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.
Mike Zimmer is neither the kind of defensive coordinator to rely on the predictive playcalling of the previous regime, nor the kind of coordinator that relies on aggressive blitzing, like Houston, Arizona and Oakland did last year.
And though the defenses haven’t been “revealed” in the preseason, a lot of what Mike Zimmer has done in Cincinnati has shown up in camp and in the exhibition games that give us some clue as to his philosophy, and they appeared in the game against St. Louis.
On first and second down, Zimmer defenses tend to play to the fundamentals, but when they encounter a “passing down,” Zimmer really likes to let go.
One of the best ways to create unbalanced pressure while still dropping enough players into coverage—something that inspired the creation of the zone blitz—is to fake pressure and create pressure from somewhere else. Generally speaking, this is best done through showing pressure up the middle, often called “sugaring the A gap,” the two gaps between the center and the guards.
This is an extension of the nomenclature used to designate gap assignments, with the B gaps between the guards and tackles and the C gaps between the tackles and the tight end (or the sideline). Sometimes, the alley between the tight end and the sideline is referred to as the D gap, or simply the alley.
The important point here, though, is that showing “double A gap pressure,” or presenting a possible blitz through both A gaps, causes the most trouble for offensive lines and quarterbacks in determining blocking assignments.
The double A gap blitz is a product of Jim Johnson, the legendary former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator, and it developed as a consistent defensive tactic in response to the increasing effectiveness of the West Coast Offense. Famously, Steve Spagnuolo used the tactic to great effect as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants in 2007, responsible for New England’s ominous Week 17 close game and their famous loss in the Super Bowl that same, record-setting year.
Mike Zimmer’s use of the blitz package mirrors its most common usage patterns in recent history, as Tim Layden writes in Sports Illustrated:
It begins most often with the defense's nickel personnel—five defensive backs—on the field with four down linemen and two linebackers in a 4-2-5 configuration (although it can be run from various other sets). As the offense reaches the line of scrimmage, the two linebackers move menacingly into the A gaps. If the quarterback is under center, the 'backers are eye-to-eye with him. "At that point it's mental gymnastics," says Jon Gruden, the former Raiders and Bucs coach who's now an analyst on Monday Night Football. "There's no doubt there's going to be some penetration in the middle if they blitz, and it's going to mess with your blocking schemes."
In terms of how it affects pass protection schemes, it’s pretty simple. The defense is showing a seven-man blitz, which creates issues. If the protection unit is in man protection, then there’s a man that’s free (because the Raiders here are in 6-man protection, at best). If the protection unit is in slide, or “area” protection, then a running back is responsible to cover the backside of the slide because the offensive linemen move into the gaps (zones) they are assigned to protect, leaving the backside free.
Usually, full-slide protection is used to protect on bootlegs and rollouts. It also leads to mismatches—though slide protection theoretically makes assignments easier to deal with stunts and twists, it can create issues if the defense has schemed a mismatch with a quicker defender attacking a slow-footed guard, or a tight end dealing with a powerful tackle.
The bigger difference in assignment is for the running back—offensive linemen in man protection will still swap stunting defenders. Instead, the running back is responsible for following a linebacker and protecting the quarterback from that specific person regardless of the gap they go through.
More often than not, offensive lines will engage in some sort of combo protection, explicit or not, in order to figure out their pass protection. That is, even those nominally engaged in man protection will pick up defenders in their area and expect others to do the same when not engaged.
The final method of protection involves dual-reading, where a player must read two players and make a call about who to block. Most often this involves running backs in man (or combo) protection, where they will read the linebackers inside-out (Mike to Sam), covering their blitzes in that order (if both blitz, the running back blocks the Mike).
These become more complicated when safeties and slot corners threaten to blitz as they not only screw up the assignments but add players that need to be accounted for. Generally speaking, Mike Zimmer and defenses in general will not likely rush more than seven, as the offense is probably going to send four of its five eligible receivers out in routes, and that would leave players uncovered.
Blocking with more doesn’t usually result in more protection; as Aaron Rodgers noted not too long ago, you may be able to better protect the quarterback by giving him enough receiving options. In the case of dealing with seven or eight-man looks, six-man protection is usually fine because a receiver will get a free release, and in an offense with sight adjustments (Schottenheimer’s offense with St. Louis includes them, though not to the degree that McDaniel’s offense with New England does), that receiver should adjust their route to be wide open.
In this way, the quarterback is “responsible” for the extra rushers. In the example above, where the running back dual-reads the Mike and the Sam and both rush, the quarterback is the one who accounts for the Sam by throwing it hot to the checkdown or hot route—the new route that the receiver runs in response to the blitz.
Sugaring the A gap was responsible for the first third down success in the preseason, when Schaub’s receiver failed to adjust to the blitz look and ran his normal route while Schaub expected him to run a comeback. The pressure and the failure to respond led to the incompletion.
In the end, the Vikings only ended up rushing five and confused coverage calls by dropping players like Brian Robison into coverage (if, for example, the tight end was supposed to be the hot route, Robison would have been able to cover it).
There are some clear issues with man blocking, which include the fact that a stunting Sharrif Floyd would have been very difficult to handle on a stunt. But slide protection would have caused issues, too:
That leaves the running back to either block a defensive end (something Norv Turner has expressed a few times something he doesn't want his offense to do) or the safety. Two free rushers are a little too much to handle.
In the end, the Oakland Raiders chose half-slide, half-man protection like the vast majority of teams on the vast majority of snaps. Though this would generally have done well against a greater number of rushers than the Vikings eventually sent, Minnesota still put pressure on the quarterback while dropping six in coverage.
Against the Rams, the Vikings showed double A gap pressure again, this time leading to a sack by Harrison Smith, coming off the edge again, which you can watch at the 1:27 mark of this video.
The Vikings showed eight-person pressure and rushed seven, leaving one defender to cover each receiver running routes, also known as "man-free" coverage. If the Rams kept a tight end in to block the seventh person (which would have shifted the assignments down the right side of the line), then the safety up top, Robert Blanton, would have rotated into a Cover-1 look shaded to the strength of the formation (where two receivers are lined up).
Instead, he picks up crossing receiver. Because of the added difficulties of this kind of pressure, defensive linemen who do not immediately penetrate drop back into short zones in order to disrupt any hot routes. The pressure package looked like this, and it was designed to put the center in a bind.
And though the center determined who to block quickly enough, the other A gap rusher needed to be picked up. With the running back occupied with Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith had a free release off the edge—both the left tackle and left guard had assignments with Everson Griffen and Sharrif Floyd.
The biggest beauty to this play design, however, is who the quarterback is responsible for: Harrison Smith.
Generally speaking, the person the quarterback is responsible for with seven- or eight-man pressure is a person who is playing on the same side of the formation as his progression. In his pre-snap reads, the quarterback needs to make a determination as to which half of the field he will begin his progressions (where the first and second reads almost always are) before he scans the rest of the field.
That creates an issue in this case because Harrison is coming off the open side of the formation (the "1" in the 3x1 alignment the Rams played on that down), where the quarterback wasn't beginning his reads. While in a broad sense this is the quarterback's fault (the Vikings were signalling off-man, which they ended up playing)—the receiver on that side of the field breaks inside to get open against that look—it's situationally still a loss because the Rams were on 3rd and 8, and that likely would not have converted.
In either case, the Vikings come out ahead. The protection scheme had an answer for everybody, even if the quarterback didn't execute that answer, but those responses would have led to a quick, short gain on third and long. Further, there's a chance Robert Blanton could have peeled off of his man to intercept the ball thrown to the open side of the formation.
Other solutions could have put the running back on Harrison and slid the center, right guard and right tackle inside, with the quarterback throwing hot against Captain Munnerlyn. Unfortunately for the Rams, it creates the same problems, as Tavon Austin ran a route depth at two yards and Lance Kendricks runs his spot route three yards from the line of scrimmage.
It still would have been better to dump off to Tavon Austin and hope for yards after the catch—that's why he was drafted—but the Vikings will consistently take short yardage passes on third and long and be happy to do so.
In large part, this was successful because the Rams' third string quarterback, and undrafted sophomore from Southern Miss, wasn't ready to handle that kind of pressure, and he couldn't direct the offensive line to maximize his time in the pocket. Some quarterbacks like to call for a rollout there, but that likely would have caused issues, as the Vikings on the strong side (Munnerlyn and Robison) would likely not have bit on play-action on third and long, or at the very least would play contain before reverting to rushing an unprotected passer.
Zimmer doesn't always send linebackers to rush the A gaps when showing six, seven or eight man pressure, but the threat of the blitz confuses blocking assignments enough that twists will be particularly effective.
That's another wrinkle to that specific rush the Vikings put on Austin Davis, with Robison and Johnson both taking a step upfield in the gaps they traditionally attack before moving inside—Greenway abandoning the A gap shortly before Johnson attacks it can often lead to unaware blockers allowing pressure. In fact, Johnson does get inside and gets to the quarterback; he may have been able to take him down if Harrison didn't do it first.
Sugaring the A gap doesn't have to lead to linebacker blitzes in order to be effective, and there are other instances when the Vikings dropped both linebackers in coverage while still getting pressure as a result of this tactic.
The Vikings can drop both linebackers and only rush four, and are still able to get the one-on-one matchups they want in order to force the quarterback to throw quickly—the center doesn't double anyone.
Like any blitz or pressure package, it isn't magic. But it's definitely a weapon in the Vikings' arsenal, especially on third down, when the sticks are seven to twelve yards away from the line of scrimmage. The Vikings sacrifice some speed on their pass drops and occasionally will sacrifice players in coverage, but the payoff seems to be well worth it.
Though the Vikings haven't done anything in this regard that hasn't been done hundreds of times in the NFL (Jim Johnson brought it into the fore in 1994), but it's a healthy addition to a defense that badly needed a shot in the arm.
Check out VikingsJournal.com for a reason to stay upbeat with Bridled Optimism and a fun look at Cordarrelle Patterson’s epic 67-yard touchdown run against the Rams.
It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. If that’s true, then the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this season is that the Vikings’ brain trust are insane.
Leslie Frazier’s announcement on Wednesday that Christian Ponder will be the Vikings’ starting quarterback this Sunday in Green Bay set of a storm of outrage in talk radio and social media circles. And rightly so. After Ponder threw away last week’s game in Seattle – turning a 24-13 game into a 38-13 blowout in the span of four passes – many fans and media members chose to look at the bright side.
“At least we’ve finally seen the last of Ponder,” they said. “No way they can throw him back out there after that performance.”
But certain cynical observers suspected otherwise.
@Skorzo60 We've thought that before.— Patrick Donnelly (@donnelly612) November 18, 2013
It’s not that we had any inside information. It’s just that we’ve been following the Vikings all our lives and have learned to expect the worst – or most bizarre – outcome in any situation. And Ponder continuing to start at quarterback certainly qualifies as a bad and bizarre outcome.
The Vikings’ season began with one critical goal: find out if Ponder is your franchise quarterback. The answer has been clear for a few weeks now – a resounding no. Ponder is what he is – a guy who can do a few things and look OK in stretches, but with too many shortcomings for an NFL quarterback. He doesn’t see the field well, can’t sense pressure in the pocket, doesn’t use his quickness to keep plays alive behind the line of scrimmage, and he throws way too many interceptions.
Oh, and he doesn’t have a very strong or accurate arm. Otherwise, he’s a gem.
The problem is, the Vikings are compounding their error by the way they’re handling this situation. Not that we expect Frazier to verbally decapitate Ponder on the podium. But you get the sense that he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.
After all, Christian gives them the best chance to win. And his errors are all easily correctible.
Frazier and Co. act like Vikings fans can’t see this, like the people buying tickets are blind, like the people they hope will line up to buy PSLs at the new downtown football palace are complete, blithering idiots.
But anybody with two eyes – heck, probably even just one – can see that Ponder is not an NFL quarterback. They’ve got two other guys on their roster who have been full-season starters on other NFL teams, and yet they keep running Ponder out there. No wonder the natives are getting restless.
The fact that the Vikings consider Ponder preferable to Josh Freeman or even Matt Cassel could say something terrifying about those two. Or perhaps they don’t value Ponder over those two, they just value a higher draft pick next year and think Ponder will help get them there with fourth quarters like the one he played Sunday.
The thing is, whichever way you slice it, Frazier is flat-out lying every time he opens his mouth to talk about his quarterbacks. If Ponder truly does give them the best chance to win, then it’s a bald-faced lie to say that Freeman has “exceeded expectations” in his time here. There’s no way they paid him $2 million to come here and sit on the bench into December. If that’s exceeding expectations, the Vikings need to set the bar a little higher.
As for Cassel, the fairest read is now that their playoff hopes are officially toast, there’s no reason to start Cassel, who at this point in his career is a backup with no hopes of being anybody’s quarterback of the future. A more cynical (and perhaps accurate) read is that they realize Cassel is the quarterback most likely to give them a professional effort and thus put their 2014 draft position in peril.
So for the time being, Ponder will continue to play the role of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger and other great horror movie villains. Just when Vikings fans thought he was gone for good …
They’d just better hope there’s no talk of another sequel.
Patrick Donnelly is a contributor to the Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
Of course, the converse of that headline also is true – it's never as good as it looks.
The 2012-13 Vikings are a case study of this theorem.
As I'm sure you all remember, last year the Vikings went 10-6 and reached the NFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed. It was an out-of-nowhere season after they went 3-13 in Leslie Frazier's first year as head coach.
But lost in the giddiness of the surprise postseason berth and Adrian Peterson's super-human comeback season was the fact that the 2012 Vikings massively overachieved. In 16 games, they scored just 31 more points than they allowed. They gave up 215 more yards than they gained. Based on statistics, they probably should have been – at best – a .500 team.
So how did they become a playoff team? Well, football is a game of emotions and momentum – within each game, and from game-to-game. If you win a few that maybe you shouldn’t, suddenly you’ve got confidence, whether you earned those wins or they were based on blind luck. If you win a few games early, you start to believe you’re good, and that confidence can carry over to the next time you’re up against it with the game on the line.
It’s also the nature of the hyper-intense schedule inherent in football. In baseball, if you blow one play that costs you a game, that’s 1/162 of the season. In basketball or hockey, it’s about 1/80 of the season. But if you blow one play that costs you a game in the NFL, that’s 1/16 of the season. Everything is magnified – for better or for worse.
Let’s travel back to 2012. The Vikings started the season by winning a game they probably had no business winning. Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert hit Cecil Shorts with a 39-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left and the Purple trailed 23-20. But Christian Ponder hit Devin Aromashodu (remember him?) with a 26-yard bullet and flipped a 6-yard pass to Kyle Rudolph to set up Blair Walsh for a 55-yard game-tying field goal as time ran out. The Vikings won in overtime, and suddenly they had confidence they could win tight games – which they did with regularity the rest of the year. In fact, they went 5-1 in games decided by one score last year.
Push ahead 12 months. The Vikings opened the season in Detroit, entered the fourth quarter down by a field goal and lost by 10. They followed that with a loss at Chicago, giving up the winning touchdown on the Bears’ final drive. A week later they repeated that pattern against Cleveland, and before you knew it, they were 0-3 and the season was circling the bowl. Even with Thursday night’s win over Washington, the Vikings are 2-3 in games decided by one score. When the game hits crunch time, this year they haven’t gotten (or made their own) breaks.
That’s not to say there aren’t personnel problems on the 2013 Vikings. Or coaching problems. There certainly are. But the personnel and coaches aren’t much different from last year. I’d argue that if they’d found a way to win two or three of those first three games, it would have snowballed into a positive trend as the players gained confidence. Maybe that midseason lull doesn’t happen. Maybe they don’t feel the need to grab Josh Freeman and throw the whole quarterback situation into flux. Maybe Frazier still has a modicum of job security.
Yeah, that’s a lot of maybes. And yeah, it’s always annoying when a fan of a 2-7 team says, “We’re just four our five plays away from maybe being 7-2!”
But last year, the Vikings were four or five plays away from going 5-11. Instead, they finished 10-6. The ball bounced their way last year, masking their flaws. This year, their flaws have been exposed.
But next year? With a new coach, a new quarterback (sorry, even Thursday night’s mostly stellar performance doesn’t have me buying stock in Ponder) and a fresh slate, don’t be shocked if this roller coaster ride resumes in a positive direction.
Patrick Donnelly is a contributor to the Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
And thus began the Josh Freeman Era. Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier cut open a vein on Monday, telling the assembled media that he's through making excuses for Christian Ponder, that Josh Freeman is the team's quarterback of the future, he's been given Ponder's locker and playbook and henceforth Ponder will be referred to as "He Who Must Not Be Named."
Oh, wait. None of that happened.
What Frazier actually said on Monday afternoon was that Ponder is "still our starter if he's healthy," that he "still has a bright future here with our football team" and that "it's hard to say" how Ponder's injured ribs are healing.
This non-committal song-and-dance routine was expected, because this is, after all, the National FOOTBALL League, and in the National FOOTBALL League you don't tip your hand or give away company secrets until you absolutely have to. Sure, most Vikings fans would love to turn on the 6 o'clock news tonight and see video of Frazier helping Ponder pack up his locker and Bill Musgrave waving good-bye as Ponder's SUV pulls out of the parking lot at Winter Park.
But that's not going to happen, because the Vikings (for good reason, usually) don't care what the fans want to see. The organization still considers Ponder an asset. You can question the validity of that assessment, but they're going to try to get whatever they can for Ponder, either now or later. Given that his current trade value might net them a bag of used kicking tees, don't look for a trade any time soon.
Frazier left himself some wiggle room when discussing Ponder's future with the team – that whole "if he's healthy" caveat creates a hole big enough to drive the Maddencruiser through, especially in the secretive world of the National FOOTBALL League. Don't be surprised to learn on Wednesday that Ponder's mysterious rib injury has been deemed life-threatening and ol' No. 7 will be spending the rest of the year on Injured Reserve.
In the meantime, look for Matt Cassel to start on Sunday against Carolina, and maybe even the next week at the Giants if he plays well against the Panthers. But the Josh Freeman Era is going to start sooner than later. They're not spending a couple million to look at Freeman in shorts and shells. He'll get a good, long look in the second half of the season to show what he can do with the best running back in the league, a solid offensive line (that is capable of playing much better than it has) and a head coach who isn't a raving, spittle-flecked lunatic.
So how's it going to play out? Let's take a look at a few potential outcomes:
Scenario A: Freeman plays well the rest of the season, leads the Vikings to the playoffs, signs a long-term contract to be the new franchise quarterback, Ponder is traded to Jacksonville for a seventh-round draft pick (a slight upgrade from the bag of kicking tees, but not much), the heavens rejoice, etc.
Scenario B: Freeman stinks it up, Vikings turn back to Cassel (or even Ponder, if he's not put on the IR) to run out the string, team uses its top-10 first-round pick on best quarterback available, Cassel stays on to start season until said rookie is ready to take over.
Scenario C: Freeman is so-so, leads Vikings to six or seven wins, bolts to the highest bidder next spring, Vikings stuck with best QB available around pick No. 16 and here we go again …
Personally, I could see any one of these scenarios playing out in the next three months. One thing you learn quickly as a Vikings fan is that nothing is surprising. What's your forecast? We'll take your predictions in the comments below.
Patrick Donnelly is a contributor to the Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
If you do a quick Twitter search on #DUMPSTERFIRE, you'll find multiple Vikings-related outbursts. And only one of them was written by me!
Where else can you go after that debacle on Sunday against the previously winless Browns, a team that had traded its only NFL-caliber running back and was starting its third-string quarterback?
This has to be the worst kind of Monday for a die-hard Vikings fan. I'm not talking about the blind loyalist who slurps the purple Kool-Aid all year long, the type of self-proclaimed "Super Fan" who named his dog Francis and his goldfish Randy and his first-born Tingelhoff (boy or girl), the guy whose wardrobe ranges in color from violet to eggplant. You'll never shake that guy's faith, and God love him for it. That's how scams like PSLs and $12 Budweisers continue to thrive in the NFL.
No, I'm talking about the more realistic Vikings fans, ones who can take the long view and acknowledge the team's flaws and know a thing or two about league-wide trends that have left the Vikings choking in a trail of dust. Those fans are going to have a hard Monday, because against their better judgment, they probably bought into the optimistic view of the Vikings' 2013 season that was being spun last week.
Surely you heard it. The Vikings offense – and Christian Ponder in particular – had figured it out in the second half against the Bears. The schedule gets soft after two tough road games to start the season. Four straight wins – against the Browns, Steelers, Panthers and Giants – seemed likely, starting with a "loser-proof" game against Cleveland.
Well, that optimism has been buried in an avalanche of turnovers, blown assignments, overthrown receivers and brain-dead special teams play that turned a "loser-proof" game into one of the Vikings' most disappointing losses in recent memory. The chances of recovering from an 0-3 start to reach the playoffs are miniscule, rendering the next 14 weeks (don't forget the bye week!) essentially meaningless.
Seriously, what can Ponder do to show that he's a legitimate NFL quarterback after the track record he's compiled? What can Leslie Frazier do to save his job when most observers believed he was in a "playoffs-or-bust" season? How can Adrian Peterson approach his lofty goals with the offensive line playing the way it has?
Oh, we'll figure out a way to cover the season, to glean importance out of each and every game. The takeaway from Sunday's loss is too obvious to require much elaboration, but we'll leave you with this: We agree that Ponder should remain the starting quarterback, because if they put Matt Cassel behind that offensive line, they'll get Cassel killed. He seems like a nice guy and we don't want that on our conscience.
Other than benching Ponder, what quick fixes would you make? Or are the Vikings truly as doomed as they appeared on Sunday? We'll take your suggestions in the comments.
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