Two roads converge in Chicago on Sunday, and the Vikings will take one. But which one?
The first, as you recall, defeated the big, bad 49ers 24-13. They swept the Lions by a score of 54-37 in two games. And they beat the Jaguars, Titans, and Cardinals as they should have.That is the team led by Adrian Peterson, at 5.8 yards a carry. It is the team that features Christian Ponder not turning the ball over. All this accented by a hard hitting, aggressive defense which creates turnovers and makes sacks. Names like Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Antoine Winfield, and Harrison Smith clutter the media broadcast.
The second, not as fair, is the one that suffered double-digit losses to Washington, Tampa Bay (at home), and Seattle. And was unable to hold on to a victory in Indianapolis. That team often allows sacks, throws interceptions, gives up first downs on third, and cannot seem to bring down elusive backs. This team does not seem to find Kyle Rudolph. This team sees OL on their backs or staring at their fallen quarterback.That team is the one most fresh in fans minds, given the present 2-3 record in the last five games.
And the two paths converge upon Chicago, where the Bears are coming off of a pair of rancid offensive games. Jay Cutler has been out with a concussion, and Jason Campbell is reminding teams why counting on old, slow, and weak-armed reserve-quarterbacks can be dangerous.The celebrated Bears' defense torched on national television last Monday Night. The Chicago offensive line looking more battered than a Mike Tyson opponent, the early years.
Vikings' fans are hoping Cutler is not ready. Maybe praying. Cutler has his faults, but defenses must respect his strong arm. And their is a gritty toughness about him that seems to be of leadership quality. Even when throwing an occasional interception. With Matt Forte, Chicago usually gets something on the ground or through the short passing game. It is the opportunistic Bears' defense that often feels like more of an offense than their own offense. Or their opponents' offense. That is often enough to win in the NFL. The Bears used this formula for a 7-1 start.
Many predict Chicago will play extra angry.
There is no doubt this is a crucial game for Minnesota's hope for the playoffs. They have a tough schedule ahead. Splitting games with Chicago and Green Bay will not be enough. A win this Sunday and the path to the playoffs suddenly becomes alive. A loss and the path to a .500 season looms. Given the 3-13 season last year this is progress either way. But in the modern NFL, teams turn around much more quickly than in the past. Just ask the 49ers of 2011. They improved by a total of seven games in a single season. It can be done.
Two paths will leave the Windy City. It is my hope that we choose the one where we win.
Because that will make all the difference.
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.
The Carolina Panthers submitted to their future this year by casting Cam Newton in the starting role at quarterback despite having highly-touted Jimmy Clausen already on the team. And to date, Newton has had success in terms of numbers. While the Panthers (2-5) struggle to win games, they have been competitive, and Newton ranks 2nd behind Aaron Rodgers in terms of scoring (rush and pass TDs). Carolina ranks 5th in total yards and passing, 8th in rushing.
This exciting brand of football has rejuvenated Steve Smith's career. Smith is averaging 21.0 yards per catch, has 39 catches on the season, and is on pace for nearly 1,900 receiving yards. Meanwhile, talented running backs James Stewart and DeAngelo Williams have a combined 615 yards and three TDs. Of course, Newton's seven rushing TDs have taken a bite out of the red-zone efforts of the duo, but Newton's 266 yards rushing are also enough to create a very balanced attack. Carolina has a strong offense.
But with the rookie's efforts also comes rookie pains. Stewart has more interceptions that passing touchdowns, and has been sacked frequently at crucial times. And while Smith's season has been phenomenal, the other receivers are not doing much. Legedu Naanee and Brandon LaFell are barely averaging two catches a game. Tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey are both called on more frequently. The Panthers -2 turnover ratio has cost them dearly in the close losses that they have had.
But no one is complaining in Carolina. The Panthers only have Clausen and Derek Anderson to call on, and Clausen is every bit as inexperienced as Newton, and Anderson, while a veteran in comparison, is third-string for a reason. No, Carolina has committed to the growth of Newton and the verdict appears to be that they chose wisely.
Minnesota did not have as much confidence in Christian Ponder to start the season. And while Donovan McNabb is a shell of his former self, he still presented as a better option than turning to a rookie to turn improve on a disappointing 2010 season. But then the Vikings weekly self-destructed in the second half of the first four or five games and suddenly their season's future was no better than that of Carolina. Suddenly, McNabb looked old and soft-armed. His mobility was questioned. And the crowds turned on him.
To be fair, the poor start was far from his fault alone. In repeated games McNabb seemed to find short receivers only to have balls dropped. The interceptions that turned games were deflections off of strong pass rush or receivers' hands. Collapsing pockets are hard to stand in, and McNabb seemed to be taking the same beating that old Brett Favre had suffered last year. Not to say McNabb was good, but one could easily point to offensive line, defensive backfield, even coaching decisions to find equal fault.
So Minnesota turns to Ponder. they unveiled him with a long pass on his first play to Michael Jenkins vs. the Packers. And while Ponder completed only about forty percent of his passes, he looked good maneuvering in and out of the pocket. His passes appeared mostly crisp with an ability to stretch a defense. Ponder's efforts rekindled Vikings' fans spirits as they begin the grieving process of not making the playoffs for a second straight year. But a loss is a loss, and the purist fan walked away no happier after losing at home to Green Bay. Hopeful, but not happy.
It turns out that Ponder and Newton both benefited from training during the holdout with Chris Weinke, a local ex-NFL quarterback, who has developed a successful training program for quarterbacks. The two worked out with their team's playbooks and got a solid jump on the 2011 season. Newton's early success and Ponder's start suggest more quarterbacks will look to Weinke for help in the future.
And so this game presents as rookie vs. rookie, two teams who have made their future the present. And while both need serious help on defense, each has played competitively throughout the season. The 1-6 Vikings are hopeful that Ponder's efforts will overcome the bad PR created by Chris Cook's domestic troubles, and a state government that appears to not want to help them stay in Minnesota. A down economy is not the time to ask for money, even if it means jobs and taxable income. Investment is frowned upon even when it is the best answer. And bad PR doesn't help.
But all that is forgotten on Sunday. What will certainly be remembered is the play of Cam Newton. Spurned by media before the 2011 draft, Newton has shown that there is a bias toward big running quarterbacks from simple offenses in college, even if they have all the tools of their passing-type counterparts. And Carolina appears to have benefited from that stinking thinking. Carolina is on their way up with the rookie and loving their good fortune in the draft.
Carolina, thanks to Newton, has learned what goes down can come up with the proper drafting of players. Let's hope Minnesota learns this lesson before 2012. With Ponder starting it appears they might.
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