Before the nightmarish descent into a 2-8-1 record, before a comical quarterback carousel that included bringing in Josh Freeman midstream, before all of the gut-wrenching leads given up ... there was a team with some key young players coming off a playoff season and a 10-6 record.
The past cannot be undone. But in the present, and in the final five games of this season, this team -- and specifically its quarterback, Christian Ponder -- are hoping there are still things to prove.
We had a chance to talk with Ponder on Wednesday in as close to a 1-on-1 setting as you will get when someone is up at a podium. Leslie Frazier spoke first, and a large media contingent was there to pepper him with questions about the Erin Henderson situation and the week ahead.
When Frazier was finished, about three-fourths of the herd moved to the Vikings locker room. As Ponder walked up, there were only 3-4 of us remaining to talk to the starting quarterback.
That speaks volumes about the season and the Ponder fatigue. But it might have loosened the QB up a little. We asked him just how he can reconcile these 11 games and all they have brought, compared to the expectations when everyone was 0-0. His sense of exasperation over all that has unfolded was plain to see. He talked about the 2011 season, his rookie year, when the squad was 3-13 -- and how he never imagined he would go through a year like that this season because he feels like this year's team is so much better.
He talked about all the close losses. He talked about legitimately wondering if he was going to get a "pink slip" the day after Josh Freeman was signed.
And he talked about the good news being that the season isn't over.
Maybe that's wishful thinking. For practical purposes, the season is over. And as bad as the defense has been this year, the biggest symbol of this team's 2-8-1 record is Ponder -- just good enough to make you believe, and just frustrating enough when it really matters to make you hope for a high draft pick.
The stats say Ponder is the 19th-best QB in the league according to Total QBR. His number, 55.2, is better than the "average" of 50 and ahead of a lot of recognizable names. Three teams have two QBs each ahead of Ponder, so really you could say that according to that metric he has given Minnesota average QB play.
In the past three games, he has rushed for just eight yards. Part of that, he said, is by design as he tries to stay in the pocket and go through his progressions better. In two of those games, he had a passer rating (different than Total QBR) over 100. In the other, against Seattle, he was completely undone by a bad second half after a pretty good first half.
But look: we're not trying to build a case for Ponder here. We believe that ship has sailed and that his fate is directly tied to that of his team.
Maybe the only thing left is a five-week goal: that this team isn't as bad as its record shows.