are reconsidering the fast start. Acceptance may overtake optimism, if it has not already done so.
Still others remain hopeful. While the defense has suddenly forgotten how to tackle against the Doug Martins and the Griffins of the NFL, they still are playing with a new found toughness. The offensive line's struggles have made life difficult for Ponder and OC Musgrave's playbook, but they are finding holes for the powerful Adrian Peterson.
And anything can happen in the NFL these days.
The period of mourning is over. The 2011-12 season was unique in that most of us realized before the season began that this year would not be a good one. There was the defending champion Green Bay Packers, who from the beginning of the season demonstrated that they are the elite team of the North. There was defending division champion Chicago, who as long as Matt Forte and Jay Cutler were present, were a force greater than our own. And there was the upstart Detroit Lions, who parlayed Matt Millen and first-round wide receiver blunders into enough early picks to put together a real team. Oh yes, we knew.
We had hope because of Adrian Peterson. There was talent in Percy Harvin. Jared Allen and Kevin Williams gave us enough of a defensive front to expect sacks. And there was Donovan McNabb. While no one thought he was Tom Brady, there was reason to believe he could improve the QB position from an aging Brett Favre and the friends of 2010-11. Enough pieces to compete.
And we did compete for a while. The early season losses were games within which most fans saw a chance for victory. Twenty point half-time leads. Late game leads. Close games. But we seemed to lose them all. By the middle of the season the writing was on the wall. The North would be tough in 2011-12, and we were not. McNabb was removed and the rebuilding began.
But rebuilding usually happens in the off-season. The NFL Draft. Free agency. Rebuilding in the seventh game usually means water under the bridge. Troubled waters. And the sea was angry in 2011. Adrian Peterson would finish with a season-ending injury. Minnesota would fall into the 3rd pick in the upcoming draft. The fans or citizens grew cold on helping support the Vikings' stay in Minnesota by the finding of a new facility. Coaches got fired. Sites blocked. The legislature using stadium talk for political gain.
A hush blankets the state.
The Super Bowl is today. The New England Patriots will face the New York Giants. Two big cities. Two storied teams. Two great quarterbacks. One great coach. One great defensive front.
In these quiet times it is important to take inventory. There are still many pieces of the puzzle in place despite all the negativity. It is comforting to know that the last nine years there has been at least one team that went from last to first in their division. The 49ers managed this feat in 2011. Maybe in our solitude we should study the framework of San Francisco.
Alex Smith was a number one draft choice in 2005. He labored for seven years before emerging as a play-off quarterback. Only one of those seasons did he start every game. RB Frank Gore was chosen 65th overall in the 2005 draft. TE Vernon Davis was chosen 6th overall in the 2006 Draft. WR Michael Crabtree 10th in the 2009. The offensive line that was a big part of why the 49ers were so good held three first-rounders, two taken in the 2010 draft (OG Mike Iupati 17th, OT Anthony Davis 11th).
That 2010 draft was big for San Francisco. Besides the linemen, there was safety Mays (49th), linebacker Navorro Bowman (91st), and kick-returner Kyle Williams (206th). Six key players chosen in a single draft. Six starters. The lambs became the lions. Of course it helped that the second-best team in the division was the 8-8 Arizona Cardinals. Or that the St. Louis Rams were there.
And free agency played a part in their success as well. So did the 2011 draft. Suddenly the 49ers had an outstanding pass rush led by the two Smiths, rookie Aldon and old veteran Justin. The secondary moved into the upper-echelon of the NFL. Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers. Two of them were draft choices outside of the top 100. Can you name which ones?
The point is Minnesota needs to use the draft to repair the team. The biggest holes? In my humble opinion is has always been offensive line. When I grew up watching the Vikings dominate the NFC (1970s) if not the Central Division, we had Mick Tinglehoff, Ed White, Ron Yary and others solidify our offensive front. We also had an extraordinary pass rush in Alan Page, Carl Eller, and Jim Marshall. We had a fancy quarterback in Fran Tarkenton and later a magic back in Chuck Foreman. That was enough. Or almost enough... at least we were always in the playoffs.
Clarice overcame her fear of the shrieking lambs. She used her resources well. Minnesotans now must quietly observe this year's Super Bowl and wait in anticipation for the 3rd pick of the 2012 Draft. Wait on the recovery of the best running back in football. Hope that 2012 is a better year for the offensive line. Hope we can find a secondary like that of the 49ers. Hope that Chicago is on the way down, and that both the Lions and the Packers have peaked.
Otherwise it may get real quiet.
Thanksgiving is the football holiday. This Thanksgiving there will be thirty-some at my house. And it will be good. I have been committed to watching the NFL on Thanksgiving since I was quite young. One of the reasons we took over the holiday within our extended family was so that we could enjoy the games without guilt.
And we have. Pass the pie.
This year is another where my Viking hopes have been dashed like a tournament team in the first round. I am of the 70s era, where Minnesota controlled the NFC, let alone the division. I witnessed five years of NEVER losing to the Packers. NFC championships were a common place; division championships expected.
But the 2010s decade has not been good. Year Two with Brett Favre a disaster. This year's transition from Donovan McNabb to Christian Ponder costly. At 2-8 there is little hope... unless you live and breathe Vikings. If that is the case, even year's like this one are dramatic. And there is much to be thankful for this year...
Like the decision to get rid of Bryant McKinnie. It was a bold statement to the team and the league. Leslie Frazier was here to set things right, and coming to camp out of shape worthy of expulsion. Sadly, I see McKinnie nearly every week playing decent tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. Right next to Matt Birk.
Or the jettisoning of Tarvaris Jackson and Sidney Rice to stupid Seattle. How could any team possibly think these two would be worth multi-million long term deals? Big money was saved. Yes, the 4-6 Seahawks look downright ridiculous compared to our 2-8 squad.
Thankful we took the time this off-season to bring in Donovan McNabb. The two year deal looks to be a stipend for mentoring a rookie. Master McNabb demonstrated early that on any given Sunday a team can beat another... for a half.
Or the battle between Owner Wilf, the politicians, and others as to whether the Vikings will play in Minneapolis, Arden Hills, or another state. But with the tailgating locations provided by the Metrodome, they could play in Los Angeles and there might still be $40 car spots taken as if nothing ever changed. In the 70s we partied right outside Met Stadium before the game. In the Metrodome we pour in through traffic similar to Occupy Minnesota.
Oh, I am thankful.
But there really are things to be thankful for at 2-8. Like the fact that only one team (the 0-10 Indianapolis Colts) has a worse record. That puts us in a three way tie for the second draft selection with the Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams. And with only four teams at 3-7 it is a safe bet that we will have a high draft selection like the Adrian Peterson year. The 2012 NFL Draft should be a chance to remedy a two year ailment that won't go away anytime soon.
You see, once the playoffs are dead, hoping for a good draft pick becomes a way to compensate for a lost season. I still am overjoyed with a win, but I also concede that there is a benefit to playing a rookie or inexperienced quarterback beyond experience. Ask the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-7), the Miami Dolphins (3-7), the Washington Redskins (3-7), Rams, or the Panthers. Or the winless Colts. Raw QBs make mistakes. Eh, Christian?
And as a Minnesota fan I can quickly reference the Minnesota Timberwolves of the NBA. No team in Minnesota history has done more to familiarize me with the draft process. No other sport have I spent so much time researching top draft picks. And years and years of failures chasing that number one pick have been more entertaining than the few years with Kevin What's-his-Name.
Well... I am thankful that the Vikings have been in better hands than the Wolves.
We still are, right?
There has been a change in red zone offenses over the last few years. Sure, it is nice to have that power running back that can blast it in from inside the five yard line. Another weapon is the tall receivers with good hands that snatch TDs away from shorter cornerbacks.
Recently there has been a swing toward finding the leaping basketball-playing TE. Guys like the Jaguars' Marcedes Lewis and Oakland's Rob Gronkowski each had ten touchdowns. Better known TEs like the Chargers' Antonio Gates (10) and the Cowboys' Jason Witten (9) also found the red zone often in 2010. Vernon Davis of the 49ers had seven TDs, and his stock is rising. So too is the play of Brandon Pettigrew of the Lions, and many others.
The Vikings have benefited from the efforts of Visanthe Shiancoe. The last three seasons Shiancoe has 145 receptions for 1,692 yards and 20 TDs. And those numbers are tainted by missed time due to injury. Shiancoe had only two TDs last year, a significant drop from the previous two.
So when the Vikings chose 6'6, 259 lb. Kyle Rudolph, a junior from Notre Dame, with the 43rd overall pick fans were curious. Some thought it a wise move right away, after all, Shiancoe is a nine year veteran and 31 years-old. There was still Jeff Dugan and Jim Kleinsasser on the roster, but that was easily rationalized as the difference between receiving and blocking tight ends. Others were upset. Why hadn't we addressed positions of greater need? S Rahim Moore, OL Stefen Wisniewski, and DE Da'Quan Bowers were all available. What were the purple brass thinking?
They were thinking Kyle Rudolph was special. He was a serious talent in two sports in high school: basketball and football. For example, in his senior season Rudolph scored 25 of his team's 52 points in a close loss to the top team in the state. He finished 2nd all-time in scoring at Elder High. He was offered basketball scholarships to attend ACC universities. But he decided to attend Notre Dame and focus on football.
At Notre Dame Rudolph became the first true freshman to ever start for the Irish at TE. He would finish with the fourth most receptions all-time at TE, despite a shortened junior year due to a hamstring injury, and an early exit to the NFL draft. In 2010 he had back-to-back games with eight receptions vs. Michigan and Michigan State.
So now it appears Rudolph has signed with the team. Suddenly, the Vikings look not-so-good at receiver, but really good at tight end. With both Shiancoe and Rudolph in the lineup, the Vikings find themselves with red zone options similar to the aforementioned TEs of 2010. Could it be that the Vikings are leaning toward having both in the lineup? Maybe Donovan McNabb and/or Christian Ponder will utilize the athleticism of the new TE?
It makes sense. Minnesota may be bringing a new look to the 2011 offense. One with an emphasis on TEs.
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