ARLINGTON, Texas – The Vikings showed enough confidence in quarterback Christian Ponder to put the game in his hands rather than Adrian Peterson’s following cornerback A.J. Jefferson’s interception with 4 minutes, 35 seconds left in a game the Vikings led 23-20 on the road.
Why, you ask?
Why would they throw the ball from the Dallas 41-yard line, knowing Peterson had run 24 times for 139 yards and an 11-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1 to that point? Why would they throw the ball, risking the clock stopping when they are facing Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo with a secondary that started the game without three of its starters and had just lost the fourth of its top five defensive backs when Xavier Rhodes went down with a left knee injury?
Good questions. Very good questions.
Well, here was coach Leslie Frazier’s explanation following a 27-23 loss that dropped the Vikings to 1-7. And please do not shoot the messenger.
“[Dallas] had been playing a lot of eight-man fronts on first downs,” Frazier said. “It looked like [receiver] Greg [Jennings] had a step on the [defender]. We just weren’t able to connect. That was the thinking. A chance to really go up over the top of their defense with what they had been showing us throughout the game on first down.”
Jennings was open. But it was another coulda, woulda, shoulda moment for the embattled and formerly benched Ponder, who played better Sunday but still couldn’t close the game out with a key completion to run out the clock. Just like the Bears loss in Week 2, when he threw high to Kyle Rudolph near the goal line, and the Browns loss in Week 3, when a pass on third-and-short sailed wide of an open Jennings.
This time, Jennings was running a flag route from right to left and could have had a big-gainer with a solid throw.
Asked if he was surprised offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was calling a pass in that situation, Ponder said: “No, I thought we had a good play called. It was a man-[coverage]beater with Greg on a deep route, a crossing route, and it was a great play. For us, we were just short of hitting it. If he catches it, he either scores or is down on the goal line getting points.”
But Ponder — who completed 25 of 37 passes for 236 yards, one touchdown and one interception on the day — misfired in the clutch. Again.
“It looked a little long,” Ponder said. “I’m not sure what happened. We’ll see it on film, but it looked like I overthrew him.”
And only eight seconds came off the clock. A Peterson run for 1 yard on second down was followed by another called pass that Ponder turned into a 4-yard scramble. The Vikings tried to draw Dallas offside on fourth-and-5 but the Cowboys didn’t bite. When Dallas got the ball back at their own 10 following Jeff Locke’s punt, only 1 minute, 45 seconds had been taken off the clock.
That wasn’t something that sat well with defensive players during or immediately following the loss. The widespread frustration wasn’t directed at Ponder, but rather Musgrave for putting Ponder in that situation.
“I figured the interception would have got it done for us,” defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. “You think we would run [the ball] to run the time out. But I don’t coach offense. I just have to play what they call on defense.”