VikesCentric is written by Twin Cities football writers Bo Mitchell of SportsData, Arif Hasan of Vikings Territory, Aj Mansour, who hosts Minnesota Vikings Overtime on KFAN, and Joe Oberle a long-time Minnesota based writer. The VikesCentric crew crunches numbers, watches video and isn't shy about saying what's on their minds.
That the Vikings fell down 32 points is not just a referendum on Christian Ponder as a quarterback, as he would have you believe, but an issue with the entire team.
Naturally, the play of Christian Ponder is the first thing to point to. Though early on he had one or two moments where he's looked like a starting-caliber quarterback, his accuracy has been terrible throughout the game. Perhaps not to blame for the first interception (Luther Robinson, newly signed by the Packers, came through the line and hit his arm), the second interception was a terrible misread.
If there was much question about the issue of Bill Musgrave causing Ponder's struggles, perhaps this game can put that to rest. Ponder’s accuracy is well represented by his 50 percent completion rate, and though drops are not entirely his fault, the bad ball placement always increases the likelihood of those plays.
That said, against the Packers’ second-string defense, Ponder looked much sharper, especially on his last two drives. That doesn’t mean much, but it would be incomplete to ignore it. Ponder had more time on these throws, but he also had some plays where he escaped pressure smartly and made the play.
Of course, Ponder was still terrible. Let’s not get away from that. Averaging 5.0 yards per attempt when excluding sacks, touchdowns and interceptions (and 1.96 adjusted net yards per attempt when taking those into account).
It's difficult to really evaluate the wide receivers, as Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson have streaked open without targets. Patterson has had more issues than Wright or Jennings in getting open, but there's definitely a legitimate concern about the Vikings working away from "manufacturing" his touches—even if he can't do as good a job getting open on traditional pass plays, the Vikings need a spark and aren't getting one with the traditional offense.
Jarius Wright did drop one of the few excellent passes from Ponder, but for the most part has had done well with what he's been asked to do—he can't control his targets.
Jennings had six targets and only two receptions, something he and Ponder can both share blame for. Jennings didn’t look particularly interested in the game, but Ponder wasn’t doing him many favors with ball placement. There’s a good question over how many of those balls were truly catchable.
Interestingly, after the game was well and done, Adam Thielen had a good game and made the most of his targets. He wasn't asked to do anything extraordinary, but had consistently good play on his targets. Whether or not he was open because of the plays and defensive calls is to be determined later, but for now it's an encouraging outing.
Charles Johnson even got a few plays, though should have done more with a great deep ball late in the game. His other play was not executed with a high degree of skill, though Johnson is graded on a curve because of his late arrival to the team. That curve in mind, he still should have done better, but at least he ended with a reception.
Chase Ford has looked good at tight end, and so has Rhett Ellison, with Ellison providing some additional support in the running game. Though Ellison hasn’t been as good of a run-blocker this year as he has been in the past two years, nothing stood out in this game as particularly bad or good. For a blocker, that’s fine. Ford ended up grabbing some late conversions and can move the ball; he’s certainly looking like more than a standard undrafted free agent, and if MarQueis Gray develops as the season goes on (and he had a nice catch late in the game), the Vikings may be in an interesting spot in regards to their tight end depth chart next season.
As runners, Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon have been somewhat disappointing, but Asiata's fumble was his only real issue; his success rate as a runner tonight has been fairly astonishing in all honesty. He grabbed good yards when the blocking was sustained for him and people may be surprised to learn he finished with 4.8 yards a carry. His blocking was on-point for most of the game, but he had some big mistakes there, including a penalty, in a short succession of plays before being pulled out.
McKinnon, though not entirely at fault for his poor targets, needs to make the most of his ability in the open field. He hasn't pushed with the explosion he's flashed in other games and the offseason and is limiting his opportunities. Further, his runback on the Peppers interception was a little baffling. McKinnon’s vision is fine, as is his patience—he simply didn’t flash the burst he’s known to have.
It may be easy to forget the contributions of players like Jerome Felton and though I admit I wasn’t watching for him on many plays, the ones I did see were excellent. He’s a solid blocker that has left his average 2012 behind him. Where earlier, there was questions about Felton’s role on the squad because of Ellison’s proficiency there, Felton is proving his worth on the team and is showing up as a better lead blocker.
The offensive line has been a mess, and though Ponder can't be blamed for the majority of the pressure he's received, though with more open rushers, he may be somewhat responsible for the free blitzers or extra pressures by calling poor protections.
On the other hand, Phil Loadholt should not be excused for his poor play on the day. Not only did he give up a number of pressures and play on his heels for much of the game (against a number of different rushers, including Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal), his added penalties didn’t help. Loadholt had been playing well in the previous two years, but he hasn’t looked like it in the past two games. He’ll need to find that form again.
On the other side of the line, Matt Kalil had a very up-and-down game, starting off with an excellent stretch of play to be followed by several more breakdowns in the middle of the game that gave rise to some of the questions he was attempting to stave off with his solid effort in the last game.
Kalil finished the game off fine, but that middle stretch of play is still enough to drive serious concerns, because there were some pretty big mistakes. That the end of the game was against backups may be relevant.
The interior of the line is difficult to evaluate in particular because of questions regarding the protection call—which head coach Mike Zimmer reinforced in the presser after the game by pointing out how involved the quarterback is in protection—where free rushers seemed more common than usual. Regardless, it looked like Charlie Johnson didn’t play with awareness—one of his strong points despite his maligned career.
It was difficult to tell if John Sullivan was at fault for the protection breakdowns, but he is likely not blameless, particularly with so much interior pressure. Christian Ponder was hit 16 times in the game, much of it up the middle. The only particular pressure I identified that was a result of a slipped block from Sullivan was an early Letroy Guion pressure (embarrassing), but it’s difficult to believe that it didn’t happen more often, given how many times Mike Daniels, Mike Neal and AJ Hawk were seen in the back field. On the other hand, it doesn’t look like Sullivan lost any ground as a road grader.
There was some dispositively poor play from Vlad Ducasse, but it wasn’t as clear as it was for Loadholt, who was likely the worst offensive lineman. Ducasse definitely didn’t sustain as many clear blocks. For as many issues Charlie Johnson had, Johnson at least looked like a better run blocker (with his own gaffes), while Ducasse seemed mixed at best in the same skill.
The defense was certainly up-and-down compared to the consistently anemic offense. Though Aaron Rodgers averaged 9.2 yards an attempt (10.6 adjusted net yards per attempt), there were good moments from the passing defense, including some highlight plays from Xavier Rhodes and consistently good play from Josh Robinson.
Though Rhodes has been out of position at times, he’s the kind of player that can make up for it if given the opportunity and did so against Nelson, though the ball was uncharacteristically underthrown from Rodgers. Despite some issues at the beginning of the game, Rhodes was able to finish well. Josh Robinson had a generally very good day, and though he drew a critical pass interference penalty, it was probably a good play and unfairly called. In the future, I imagine the Vikings coaches will ask him to play the same play similarly.
Captain Munnerlyn looked out of sorts in coverage, though wasn’t a bad run defender. Unfortunately, that’s not where his priorities should lie, and the touchdown Randall Cobb grabbed against him reminded Vikings fans of the Julian Edelman touchdown just weeks ago. Munnerlyn’s consistent issues in coverage need to be a talking point in the coaches’ meeting rooms, because it certainly is one outside of them. He hasn’t had a good game yet, and quite a few bad ones.
Jabari Price entered in for a few snaps with Xavier Rhodes out and played well for what it’s worth.
Behind them were Anthony Barr and Gerald Hodges, and though both had some good plays of note (more Barr than Hodges), they largely had some issues. Barr’s can be excused and don’t be surprised if he ends up positively graded by the Vikings and Pro Football Focus, with some great work in the run game, against a screen and looping for quick pressure. He also had some issues finishing tackles and staying disciplined.
Though the bigger issue with gap discipline was from Hodges, who was out of his gap for at least one play and potentially another on the two biggest Eddie Lacy runs. Beyond that, he too missed several tackles and took a poor angles on at least one run. He couldn’t get off of his blocks quickly enough. On the defensive side of the ball, there’s a good argument to be had that Hodges had the worst game of anybody, including Munnerlyn and Blanton.
If the question is about Eddie Lacy runs, the finger may more easily point to Robert Blanton, whose angles and tackling have been an issue for some time, and his coverage has not made up for this fact. In this game, the standout Eddie Lacy tackle has excited national media about Lacy’s ability to power in runs, but just reminds Vikings fans of the poor strength and technique Blanton plays with.
He’s been blown out of plays, dragged by runners and pushed off the ballcarrier. He doesn’t play with awareness of other defenders and diminishes the strength of swarm tackling by playing without discipline. There’s also a question about his role in the Nelson touchdown that turned Harrison Smith around, though it seems likely the call was on both Munnerlyn and Smith to stop.
And though Smith should have had more help than he did, he’s not blameless in the touchdown dime to Nelson from Rodgers. Smith bit on the play action, then played flat-footed against one of the better receivers in the NFL. Luckily, Harrison made up for it after that (though before that he did have a bad missed tackle), even before the Packers decided to play the backups. Once again, Smith was called up on in a variety of roles, including as a pass-rusher, man coverage defender (though not as often), strong safety and free safety, and in particular showed up in the run as the force player and had a well-timed interception, even if it was of Matt Flynn.
Up front, backups like Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen outperformed starters Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd. Johnson didn’t just have the best presence in the run game with some key tackles, he brought pressure through the A and B gaps, as well as complicated blocking schemes. He caused issues for center Corey Linsley, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and even guards T.J. Lang Josh Sitton at times. Though Stephen didn’t do anything of particular note, he also didn’t give up the bigger gains that Joseph did, though Joseph had two legitimately good opportunities early on that he couldn’t close for reasons that weren’t his fault, but were borderline penalties (though a good ref wouldn’t call either of them).
Floyd saw his gap gashed in the run game at times and couldn’t produce positive plays to balance his play, and his ability to put pressure on the quarterback is questionable at best at this moment in his career. Though Floyd finished with a sack, it was the result of pressure from Harrison Smith, Gerald Hodges and Brian Robison.
With them were the defensive ends who couldn’t get much done. Everson Griffen sandwiched his best play of the night with two offsides calls, and those will overshadow any pressure he got (minimal, honestly) otherwise. Brian Robison was better about pressure but had several plays with very poor run defense, either pushed out of a play or left leaping for a missed tackle.
Despite individual issues from the majority of the defense, there's a good argument that the defense as a whole played better than advertised. Naturally, the Packers scored many points, but when accounting for field position, things don't look entirely awful.
A field-adjusted metric like Drive Success Rate—which measures how often a defense gives up first downs per opportunity—marks the play as a general success, by keeping the Packers to conversion on 70% of opportunities when Rodgers, not Flynn, had the ball (for context, if a team did that the whole year, they would generally rank as the 20th-best in the NFL).
On the other hand, the Packers scored 35 offensive points, when their field position would dictate an expected points outcome of 21 total points with Rodgers on the field (an average offense against an average defense), meaning that the Vikings defense were two scores worse than an average team in the same situation.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. The Vikings, for the most part, played with a decent rate of success (there were more plays that were defensive successes than you may recall—the Packers punted on five of their ten non-Flynn drives and were two of seven on third down with Rodgers playing).
But the high success rate was counter-balanced by the sheer magnitude of the failures. If the failures were as impactful as the successes, the Vikings would have kept the game close, but the failures were so big that the Packers were able to put points on the board.
All around, it was a poor showing by the Vikings on offense and defense, and the abysmal special teams play of Jeff Locke shouldn’t be ignored either. Marcus Sherels was also confusing, as he fielded punts he should have let go, and let go of punts he should have fielded. The problem started with Christian Ponder, but it definitely did not end with him.
There should be no question that a lot of the sloppiness of the game can be attributed to the fact that it was a Thursday Night Football game on wet grass, but the Packers dealt with the same conditions and did better. Whether or not the team played sluggishly because they “didn’t have confidence in Christian Ponder,” or because they were left with low preparation time, the individual duties they were asked to perform were executed poorly, even from some of their best players.
Cordarrelle Patterson may have Vince Lombardi to thank for his big game.
Though Patterson owes the rich history of the NFL, perhaps it is more accurate to say the Vikings can thank Norv Turner’s willingness to engage in a time-honored NFL tradition of borrowing what works from other NFL coaches, which in this case is an adaptation on the Buck Sweep and Lombardi Sweep concepts from the 1960s translated to modern Vikings football.
It’s somewhat similar to the play the Steelers called in the 2005-2006 Super Bowl against the Seahawks to give Willie Parker a 75-yard touchdown run, the famous “Power O”.
Sometimes called a Toss Power Sweep, and occasionally a Crack Toss Sweep depending on who you ask and how much they care about tight end alignment, the Vikings found a way to turn one of football’s oldest plays and add their own twist, all while highlighting one of the preternatural talents in the NFL.
In this case, it involved some of the toughest blocking angles one could ask of offensive linemen, all while converting a halfback into a fullback to seal the lane.
With the Vikings lined up in “12” personnel—also called “Ace” personnel—and lining up with both tight ends on the line, they were still a moderate pass alert for defenses, especially with the running back line up relatively close to the line, at six yards upfield.
Generally speaking, with three eligible receivers on one side of the field and one on the other, a “3x1” look, the defense is looking to defend against either a “Tare” route combination or a “Snag” route combination that sees Cordarrelle Patterson go deep or hit a corner route in order to take the cornerback out of the play and stress the defenders in the hook/curl zones and the flats by sending the two tight ends in either high/low routes (Tare) or splitting the near defender (Snag).
The Tare and Snag concepts are the most common route combinations when offenses line up in 3x1, so the defense tends to key in on them, especially with the backside receiver outside the numbers (“plus” alignment)) to run a complementary route, often a delayed slant.
Different defenses will respond to this look in different ways.
For some, the primary response is to either run a “box zone” where four defenders are lined up in a box and have rules for who takes which receiver based on whether or not they break outside or in, or have a pattern-matching concept that allows the outside defender (the strong safety in this case) to take whichever receiver moves outside first while the inside defender (the Sam outside linebacker) takes the other receiver, regardless of his route (moving inside or a delayed move outside), all while the corner carries Cordarrelle Patterson where ever he goes.
Other defenses, and occasionally a Williams defense, will check into a Cover-3 zone.
But Gregg Williams loves to play man coverage, even when not blitzing, and that gave the Vikings the edge in both a literal and figurative sense.
The defense is in pass alert until Patterson motions into the backfield, which carries the corner with him and reduces the number of defenders at the point of attack (making it four blockers on four defenders instead of five on five in a scenario where Matt Asiata gets the ball and runs outside).
This empties the alley entirely and makes blocking on the edge extremely predictable. Ten times out of ten, the strong safety will react to a run not by attacking the ball carrier but getting depth and moving outside, making him an easy target for either of the lead blockers to kick him out of the play. In this play, Brandon Fusco does it, and he buries T.J. McDonald.
Just like Lombardi demanding the Packers seal the lane, the Vikings ask their blockers to create a track between the red line (an imaginary line between the numbers and the sideline) and the hash marks that the runner can use to gain yards, with blockers moving defenders one way or the other out of the lane, in some ways paving a road when leading out in front of him.
Easily, one of the most identifiable features of any of the “power” series of runs or the Buck and Lombardi sweeps are the pulling guard(s), this time Brandon Fusco. But the Vikings did something here that was unique, difficult, and risky (well worth it on first down).
Though the backside defensive end is rarely blocked on a play like this, it is extremely unusual to ask an offensive tackle—or any lineman—to block a playside defender away from the play when he’s one gap away at the snap. Kalil is in an extremely difficult position to get his block, and to his credit, he slows Michael Brockers down enough to get the rest of the play going.
The reason they asked that of Kalil was so that they could free up Charlie Johnson and John Sullivan to make crucial second-level blocks and double team the middle linebacker.
The risk is that the Vikings sacrificed the likelihood of a successful, albeit likely short, gain in favor of a high-yardage play, essentially forcing the run to either boom or bust instead of getting an acceptable four yards.
It also theoretically freed John Sullivan up to get off the double team and prevent the weak-side linebacker, who for most teams is the most athletic linebacker, from disrupting the play. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but it was still good enough.
Loadholt’s job was simple, and he did it well, which was to push Alex Carrington out of the play, whether that meant forcing him to overpursue or blocking him out entirely.
Both tight ends had fairly common jobs, and Rhett Ellison performed his (down-blocking the defensive end) to his consistently high standard, while Kyle Rudolph blocked the Sam outside linebacker well enough to ensure at least a ten-yard gain, which Patterson turned into much more.
As the corner rushes back into the alley he abandoned, Asiata plays his role to a T, and blows the defensive back out of the play—meaning the Vikings’ initial and most important set of blocks were both mismatches in favor of the offense, allowing a guard and a fullback to take on a safety and a corner.
Adam Thielen’s job on the edge is to beat the backside corner to the alley and either block the free safety or the corner trailing him. He sort of does this until Patterson outruns him to the end zone (and Thielen absorbs a Michael Brockers tackle for no well-defined reason).
You can see the whole video here.
In the end, the Vikings combined the old with the new, took some big risks and allowed their biggest playmakers the room they needed to make a difference, hopefully a steady pattern for years to come.
When Percy Harvin was traded to the Seattle Seahawks before the 2013 NFL season, not many expected the Vikings would be able to replace him. Beyond that, there was certainly nobody that thought the team would be able to improve off of what Harvin had done in 2011-2012.
In his final games as a Viking Harvin was beginning to come into his own as a runner and receiver. In 2011, Percy had 967 yards receiving and 345 yards rushing. 2012 was going much the same way before injury sidelined him for the final seven games of the year.
The relationship between Percy and the team falls apart behind the scenes, Harvin is traded for draft picks to the Seahawks and the rest is history.
Enter Cordarrelle Patterson.
Drafted near the back end of the first round after the Vikings made a trade with this next week’s opponent, the New England Patriots, Cordarrelle Patterson came into the NFL with loads of talent, but not much polish to show it off.
Thought by many to be one of the best receivers in his draft class, Patterson slipped to number 29 where the Vikings jumped up to snatch him.
The beginning part of his rookie season was bumpy. Struggling to grasp the offensive playbook, not yet able to run crisp route, Patterson watched most of the Vikings games from the sidelines as his receiving buddies were on the field and featured. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities, Cordarrelle funneled his emotions onto the football field. Since he wasn’t getting opportunities to be involved in the offense, he took matters into his own hands and made the best of the opportunities where he did get the ball, on kickoff returns.
After averaging 27 yards per return in his first NFL game, Cordarrelle took one to the house in his second game against the Chicago Bears. Sprinkle in a 69 yard return here, an NFL record 109 yard TD return against the Packers and Patterson suddenly had the attention of a coaching staff that was struggling to trust him.
But there was still this pesky problem of getting his route running up to NFL standards. So the Vikings found a way around it in the form of bubble screens and handoffs to their uber talented wide receiver.
By the end of the year, having really only played half the season on offense, Patterson was sitting pretty with 469 yards receiving (4TDs), 158 rushing yards (3TDs) and 1,393 kickoff return yards (2TDs).
Fast-forward to 2014 and people wondered if the league would have caught up to him now that the secret was out. Well, if Sunday’s game in St. Louis was any indication, the rest of the league still has a lot of work to do to catch CP!
On their way to the team’s first road victory since Christian Ponder led the team to a win in Houston at the end of the 2012 season, the Vikings steamrolled the St. Louis Rams heralded defensive front en route to a 34-6 opening week victory. And Cordarrelle was a big part of it.
Finishing the day with 26 receiving yards, 102 rushing yards (1TD) and 48 return yards, Cordarrelle made his impact felt. It was a 67-yard run that really turned the tide of the game for the Vikings. His performance also paved the way for one of the best MEMEs I think I've ever seen.
“It was a big play,” head coach Mike Zimmer said after the game. “When you get a one play drive like that, Cordarrelle made a great run and the offensive line did a great job blocking…he made a great run.”
Matt Cassel continued saying, “Anytime the ball is in his hands there’s a chance for a big play.”
So it got me thinking, how often does Patterson turn a touch into a big play?
For sake of the argument, let’s define a touch as anytime he catches, runs or returns the football. And we’ll define a big play as anything over 15 yards.
Under those parameters, here’s the data breakdown
Over the span of the 2013 season, Cordarrelle had a total 132 touches and turned those touches into 2,020 yards and 9 touchdowns. Extend that out through the first game of the 2014 season and that means, that on average, Patterson accumulates 20.33 yards per touch and scores one touchdown every 10.8 touches!
But how does that compare to some of the league’s best WR, RB and KRs?
Those are some pretty impressive stats for Patterson when you compare them to the league’s best. Moral of the story…GET THIS MAN THE BALL!!
Fortunately, I think this new coaching staff is aware of the threat they have in #84.
“We always want to get our playmakers the football,” Mike Zimmer said yesterday. “However we can do that throwing it, catching it handing it, it doesn’t matter.”
For his part, Cordarrelle has the same mindset.
“When I get the ball in my hands, I just expect to do great things with it,” Patterson said after the game. “I do a great job visualizing it. When I visualize, things start slowing down for me.”
It was fun to see some of the different ways Norv found to get the ball into Cordarrelle’s hands. What’s even more promising is the optimistic viewpoint that this is only the beginning and it’s going to get better from here.
The road gets a little more difficult the next four games for the Vikings, but the opposing defenses are nothing to fear. The opportunities will be there, it’s time to take advantage of what we might have in Cordarrelle Patterson. So Mr. Turner, get this man the ball any way you can!
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.
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