I was plugging away at our palatial SportsData offices late this morning when NFL insider Adam Schefter appeared on SportsCenter telling ESPN's audience that the Vikings were in serious talks with the Seahawks about a trade involving Percy Harvin for draft picks. Not 10 minutes later my Tweetdeck feed blew up with reports that the deal was done, pending a physical.
In the week that's passed since the Vikings' season-ending Wild Card defeat at Green Bay, a disturbing – but predictable – phenomenon has been on display in the world of social media: the trashing of Christian Ponder's reputation for having the audacity to miss a playoff game due to an injury to his throwing arm.
Actually, the criticism of Ponder started almost immediately after the Vikings announced he would not be active for Saturday's game. His deactivation was a surprising development, no doubt, thanks mostly to Vikings officials and Ponder himself downplaying the seriousness of his triceps injury throughout the week. A few local scribes wondered if Leslie Frazier's leaving the door slightly open to the possibility of Ponder not playing was just a case of Belichickian subterfuge designed to force the Packers to prepare for both Ponder and Joe Webb. But until word of Ponder's truncated pregame warmup trickled out, no one in their right mind thought he would actually miss the game.
Thus, when Webb was named as the starter 90 minutes before the game, Twitter exploded with outrage over Ponder's supposed lack of heart. Just one example: former Wild star Wes Walz expressed his shock at the news and ended his tweet with "#suckitup" in a hashtag. And that was one of the nicer critiques of Ponder's backbone.
Even after the game, when reporters noted that Ponder could barely lift his right arm to put his shirt on and Frazier said Ponder couldn't make the throws necessary to give the Vikings a chance to win the game, the tide of invective was not stemmed. If anything, the tone of the Internet tough guys hardened when gory photos of Ponder's swollen, discolored arm were made public on Monday.
Now, some amount of mudslinging is to be expected on the Internet, where critics can remain anonymous as they tear down the celebrities in their midst. But even on sites that require Facebook logins to post – or on Facebook itself – a shocking number of Vikings "fans" attached their name to commentary that revealed a pretty distorted view of reality, or at least a fundamental misunderstanding of the physical conditions required to play quarterback in an NFL game.
Most of the Ponder criticism can be broken down into five basic (and faulty) arguments.
1. Brett Favre would have sucked it up and played through that injury. Yes, Brett Favre started a remarkable 297 consecutive games and probably played through a number of injuries that would have sidelined any other player. But that's what makes this comparison so specious. Didn't we (and by "we" I mean fans and the media, especially certain members of the national media) just spend the last 20 years gushing about Favre's super-human strength and healing powers? Didn't we inflate the man's image until it was basically accepted that he was a god-like figure walking among us mere mortals? And we expect Christian Ponder – a player that most Vikings fans spent the first three months of the season trying to run out of town based on his dismal performance – to measure up to the Great Favre? (Oh, and not for nothing, but Favre did suffer a similar injury in 2008 with the Jets. He "sucked it up" and played through it, and the Jets lost four of their last five games as Favre threw two touchdown passes and nine interceptions in that stretch. Just sayin'.)
2. RGIII played through a much worse injury on Sunday. He sure did. And how did that turn out? Oh yeah. Not only did the Redskins blow a 14-0 lead after Griffin reinjured his knee in the first quarter and spent the remainder of the game hobbling around the field like the reincarnation of Billy Kilmer, but the rookie quarterback needed reconstructive surgery this week after his ACL and LCL finally gave out in the fourth quarter. The Redskins have a quality backup in Kirk Cousins, who led them to a comeback win over the playoff-bound Ravens and a blowout victory at Cleveland in December, but by the time Mike Shanahan turned the offense over to him, it was too late. So yes, RGIII played through a much worse injury on Sunday, and it cost his team a chance to win a playoff game and jeopardized his 2013 season.
3. Ponder needs to learn how to stay healthy. I'm not sure how one trains one's body to avoid injuries like the one that knocked Ponder out of Saturday's game. He hurt his triceps when Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett crashed into his right arm helmet-first as he was trying to complete a pass. If Ponder had curled up into the fetal position and taken the sack to protect his body, the same Internet tough guys would have called him "soft" and "gutless" and a bunch of other names we can't use on a family website. Injuries are what you call an occupational hazard when you play quarterback in the NFL. Sometimes they're unavoidable, no matter how well you've "learned" how to stay healthy.
4. They could have shot him up with pain-killers and sent him out there. No, they couldn't have. I'm not sure why this point wasn't made more clearly in the postgame breakdowns, but the issue was never Ponder's pain tolerance. It was all about what his body was capable of doing on Saturday afternoon and evening. All the injections in the world wouldn't have reduced the swelling in his arm, which hampered his range of motion and prevented him from getting any power behind his throws. You can't fire an 18-yard sideline route to Jarius Wright when you can't raise your arm above your chin.
5. I would have gone to work with a bruised elbow. This one's my personal favorite. Yes, Internet Tough Guy (or Gal), I'm sure you would have shown up for your job at the law firm or factory or McDonald's with a similar injury. I would have too. Because most of us can figure out a way to do our jobs without having to raise our right arm above our shoulder. An NFL quarterback doesn't have that luxury. It's right there on the NFL quarterback application for employment: 1. Can you raise your throwing arm above your shoulder? If the answer to that question is "no," then you can't be an NFL quarterback. Even if you have a physically taxing job, you can probably make accommodations for a similar injury and still perform your duties at a slower pace. It should go without saying that the same does not apply for an NFL quarterback.
In the end, I'm guessing most of the Ponder-based angst stems from fans who are upset that the Vikings laid an egg in the playoffs and wanted somebody to be mad at. They needed to lash out because the thought of spending a week (or an entire offseason) alongside smug Packers fans after that loss is really hard to stomach. Maybe they were in the "play Joe Webb" camp all season and were embarrassed to be proven so wrong. Or they were upset with the Vikings' brain trust for having no legitimate backup quarterback to turn to when Ponder went down. So they found themselves a convenient scapegoat – the pretty-boy No. 1 draft pick who earns millions of dollars, married the blonde bombshell sideline reporter, and showed just barely enough improvement in his second season (in the last four games of his second season, actually) to tease the Vikings into running him out there again in 2013.
But I can say this with complete confidence: if Ponder had "sucked it up" and tried to play through the injury, only to heave a dying quail on the first possession that Charles Woodson picked off and returned for a touchdown, these same Internet tough guys would have been screaming at Ponder for being selfish, for putting himself ahead of his team, for desperately trying to hang onto his job when everybody knows that Joe Webb gives the Vikings the best chance to win.
Look, I'm not saying Ponder is untouchable or should be immune from any criticism. Lord knows he provided plenty of ammunition this year – his performance in the first Lambeau game alone should give the front office night sweats this entire offseason, and rushing into a marriage with two weeks left in the season and a playoff berth at stake was certainly … odd.
But if you're going to attack the guy via social media, do it for the right reasons. His "toughness," "heart" or "dedication" are not among them.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
Like it or not, the Vikings are committed to Christian Ponder for 2013. They will hopefully bring in a tested veteran to push Ponder, mentor the young quarterback, and provide insurance, but I highly doubt Joe Flacco, Michael Vick, or Alex Smith will be calling Winter Park home.
Instead, Rick Spielman will likely place their No. 1 priority on shoring up and improving the offensive talent around Ponder, and that starts with assessing and upgrading the wide receiver situation. The "assessing" part of the equation is key, as the first step in the Vikings' offseason plan will be to figure out what to do with the enigmatic Percy Harvin. Let him play out the final year of his deal and hope he plays nice? Trade him? Offer a long-term deal?
Harvin's situation requires its own blog post, but his status will obviously impact how the Vikings build the rest of the wide receiver group. Let's assume, as Leslie Frazier asserted earlier this week, that Harvin will be back in 2013. I'd then like to see the Vikings pay Phil Loadholt, pay Jerome Felton, and open up the purse strings for a talented wideout who is ready to step into the starting lineup opposite. Who will be available and a good fit?
(Note: I'm only including known free agents at this point. I'm not going to predict any potential cap casualties such as, for instance, Anquan Boldin.)
There will be five top-tier talents available, but I'm going to cross three off the list right away:
Wes Welker, Patriots: The prolific pass-catcher turns 32 this May, duplicates too much of what the Vikings already possess in Harvin and Jarius Wright, and needs to be in a high-volume passing attack. Pass.
Mike Wallace, Steelers: He has grumbled about not getting the ball this season and about the Steelers not throwing deep often enough. I love the explosiveness, but I can't imagine he would entertain joining an offense that lacks a vertical passing attack and requires him to share with Harvin and Adrian Peterson.
Victor Cruz, Giants (RFA): Keep dreaming.
That brings us to…
Greg Jennings, Packers: Vikings fans know his talents all too well, and we seem to get a kick out of signing former rivals. Jennings turns 30 this coming September, and he has broken down in recent seasons, missing eight games in 2012 and three contests in 2011. I have little doubt that he'd look good in Purple, but the price tag could be troublesome. Vincent Jackson, who is turns 30 this month, signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Buccaneers last March. Jennings boasts a better statistical resume but also brings his injury history, so five years and $55 million could be in the ballpark for what he ultimately receives. Would you pay it? It feels steep and risky to me right now, but ask me again in two months.
Dwyane Bowe, Chiefs: The Andy Reid hiring may mean the Chiefs will be more serious about bringing Bowe back, but if he hits the market and if the Vikings are willing to spend big, he would be my top target. Bowe, who is a year younger than Jennings, carries some baggage, but he is also the big-bodied, No. 1-type receiver who makes sense opposite Harvin. And it doesn't hurt that he is accustomed to catching passes from
terrible less-than-perfect quarterbacks. We need play-making wideouts who can consistently win 50-50 battles (and instill confidence in Ponder to throw those type of passes) and Bowe will be the best option on the open market.
Brian Hartline, Dolphins: The market for Hartline will be very interesting to watch. If the Dolphins don't re-sign him early, Hartline could linger on the market and either (1) get a ridiculous desperation offer from a team that misses out on Wallace, Jennings or Bowe or (2) end up with a low-end bargain deal. He underwhelmed for three years before exploding for 1,083 yards this season. Nearly one quarter of that total came in one game (253 yards, Week 4), and he managed only one touchdown all season. I don't want the Vikings to be the ones who gamble on his breakout year being for real.
Danny Amendola, Rams: A slot receiver who was only healthy enough to play 12 games over the past two seasons? Where do I sign up?!? Amendola isn't a good fit for the Vikings right now, but I'm already anticipating someone like the Patriots, Broncos or Saints turning a cheap two-year contract into 200 catches over the next two seasons.
Danario Alexander, Chargers (RFA): The Chargers aren't letting him leave.
Donnie Avery, Colts: I'd take him at the same deal the Colts paid him this season (one-year, $615,000), but he is likely to receive a couple million to be some team's No. 3 wideout. I'd be okay with Avery if the price is decent, but I don't think he's an upgrade over...
Jerome Simpson, Vikings: Yep, we're already to that point in the free agent rankings.
Kevin Ogletree, Cowboys: He starred in the Cowboys' season opener (114 yards, two scores) before fading into the background and losing reps to Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley. He's worth a look on a cheap one-year deal to replace Devin Aromashodu.
Domenik Hixon, Giants: He's not sexy, but Hixon is one of the mid/lower-level receivers I'd like the Vikings to take a look at. He can be a veteran leader, runs good routes, has shown sticky hands, chips in on special teams, and should be fairly cheap.
Brandon Gibson, Rams: The 25-year-old wideout started 34 games for the Rams over the last three years, but I'll forgive you if you didn't notice. He set career-highs with 51 catches, 691 yards, and five touchdowns this season and received positive marks from both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders. He is another mid/lower-tier guy that I like as long as the price tag is reasonable.
And with that, we've quickly dwindled down to names like Randy Moss, Ramses Barden, Braylon Edwards, Jabar Gaffney, Devery Henderson, and Mohamed Massaquoi - receivers who rabid fans don't dream about in January when trying to dig for difference-making talents. At this point, we're better off turning our attention to the early rounds of the NFL draft, which will be a hot topic for the coming months.
The Green Bay Packers spent most of the 1960s building a mystique on the "frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" – a line, incidentally, that NFL Films legend John Facenda never once uttered, but hey, when has Chris Berman let the facts get in the way of a good story? Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jerry Kramer and the great Vince Lombardi dominated the NFL, winning five NFL championships (including the first two Super Bowls) from 1961-67.
That mystique was put on hold for a 25-year period during which the Packers made the playoffs just twice, but it was resurrected in 1993 when a good old Southern boy named Brett Favre picked up where Starr, et al, left off. Through the 2001 season, the Packers had played 13 postseason games at Lambeau Field, and they had won 13 postseason games at Lambeau Field.
Since 2001, however, the fabled Lambeau mystique has gone AWOL. The Packers are just 2-4 in their last six home playoff games:
Along the way, a few trends have emerged, both in the Packers' Lambeau losses and in their two wins (both over the Seattle Seahawks, in 2003 and 2008). The following points lay out something of a blueprint for the Vikings to follow if they want to pull out a win tonight. The path to victory might appear to be common sense on the surface, but the stats behind the concepts should help illustrate their importance.
For the Vikings to beat the Packers tonight at Lambeau, they need to do the following:
1. Score first – The Falcons took a 24-0 lead into halftime (whereupon announcer Bob Trumpy uttered the often-replayed line, "The silence you hear … is Lambeau Field"). The Vikings jumped out to a 17-0 cushion in the first quarter. In 2007, the Giants led 6-0 before the Packers got on the board. In 2011 the Giants led 3-0 and took a 20-10 cushion into the locker room at halftime. The best way to get a team out of its gameplan is make it play from behind. Plus, with alcohol sales being cut off at halftime, if the Vikings lead in the third quarter the stands might empty out fast. (Of course, it's not a guarantee – Seattle scored first in both of its losses at Lambeau – but it's still your best bet.)
2. Win the turnover battle – In their four losses, the Packers coughed up the ball 15 times – nine interceptions (including four by the Vikings against Favre in 2004) and six fumbles – and had just two takeaways. In their two wins over Seattle, the Packers turned it over twice and forced two turnovers.
3. Run the ball effectively and stop the run – This could be a chicken-or-egg phenomenon, because teams often run the ball more when they're protecting a lead, but you still have to be effective to make that strategy work. In Green Bay's four losses, their opponents averaged 136 rushing yards and chewed up the clock by running the ball an average of 34 times per game. The Packers averaged just 21 attempts and 84 yards in those losses. In their two wins over Seattle, Green Bay outrushed the Seahawks by an average of 157 to 39 yards.
4. Make them work for their passing yards – The Packers have been a passing team since Mike Holmgren and Favre came to town in 1992. They're going to move the ball through the air. Just make them work for it. In their four losses, Packers quarterbacks put the ball up an average of 39 times and completed just 55.8 percent of those passes, with nine interceptions and an average gain of 6.2 yards per attempt. In their two wins, Favre averaged 30.5 passes and had a 72.1 completion percentage, with no picks and an 8.1-yard average per attempt.
Sounds simple, right? Four easy steps to victory at Lambeau Field. Again, all four points are pretty much common sense to win most any game, but in the playoffs, sometimes it's good to remember that the best approach is to keep it simple.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
The Vikings are scheduled to break ground on their fancy new stadium sometime in 2013 – a stadium that will likely have a retractable roof of some kind. That obviously means some of the games at the new joint will be played outdoors.
Four weeks ago, the Vikings hit a low point in their season. The December 2 loss in Green Bay left the Vikings at 6-6, and with four losses over their previous five games, it appeared as though an improbable run from 3-13 to the playoffs was over - just another crushed dream for the Minnesota sports scene.
But a funny thing happened while fans were punching Christian Ponder's ticket out of town, calling for the entire coaching staff to be fired, and wondering what wide receiver the Vikings might target with their top-15 pick... the Purple won their final four games and earned the NFC's sixth seed. Amazing.
How refreshingly wonderful does this feel? Over the last four weeks, the Vikings stepped up, defied odds, exceeded expectations, and ripped off wins over the Bears, Rams, Texans, and Packers. Even the most grumbly, curmudgeonly, passive-aggressive Vikings fan should be all smiles right now.
Sunday's win over the Packers was one of the sweetest victories in my recent memory, especially since I'm one of the many Minnesota sports fans often consuming by the pessimistic belief that our teams are somehow doomed to fail and slap us in the face. Every Aaron Rodgers counter-punch - and there were many in the second half; #12 was brilliant - threatened to end the Vikings' season, but MVP* Adrian Peterson, the much-maligned Ponder, and the entire team took the punishment, got off the canvas, and ultimately delivered the victory.
(*There should be zero doubt across the country that AD is the 2012 MVP. I have nothing against Peyton Manning, but he joined a team that won a playoff game last season thanks to an excellent defense and a strong running game. I can name 5-10 quarterbacks who might have led the 2012 Broncos to the playoffs. Replace Peterson with any other running back in the NFL and the Vikings aren't in the postseason.)
In the biggest game of his young career, Ponder may have secured his space atop the 2013 depth chart. We've all been pining for him to perform exactly like he did on Sunday - work off of Peterson's lead, keep the chains moving, protect the ball, and occasionally step up and make a big play or three. I'm still in shock that the Vikings completed four passes of 20-plus yards in one game, including the 65-yard strike to Jarius Wright**. Through 15 games, the Vikings owned a mere 24 completions of 20-plus yards, by far the worst in the NFL.
(**As an aside, this impressive four-game win streak and push to the playoffs has come without Percy Harvin, the team's MVP during the first half of this season. It will be interesting to see how this plays into what should be an interesting offseason when Percy could receive a contract extension, be traded, or begrudgingly play out his contract.)
Ponder has deserved every bit of criticism he has received for his poor on-field play this season, and he also deserves praise for improving in recent weeks and for the win over the Packers. No matter what happens in the playoffs, Ponder's recent play should be a confidence boost as he heads into a critical offseason and a make-or-break 2013 campaign.
The Vikings will be heavy underdogs when they head into Lambeau this coming weekend, and frankly, a victory would simply be extra frosting on what currently feels like a pretty sweet and fulfilling season. Then again, the Purple are peaking at the right time with four straight wins and coulda, shoulda won in Green Bay on December 2. Anything can happen in the postseason; just ask the 2005 Steelers or the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings.
But let's start worrying about the playoff game later this week. Take a moment to bask in the fleeting glow of a Minnesota sports team rising to the occasion and delivering a winning performance (and four weeks of winning performances) beyond our expectations.
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