I'll admit, I've been slow to hop on the anti-Christian Ponder bandwagon. Not that I've loved what I've seen from him on the field, but I just think it's unreasonable to expect the Vikings to already give up on their No. 1 draft pick from 2011. True, the timetable for young quarterbacks has accelerated and expectations are higher, thanks to the rookie-year success of Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Heck, even the rare flashes of competence that Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill have shown this year are a step up from most of Ponder's performances.
My main argument for supporting Ponder is that you'll never know what he's capable of until he's throwing to a full slate of NFL-caliber receivers. I even took to Twitter after the Bears debacle two weeks ago – when Jerome Simpson put on a pass-dropping clinic, and Jarius Wright and Stephen Burton were quick studies – and said dumping Ponder now would be akin to the Twins firing pitching coach Rick Anderson because he couldn't turn Esmerling Vasquez and Luis Perdomo into Cy Young winners.
Then the Vikings went to Green Bay. Ponder absolutely gave away a winnable game with two horrendous decisions/throws, and did nothing on the plus side to overcome those errors. He was truly, spectacularly horrible, and the fact that the coaching staff didn't replace him with Joe Webb should tell you all you need to know about Webb's stock within the organization. Had the Vikings won that game, they'd be tied with the Packers at 7-5, one game behind the Bears in the NFC North, and their unlikely playoff bid wouldn't be on life support.
When Leslie Frazier took over full-time in 2011, it looked like he had a major rebuilding project on his hands. Instead, Adrian Peterson has recovered from injury and remains in his prime as an elite tailback. The defense is still getting decent run out of veterans like Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield, and they went a long way toward shoring up weaknesses on the offensive line and in the secondary in last year's draft.
But with Ponder flailing about in the backfield, giving away games that could be won by simply "managing" rather than putting the team on his back, the Vikings are wasting Peterson's prime. They're wasting the continued efforts of their defense and recent draftees. And they're wasting a golden opportunity to challenge the Bears and Packers, who aren't as invincible as the Vikings feared.
Thus, presuming Ponder doesn't suddenly morph into the second coming of John Unitas the next four weeks, I've come around to the idea that the Vikings should at least consider their options at quarterback for 2013. The decision won't be made in a vacuum – it's not, "Should Ponder be the starting quarterback next year?" but rather, "Is Ponder the best of the Vikings' options at quarterback next year?"
So let's take a look at their options. They way I see it, the Vikings could go one of three ways. They could maintain status quo and give Ponder no competition for the starting spot; they could go 180 degrees the other way and bring in a veteran to supplant Ponder from Day 1, or they could split the difference and bring in a second-tier veteran to push Ponder and at least give Frazier a backup he felt confident in calling on when Ponder puts up a stinker like he did last Sunday. (We're not going to bother considering drafting another rookie starter, because the attendant learning curve would likely keep the offense in wheel-spinning mode as Peterson, et al, get another year older.)
So, let's take a spin around the NFL and see who the Vikings might be considering as they weigh their options for 2013
Alex Smith – His $7.5 million salary is guaranteed on April 1, 2013, meaning he'll get the axe as long as Colin Kaepernick doesn't completely fall apart during the final few weeks of the season. Jim Harbaugh traded up to draft Kaepernick in the 2011 draft, and he'll give the former Nevada star every chance to prove his worth and make him (Harbaugh) look like a genius.
Kevin Kolb – He's due $9 million in 2013, with a $2 million roster bonus. Even though rookie Ryan Lindley isn't tearing it up, it's possible that between Lindley and John Skelton, the Cardinals will be happy to let Kolb go and choose from the two much, much cheaper options. Also, Kolb has pretty much stunk when he's played, so … he's got that going for him.
Matt Flynn – His contract was worth $10 million guaranteed, and $19.5 million over three years. The Seahawks might just hang onto him for that investment, although if they decide that Wilson is their present and future, it's possible Flynn will be on the market. How fun would that be? First Favre, then Flynn? Packers fans would be apoplectic.
Chase Daniel – The Saints' backup will be a unrestricted free agent. It's hard to say what he's capable of doing in the NFL, because Drew Brees doesn't take a play off. But he might be worth a sniff as a quarterback to challenge Ponder.
Michael Vick – There's no way the Eagles pay him the $15.5 million he's owed in 2013, and they'll probably have a new head coach anyway, somebody who will want to make his mark on the Eagles roster. Thus, Vick will be a free agent. But does he have anything left? Will he be a fit in Bill Musgrave's offense? Will Musgrave even be the Vikings' offensive coordinator? So many questions …
Matt Leinart – He'll be an unrestricted free agent, and he's making just $700,000 with the Raiders in 2012. Oakland has hitched its wagon to Carson Palmer, so Leinart would likely jump at the chance to challenge for the job. But isn't he just a left-handed Christian Ponder?
Matt Cassel – He's due $16.5 million over the next two years, and it's likely the Chiefs have seen enough from him. But isn't he just a right-handed Matt Leinart?
Chad Henne – The Jaguars are in a similar position as the Vikings. Do they stick with their 2011 first-round draft choice, who's been underwhelming thus far? In this case, Blaine Gabbert might have more rope to work with because the Jags aren't close to contending. They're more likely to let Henne walk, thus dodging his $2.6 million salary for 2013, and rolling the dice on Gabbert.
Matt Hasselbeck – He'll be 38 next September and he sure looked like he was done when the Vikings schooled him in October. But Jake Locker is the future in Tennessee, and with $5.5 million due Hasselbeck in 2013, it's possible the Titans will gamble on Locker with Rusty Smith as the backup, meaning the former Seahawks Pro Bowler could be available as a veteran mentor and possible challenger to Ponder.
Ryan Mallet – He was in the same draft class as Ponder, but slipped to the third round due to rumors of drug use. He's apparently kept his nose clean thus far in New England, but he's signed to a team-friendly contact and there's no way Bill Belichick trades his insurance policy for Tom Brady for anything less than a price the Vikings should not be willing to pay.
Matt Moore – The Dolphins are obviously smitten with Tannehill, meaning they could save $2.5 million by letting Moore walk after this season. He showed promise at the end of the 2009 season, when he went 4-1 down the stretch for Carolina, including a three-TD, no-interception performance against the Vikings. But he went 6-7 as a starter for Miami in 2011 and would be little more than competition for Ponder if the Vikings were to bring him aboard.
There are a handful of potential free agents not even worth discussing – Derek Anderson, Jimmy Clausen, Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, Colt McCoy, Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen – and at least one other – Joe Flacco – who won't be hitting the market.
So, looking at our list, there's probably only one guy out there (Smith) who would become the starter the moment he sets foot in the locker room at Winter Park, a couple of guys (Flynn, Daniel) with intriguing potential, a couple players (Kolb, Cassel) who had their chance as starters and failed spectacularly, some possibly washed-up has-beens (Vick, Hasselbeck) and never-weres (Leinart, Henne, Moore).
Are any of them better options than starting next year with Christian Ponder as the only quarterback option on the roster? That's up to Rick Spielman and – perhaps – Frazier and Musgrave to decide.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData and a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook. He's covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
Every Vikings fan knows that our passing attack is far, far removed from the "Three Deep" days. It's a rare Sunday that we see Christian Ponder unleashing the type of long pass that makes you shift to the edge of your seat in anticipation of a big gain.
We could argue in circles about the reasons behind the lack of explosive plays in the Vikings passing attack - Ponder's downfield inaccuracy vs. a lack of speedy receivers vs. a lack of receivers who can't catch vs. Bill Musgrave's playbook, which seems to include only one or two routes that go beyond 15 yards. It's a combination of all of the above, which have led to these number: 9.6 and 20.
The Vikings are averaging an NFL-low 9.59 yards per reception.
Who is ranked 31st? The Arizona Cardinals sit at 10.54. Yes, an offense that has seen their quarterback carousel turn to Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, and Ryan Lindley manages nearly one full yard per catch more than the Vikings.
The Vikings have completed an NFL-low 20 completions of 20-plus yards.
The Bears (27) and Chiefs (27) are tied for 30th, and it would take a miracle for the Purple to catch them at this point. The 2009 Browns (25) were the last team to finish a full season with fewer than 30 completions of 20-plus yards.
When we stack that 9.6 yards-per-reception average against recent history, we find only four teams who've been more pathetic in the past decade - the 2009 St. Louis Rams (9.5), the 2008 Cincinnati Bengals (8.8), the 2006 Houston Texans (9.2), and the 2003 Detroit Lions (9.4). Let's look briefly look back at those four offenses, where they were, and how they reacted:
The 2003 Lions were led by second-year quarterback Joey Harrington, whose top pass-catchers were running back Shawn Bryson, slot man Az-Zahir Hakim, tight end Mikhael Ricks, and fullback Cory Schlesinger. They were hurt by another Charles Rogers injury (five games played) and a steep fade in production by Bill Schroeder. With the seventh overall pick in the 2004 draft, the Lions selected Texas wide receiver Roy Williams. They also added speedy running back Kevin Jones with the 30th overall pick and signed wide receiver Tai Streets.
The 2006 Texans featured fifth-year starter David Carr, who completed 103 passes to Andre Johnson and 57 passes to aged veteran Eric Moulds. Rookie tight end Owen Daniels (34 catches) was a minor factor, as was Kevin Walter (17 catches). In the 2007 offseason, the Texans ditched Carr and Moulds, made a huge trade with the Falcons to land Matt Schaub, signed speedster Andre Davis, and drafted deep threat Jacoby Jones in the third round.
The 2008 Bengals lost Carson Palmer to an elbow injury after four games and turned the keys over to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was a relatively untested commodity at the time. Chad Johnson punctuated a terrible offseason by changing his last name in August, pouting, playing terribly, and finishing with 53 receptions for 540 yards over 13 games. T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught 92 passes but traveled a mere 904 yards. The Bengals had already prepared for the future by selecting Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell in the 2008 draft, but in the 2009 offseason, they also ditched Housh in favor of Laveranues Coles while praying for Palmer's elbow to heal.
The 2009 Rams opened the season with Marc Bulger under center and eventually also used Kyle Boller (four starts) and Keith Null (four starts). Steven Jackson (51) led the team in receptions, followed by raw speedster Donnie Avery (47), rookie Danny Amendola (43), rookie Brandon Gibson (34), and Randy McMichael (34). With the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, the Rams took quarterback Sam Bradford. They also traded for Mark Clayton and Laurent Robinson, selected three pass-catchers in the later rounds of the draft, and gave a shot to undrafted rookie Danario Alexander.
So, what's the lesson here? The Vikings aren't going to cure their lack of a vertical passing game over this final month, but fans can expect Rick Spielman to look far and wide for speedy and big-bodied additions to join Ponder, Percy Harvin, and Kyle Rudolph in the passing attack. We can anticipate waving goodbye to Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins, and Devin Aromashodu next offseason, and none of us should shed too many tears.
Some fans are already obsessed with the thought of going over Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace, or Dwayne Bowe. I'll leave that discussion for this upcoming offseason, but while we're all dreaming about upgrading this passing attack, it's time to get acquainted with youngsters the Vikings may be looking at with their first-round pick (currently No. 20).
Currently, there's not a clear-cut, top-10 wide receiver in the 2013 draft class. The college player who best fits that profile - USC's Marquise Lee - is only a sophomore. But the Vikings could be in position to go after Keenan Allen (Cal), Justin Hunter (Tennessee), Terrance Williams (Baylor), Robert Woods (USC), or DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson). Tavon Austin (West Virginia) is also in the first-round discussion, but the 5-9, 175-pound speedster isn't the ideal option for a team with Harvin and Jarius Wright.
Rather than ruin my holidays by praying for Simpson to turn into the threat we all hoped he would be, I plan to spend my December dreaming about who might help out this passing attack next year. I suggest my fellow Vikings fans do the same because our current lot of wideouts are what they are and complaining about them will just lead to high blood pressure.
I generally despise the term "must-win" game.
While Minnesota Vikings fans lament Christian Ponder's slump, fret over Percy Harvin's badly sprained ankle and rip the play calling of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, another significant concern exists on the other side of the ball. The Vikings run defense -- ranked among the best in the league a month ago -- has been obliterated the last four games.
The schedule-makers did the Vikings a favor by setting them up at home for their lone prime time game of the season. Said favor is even bigger considering the game is on a Thursday night.
We interrupt the Minnesota's Vikings NFC North contention for a look at an individual player's pursuit. Last year Jared Allen fell just one sack short of breaking the NFL's single-season record for sacks, settling for a team-record 22. This year it's Percy Harvin who's taking a run at the record books – for receptions.
Harvin's prolific pace finds him leading the NFL with 49 receptions, one ahead of the Patriots' Wes Welker. The 49 catches are the most by a Vikings player through the first six games of a season. In 1994, Cris Carter (who is overdue for the Hall of Fame, but that's another VikesCentric matter for another day) had 45 receptions through six games and finished with 122, an NFL record that stood for all of one season.
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