Coming off of the loss in Seattle, Minnesota finds itself at 5-4 and facing a difficult schedule. In fact, besides the road game at St. Louis ahead, this home game vs. the Lions might be the only game in which the Vikings will be near favored. (Oddsmakers are actually favoring Detroit by a little). And they will play without Percy Harvin, out with an ankle injury.
I have listened to my fellow Vikings' fans lament the play of Christian Ponder. And truthfully, he has been awful. Ponder helped the Vikings get off to a fast start by reducing mistakes, finding Harvin and Kyle Rudolph, and escaping the rush well enough to avoid sacks. But lately he has faltered. Ponder did not throw an interception in the first four games, where Minnesota went 3-1. In the last five games Ponder has thrown eight interceptions and Minnesota is 2-3 in those games. Ponder was sacked nine times in the 4-1 start, 14 times in the 1-3 stretch we have just endured.
But as any coach or knowledgeable fan knows, there is much that is hidden. From the television angle, I can see pass rushes are now getting through our line. Recently I have watched replays where John Sullivan,Charlie Johnson, Brandon Fusco, and Phil Loadholt have been beaten. Blitzes are not being picked up by running backs and/or tight ends. Even phenom Matt Kalil has allowed hits to Ponder. Opposing defenses are pressuring Ponder. Other than Harvin, no one else appears to getting open regularly. If quarterbacks face pressure without open receivers it gets ugly quickly. Just ask Michael Vick.
And the defense is suffering from the lack of passing offense. The Vikings have surrendered 30 or more points in their last three losses to Washington, Tampa Bay, and Seattle.Those teams are 23rd, 13th, and 32nd in passing offense. And that has not mattered because it has been through running games that Minnesota has collapsed. Against Washington Robert Griffin III slipped through countless tackles on his way to 138 yards in only 13 carries. Doug Martin did the same in his 135 yards on 29 carries (which turns out not so bad compared to other Martin games). And there is no shame in allowing Marshawn Lynch 124 yards on 26 carries, other than that means you do not have the ball. Inability to stop the run is the death of many teams.
And excuses are available. The defensive secondary misses the play of Chris Cook and Mistral Raymond until recent. Cook was having a great year and that freed up guys like Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford to make tackles. Josh Robinson, along with others, is raw and will be beaten at times.
Losing to ground games is often at the fault of the 'front seven'. In the case of RGIII, the front four needs to contain him within the rush and often a linebacker is assigned to quicker QBs. Neither did their job. It seemed in the loss to the Bucs and Seahawks that linebackers were simply missing assignments and/or tackles. Chad Greenway tackles so many people that we tend not to see fault in him, but the microscope is on Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. And one cannot help but wonder if the "have to get that sack" mentality of Jared Allen and Brian Robison is negatively impacting the run defense, as most yardage allowed appears to be leaning to the outside gaps.
Fast forward to today. At 5-4, and this being the easiest of the three remaining home games,today's game vs. the Lions becomes a must win to entertain a winning season or slim remaining playoff hope. Having beaten them earlier in the season Minnesota should have a winning recipe. Contain the run and put pressure on Stafford with the front four. Offensively, do enough with the passing game to allow Adrian Peterson just a little wiggle room. And avoid mistakes in your own territory.
With Percy Harvin out that job just became harder. Harvin has been electric in all aspects of his game. Harvin is on pace to shatter personal receiving records in this his fourth year. While his receiving efforts are probably most missed today, the idea of not having Harvin return kickoffs is also disheartening, He was averaging almost 36 yards per return, with four returns over forty plus yards in sixteen attempts.
Can Minnesota right the ship with a season sweep of the Lions? Without Harvin, it appears that the job of kick off returning us to winning football just became available. Marcus Sherels, the punt returner, appears to be most likely to have that chance. And this also means someone like Jerome Simpson. Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, or Kyle Rudolph will have to pick up the slack receiving.
Because Lord knows Adrian Peterson cannot do it all.
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.
When we dissected the schedule in the summer, we all knew that the first half was better than the second. Home games vs. the Jaguars, Titans, Cardinals, and Bucs were winnable. And then there was the powerful 49ers, who most assumed would defeat us along with road games vs. Redskins and Lions. Naturally, we would win the game vs. the Colts.Sic.
A 5-3 start. Possible, with five home games. (Sure, most people thought we would not be any better than last year's 3-13 team. Naysayers were baying 4-12 and 2-14. But we eternal purple optimists could see a better season. And the purple kool-aid drinkers envisioned the playoffs; like they do every year.) We knew then the schedule changed like the beginning of a Minnesota winter. Games at Seattle, Chicago, Green Bay, and later Houston. Home games against our division rivals. Only a single game in St. Louis appeared plausible for an easy win,
Maybe a 2-6 finish, given winning at least one home game vs. division. That was the thinking. A 7-9 season would be an improvement. Hope for the future. And realistic. Maybe 6-10 or 8-8 if things worked out well or not. A good year compared to the last few.
But something happened in 2012. Like magic. Maybe it was the community leaders rallying behind the team and helping pass the stadium bill. Maybe it was maturation of young players, or the addition of even younger. The front office? Leslie Frazier? Whatever happened, we got back our defense. The good one.
You noticed it Game One vs. Jacksonville. Maybe not so much Game Two vs. the Colts. But when Minnesota held both the 49ers and Lions to thirteen points, you knew. The Titans' win affirmed the obvious: we have a very good defense in 2012. Even in the 38-26 loss to Washington, two TDs came off of Christian Ponder turnovers deep in our territory. And only the immensely talented Robert Griffin III could run for 138 yards and two scores. Alfred Morris was bottled up. The Redskins threw for under 200 yards.
(Interesting to note that our two losses have come to the top two rookie quarterbacks.)
And now we enter the game vs. Arizona with expectations of winning. And certainly we will be favored against Tampa Bay the following Thursday. Two wins and we would end the first half 6-2. At 6-2 we would need a 4-4 finish to dream playoffs...
Suddenly the purple kool-aid has tainted the well. I see Christian Ponder returning to protecting the football, and trading 350 yard games for ball control. I see Jerome Simpson returning to the lineup, staying there, and producing down field. I see Adrian Peterson taking over the NFL rushing lead as he remains injury free all year (including recent ankle). Matt Kalil All-Pro in his rookie season. Jared Allen going nuts with sacks. Chad Greenway tackling everyone. Harrison Smith making a difference.Solid cornerback play. Winning all three division home games in the second half. Lots of Percy Harvin...
I am finding it difficult to remember just how bad we were last year. I know there were close games early, but after that it is hazy..
I may have a fever.
Joe Montana was phenomenal. He won four Super Bowls (XVI,XIX,XXIII,XXIV) and is considered among the greatest quarterbacks to have ever played the game. Others on the elite list include: Dan Marino, John Elway, Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw. Most of these QBs played their entire careers with one team, Unitas' brief stint in San Diego notwithstanding. Favre and Montana are different in that they led new teams to the Conference Championship games in the twilight of their careers.
Montana joined the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993, along with Marcus Allen. They were hyped in the media and instantly produced. In 1993 Montana led the Chiefs to a 13-3 record and the AFC Championship, which they lost to the Buffalo Bills. But Montana came back for a second year. In 1994 he played in fourteen games as a thirty-eight year old. He faced his old team the 49ers with their reason to let him go: Steve Young. Montana beat his old team and Young in an NFL Classic. He got them back to the playoffs where his final game turned out to be a 27-17 loss to Miami and Dan Marino, despite 314 yards and two tds and an early lead. He retired before the 1995 season.
Brett Favre is back for his second stint with the Vikings. In his first year the Vikings finished the two seed and he took Minnesota back to the NFC Championship, where they lost an OT affair, despite 310 yards and a td. Now he will play his last season for Minnesota in 2010. He will face his former team at least twice, and the reason they could let him go: Aaron Rodgers. Last year Favre tore up his former team and swept them in the home-home series. How will he fare in his final year?
Joe Montana, the four-time Super Bowl winner is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever don a uniform. So too is Brett Favre. If this is Favre's final finale, can he bring Minnesota back to the playoffs again? Will he go farther than Montana did in his last season? Can he add a 2nd Super Bowl win to his resume?
One thing is certain. His contests with Rodgers and Green Bay will be fun to watch.
I am thinking about trying out for the Vikings or Twins pretty soon. I still throw hard and I am in my forties. Isn't that enough? I wouldn't have thought so last week, but August 17th has rekindled my desire to become the pro athlete I dreamed of being in the 1970s. I think I can.
The news of Brett Favre's return after three teammates tracked him down was blasted in the media by some. How could the Vikings grovel like this? Offering millions more to a forty year-old to rejoin the team after his umpteenth retirement. Have we no backbone? Letting the old man skip training camp, again. Treating Tarvaris Jackson like he is a wicked step-child. Certainly now, as a forty-something, teams will simply copy the Saints plan of violently attacking him and he will not make it through the season. Minnesota is grasping at straws.
To that I say Jim Thome. Last night Thome rocked a home run to win a dramatic event against the White Sox. Thome is at that forty year level. Thome was basically let go by teams because all he could do is hit. As a matter of fact, he can hit. And the last team to tell him goodbye found that out last night. It was old-timer's day yesterday, what with the Return of the Favre and Thome's blast. It was the kind of night that makes forty-somethings like me reconsider their career paths.
Is it crazy that these old guys want to keep playing a young man's sport? How can they remain successful? They cannot last an entire season, can they? What fools these elderly be, right?
Let me introduce the greatest of oldies: Gordie Howe. Gordie played a violent sport (hockey) full of collisions and injuries. He started at sixteen in the minors and finished as a fifty-one year old in 1980 for the Hartford Whalers. He played in all eighty games that year. Gordie's best year scoring wise came in the 1968-69 season, when at the age of forty he topped 100 points for the only time in his career. This guy was so tough he survived a fractured skull in the 1950 playoffs, returning the next year at the start of the season. He also knocked out Maurice "Rocket" Richard with one punch as a rookie. Sounds a lot like a quarterback I know. As a side note, Howe did play a shift in the minors for the Detroit Vipers in 1997, at the age of seventy.
Besides Thome, baseball boasts many present forty-something. Jamie Moyer and Omar Vizquel to name a few. Baseball has had players like Satchell Paige (59 years old), Hoyt Wilhelm (49), Phil Niekro (48), and Jesse Orosco (46). Others whom have pitched into their forties include: Nolan Ryan, Tommy John, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens. But these are pitchers in baseball. These are not QBs in an NFL game, where opponents aim to knock you out of the game. Pitching in the MLB is not the same thing.
True. Maybe Gordie Howe was the exception and pitchers are not comparable?
George Blanda was a place kicker and quarterback who started in the NFL in 1949. He retired in 1958. Then he came back again in 1960. Familiar? Blanda starred as a quarterback/kicker in the AFL for the Houston Oilers. He was the leading passer in the league many times. In 1967 he switched teams, joining the Oakland Raiders as a thirty-nine year old. He was released in 1970 but came back again in his forties. Where have I heard that before? Blanda won two games in relief of an injured QB that season. Blanda went on to start an AFC Championship Game at the age of forty-eight, nearly winning until two late interceptions (yes, heard that before, too).
But George Blanda was far from the only QB to be active in his forties. Other quarterbacks at the same age range included: Doug Flutie, Steve DeBerg, and Vinny Testaverde. Even linebacker Junior Seau has neared this level. It can be done.
I am happy that Favre has returned. I laugh at those who laugh at us. I know there is a great history of we old people doing tremendous things throughout sports. Jim Thome reminded over forty thousand people first-hand last night. I have a feeling Favre will convince more than that. Old people are no different than you and me. Or was that short people?
Anyway, I am stretching out right now in lieu of the 2011-12 NFL season. Or maybe the 2011 MLB season?
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