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.

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VikesCentric: Counting down to Training Camp

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: July 19, 2012 - 12:03 PM

The Minnesota Vikings sent out their training camp media release yesterday – yet another clear indication that the real start of the football season is imminent.

Truthfully, the NFL really never takes time off. Whether it's the Scouting Combine, NFL Draft, OTAs, free agency, minicamps, or players getting arrested for "too much idle time," America's sport never strays far from the headlines. And of course fantasy football drafts have already begun.

Apparently the NFL powers-that-be know their limits, though, or else last week's Supplemental Draft (in which one player was selected) would have been televised.

Be that as it may, the real fun begins next week, as every NFL team reports to their training camp, with the first (the Arizona Cardinals) reporting on July 23. The Vikings will file into Mankato on Thursday and will hold their first practices on Friday amidst throngs of purple-clad fans and a mob of media members hanging on Percy Harvin's every word, waiting for the next "controversy."

I'll be part of the aforementioned "mob" as Vikings camp gets underway, in order to get a first-hand, up close look at the 2012 edition. Yeah, I'll be as interested as anyone to see if Harvin stirs the pot again or if we find out anything more about Adrian Peterson's knee and/or arrest (the three primary storylines as camp kicks off) but I don't expect we'll get anything new on any of those fronts.

The Harvin thing is being swept under the rug (i.e. being handled internally) by the Vikings braintust and you can bet Harvin has been encouraged to do the same and only address football questions from the media in Mankato.

As for Peterson, the most I'd expect to see him doing in Mankato is individual drills on the side. The Vikings will very likely begin with him on the training camp physically unable to perform list and then play his recovery by ear. His court date has been moved to August 6 and we presumably won't know anything more about that situation until then.

Assuming the chains don't move on the Harvin and Peterson sagas for now, I'll have my eyes on numerous other situations as the Vikings prep for their preseason opener on August 10 against Randy Moss and the 49ers in San Francisco, including: Who wins the job at right guard? What's the secondary – with two rookies seeing a lot of playing time -- look like? Does Jasper Brinkley appear ready to hold down middle linebacker and is he really finally healthy? Will Jared Allen school Matt Kalil or will the All-Pro take it easy on the promising first-round pick? Do Jarius Wright and Greg Childs have the goods to contribute immediately in the passing game? Are the Vikings really set with the Blair Walsh project at kicker or will they bring in some competition? Did brainy QB Christian Ponder pick up a PHD or MD in his spare time this offseason or just grow a beard and do a lot of fishing and golfing when he wasn't watching film?

Since this is a blog and has a comments section and stuff, let's put it to good use and compile additional questions that keep Vikings fans up at night as the team prepares for 2012. What will you watch for in camp? Are you going to Mankato to get your own scouting report? Let me know what you're watching. 

 
Bo Mitchell is the Vice President of Content at SportsData
 
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

VikesCentric: What if Adrian Peterson misses the first six games?

Posted by: Updated: June 28, 2012 - 9:01 AM

There seems to be conflicting news lately regarding Adrian Peterson’s ability to suit up for the first game of the 2012 regular season. Peterson himself believes he’ll be in the lineup, and head coach Leslie Frazier hasn’t ruled it out. Other published reports, however, suggest that opening the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list is a realistic possibility. There are some technical details related to the different types of PUP lists that I won’t get into here (basically, if Peterson is placed on the preseason, or active, PUP list, all it means is that he can't practice with the team, and it leaves open the possibility that he could ultimately wind up on the regular season PUP list, which would mean he'd have to miss a minimum of six games).

LeagueSafe’s Paul Charchian, while appearing on the Paul Allen show on KFAN 100.3 FM a few weeks back, raised the idea that putting Peterson on the PUP list could possibly be the best option the Vikings have. By doing so, the team would effectively be protecting Peterson from himself. By all accounts, AP is a freak of nature, and he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered late last year. He’s such a fierce competitor, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see him suit up in Week 1. But what if he’s not fully healed? What if he can’t cut like he’s used to, and as a result he re-injures himself? And, if he’s truly not 100 percent healthy (by team doctor standards, not his own), why would the Vikings risk putting him on the field?

It’s a sticky situation, for the sole reason that doing what’s best for the organization in the long haul (i.e. giving Peterson a mandatory 6-game vacation at the beginning of the season) would be an admission that the team doesn’t have realistic intentions of fielding a competitive team in 2012. You and I both know it’s a rebuilding year, but the Vikings would never admit that – not before the season has even begun. And you can bet Leslie Frazier, with his job on the line, isn’t going to admit that (which is another concern, really… if Peterson says he’s healthy, Frazier has every motivation to believe him and put him on the field immediately).

For the sake of argument, let’s look at the first six games of the 2012 schedule and analyze what kind of impact not having their best offensive player on the field might have on the team’s win-loss record.

Week 1 (vs. Jaguars): The Jaguars stunk last year. They were 1-7 on the road. They’ll enter 2012 with a second-year quarterback (Blaine Gabbert) who was even less impressive than the Vikings’ own second-year guy. If you’re looking for a strength, though, it’s probably their defense. Jacksonville finished 11th in total defense, and ninth against the run. Only three teams allowed less than the 3.8 yards per carry (YPC) surrendered by the Jaguars in 2011. A healthy Peterson would give the Vikings offense a huge boost against a solid Jags front seven, but this is still a home game the Vikings should win even if the capable Toby Gerhart is forced to carry the load.

Week 2 (at Colts): The NFL schedule-makers did the Vikings another favor with a Week 2 matchup against the rebuilding Colts. Indianapolis was easily the worst team in the NFL last year, and this will be the second career start for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Jared Allen might kill the kid, and the Colts spent the offseason surrounding Luck with offensive weapons while completely ignoring a defense that allowed nearly 27 points per game. Only two teams allowed more than the 144 rushing yards allowed per game by the Colts in 2011. For the second week in a row, it’s a defense Toby Gerhart is perfectly capable of exploiting, and it seems fair to say that if the Vikings lose, it won’t be because they couldn’t get their ground game going.

Week 3 (vs. 49ers): This is a loss either way. The 49ers are good. Their defense is even better. Opposing running backs scored just two touchdowns on the Niners last year, and only one back ran for more than 76 yards against them. It’s the kind of game a rare talent like Peterson can have a huge impact on, but if you think the 2012 Vikings can realistically beat a team that was a couple of botched kick returns away from the Super Bowl last year, I’ve got some land in Arden Hills I can sell you.

Week 4 (at Lions): Peterson destroys the Lions. In his career, he’s averaged 99 rushing yards per game and scored eight times in nine matchups. Ideally, against a high-powered Lions offense the Vikings game plan would focus on grinding out yards on the ground and keeping Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson off the field. A full-strength Peterson would obviously be ideal in this scenario, but the Vikes employed the same strategy successfully with Gerhart late last year. During a wild 34-28 loss that ended on the infamous and controversial Joe Webb non-facemask penalty in the waning seconds, Gerhart gained 90 yards on a healthy 4.7 YPC. That’s not to say Peterson wouldn’t have gone for 150 yards on the same 19 carries, but the Vikings were obviously able to move the ball on the ground despite not having AP at their disposal. Plus, like the 49ers game in Week 3, a road game against a 2011 playoff team isn’t a game you’re expecting to win anyways.

Week 5 (vs. Titans): This is where it starts to get tricky. The Titans weren’t a playoff team last year, but they went 9-7 and had a top-10 defense in terms of points scored against (a shade under 20 per game). But their run defense was mediocre, at best – they gave up nearly 130 rushing yards per game at a clip of 4.5 YPC. For a non-playoff team like the Vikings, a home game against a slightly above average team is the type of game you absolutely must win to begin to turn things around. Dynamically talented players like Peterson are the types of players that tip the scales in a game like this. Without him, I feel much less confident of a Purple victory.

Week 6 (at Redskins): Well, isn’t this fitting? The final game Peterson would miss if placed on the regular season PUP list would be a rematch with the team that injured him in the first place, in the same building. If Peterson were in uniform, you can bet the revenge factor would be high, and he’d be very motivated to exorcise the injury demons in a big way. The Redskins are also in re-building mode, however, and they weren’t very good last year. You probably remember that the Vikings somehow beat the Redskins on Christmas Eve last year, without Peterson and without Ponder, both of whom left the game early with injuries. Gerhart gained over 100 yards on just 11 carries, and Joe Webb tossed two touchdown passes to lead the improbable win. Like the Week 5 win over Tennessee, a road tilt against a non-playoff team breaking in a rookie quarterback seems winnable on paper, and again it’s the type of game where a healthy Peterson might very well mean the difference between a win and a loss.

By my count, the first four games of the season should result in two wins and two losses, no matter if Peterson plays or not. The difficulty is that Weeks 5 and 6 both seem like winnable games, but perhaps not if the team is missing its most explosive player.

That assumes Peterson is 100% healthy, though, and even if he is ready for Week 1 it’s highly unlikely he’ll be his usual, explosive self. Most running backs aren’t back to their previous level of play until the second season after their injury, and some are never the same.  

I don’t envy the Vikings front office on this one. If their star player, who they’re paying $8 million this year, declares himself healthy in training camp, it will be nearly impossible to keep him off the field. While going the PUP route would erase the temptation to put him in game action before he’s truly ready, it feels like an unrealistic scenario. The best course of action would probably be to carry him on the active roster, but don’t suit him up until Week 5. If he’s even 90 percent of his old self, having him on the field in Weeks 5 and 6 might be the difference between a 4-2 start and a 2-4 start.

Christian Peterson is the Director of Operations at LeagueSafe. He is a contributing writer for Vikings.com and a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM. Follow Christian on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP

VikesCentric: Vikings secondary can only get better

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: June 19, 2012 - 8:31 AM

The Vikings are holding their three-day mandatory mini-camp this week at Winter Park and one of the most mandatory things they need to figure out between now and their Week 1 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars is how to improve their secondary.

Actually, it shouldn't be too difficult to improve given how low the bar was set last year. The Vikings' secondary was bad -- historically bad -- in 2011.

Their Quarterback Rating allowed (107.6) was the second-worst mark in the history of keeping track of such things. Their eight interceptions were tied for the lowest in the league despite the fact they also tied for the NFL lead with 50 sacks. There was a lot of pressure from Jared Allen and company, but little to show for it. They couldn't cover or produce turnovers.

That's a bad combination.

Getting Antoine Winfield back from last year's broken collarbone will obviously help a lot. So too will getting some kind of return on investment from 2010 second-round pick Chris Cook. Cook's off-field issues coupled with the sudden retirement a few weeks ago of 2009 third-round pick Asher Allen underscores the Vikings' biggest problem in the secondary: they haven't drafted particularly well.

Actually, that's being kind. Their drafting of defensive backs over the last 12 years (starting with the 2000 NFL Draft) has been nothing short of catastrophic.

Consider the following: from 2000 to 2011 the Vikings drafted a total of 18 cornerbacks and safeties. Those 18 defensive backs have played a grand total of 38 seasons in the NFL – or slightly more than two seasons per player – and have combined for just 35 interceptions. Do the math. That's less than two career interceptions per defensive back that the Vikings have drafted since the turn of the century. It's also less than one interception per season. That's not good.

Are interceptions the only way to measure the value of a cornerback or safety? Absolutely not, but it's a very good metric. And when you consider that more than half of the interceptions (20) from those 18 players came from two just players -- Cedric Griffin and Brian Williams -- it's even more unsettling.

Compounding the problem, the Vikings have shown a particular penchant of swinging and missing on defensive backs as high as the second and third rounds, including the aforementioned Allen and Cook. Tyrell Johnson (2008 second round) left this offseason with two pickoffs to his credit in four seasons. Remember Marcus McCauley (2007 third round), Dustin Fox (2005 third round), Willie Offord (2002 third round) and Eric Kelly (2001 third round)? The four of them combined for five career interceptions.

But many of those players were selected under previous player personnel regimes, some during the "triangle of authority" years.

Recently-anointed general manager Rick Spielman is undoubtedly ready to turn the page, starting with this past April's draft. You can bet Spielman is counting heavily on this year's third-round selection, lightning-fast corner Josh Robinson out of UCF, to buck the unfortunate Vikings' draft trend of early-round misfires in the secondary.

The very early reports on Robinson are exactly what you'd expect of a guy who ran the fastest 40 at the combine: he's a blur. The Vikings also appear to have struck gold with their second first-rounder from this year's draft, safety Harrison Smith. If the two of them can contribute right away – and Smith definitely should since he's penciled in as a starter – and other offseason additions such as former Bears corner Zack Bowman and former Ravens corner Chris Carr are even serviceable, the Vikings secondary will be better in 2012.

It's far too early to tell just how much better they'll be, but let's face it: they can't be worse. I'm boldly predicting an improvement to mediocrity and a return to double-digit interceptions.

Hey, it's a start.

VikesCentric: Reel for Kalil

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: October 29, 2011 - 2:05 PM
With their beloved team sitting at 1-6, most Vikings fans have already begun looking ahead with an eye toward re-tooling the roster in the offseason, specifically via next year's draft. That's why Vikings fans should be sure to tune in tonight for the nationally-televised college football game between the Stanford Cardinal and USC Trojans – but not for the reason you might think.
 
No, this has nothing to do with the "Suck for Luck" campaign, which is currently all the rage in the markets with the worst NFL teams. I don't think the Vikings are going to suck badly enough to land the No. 1 pick (i.e. Stanford's once-in-a-generation quarterback Andrew Luck) with such horrible teams as the Dolphins, Colts, and Rams currently ahead of them in line.
 
While you can certainly feel free to enjoy watching Luck play quarterback tonight (ABC at 7 p.m. CT), the player Vikings fans should be scouting instead is USC left tackle Matt Kalil.
 
Yeah, I know, scouting an offensive lineman isn't nearly as sexy as scouting a quarterback, but I'm trying to be both realistic and optimistic on behalf of Vikings fans. The Vikes will still have to be pretty bad to have a chance of drafting Kalil because by all accounts he is the best offensive line prospect in this year's draft. And it's not particularly close.
 
The name should sound familiar. His older brother Ryan is a Pro Bowl center for the team the Vikings will play Sunday, the Carolina Panthers. Ryan was a second-round pick of the Panthers in 2007 and has been to the Pro Bowl twice since then. He currently snaps the ball to Cam Newton, who was the top overall pick in this past spring's draft.
 
And while I fully expect Luck to be a better quarterback than Newton (yes, he's that good), those in the know fully expect younger brother Matt to be better than big brother Ryan. That's saying a lot.
 
Indeed, Matt Kalil will be a highly-coveted pick in the draft next spring according to nationally-recognized NFL Draft expert Shawn Zobel, who I spoke with today before sitting down to pound out this blog entry.  On Shawn's web site, DraftHeadquarters.com, he calls Kalil a "top-five overall prospect."
 
I asked Shawn for more details, and here's what he told me:
 
"Kalil is as polished of an offensive tackle prospect as we've seen enter the draft in the past five years. He's on the level of where Jake Long and Joe Thomas were when they were coming out of Michigan and Wisconsin, respectively. Kalil offers a terrific combination of size, strength, and athleticism for an offensive lineman. He projects as a franchise left tackle capable of protecting the blind side of his quarterback for the next 10-15 years."
 
Does that sound like someone the Vikings and their fans might have some interest in? I know Christian Ponder's answer.
 
In order to turn their ship around, the Vikings are going to need at least three of the four basic building blocks of most successful NFL teams. Most importantly, they need a very good quarterback… which they hope they will eventually have in Ponder. I'm not breaking any news in suggesting the NFL is a quarterback-driven league.
 
Secondly, they need an end or outside linebacker to pressure the quarterback, which they clearly have in NFL sack leader Jared Allen. Another basic building block is a very good cover corner or even shut-down corner (of whom there are very few in the world -- none on the Vikings' current roster).
 
And lastly they need a stalwart, lights-out left tackle to protect that quarterback. That's Kalil.
 
Drafting Kalil would absolutely give the Vikings a building block. It would lock down one of the five most important positions on their team for the next decade.
 
So forget about "sucking for Luck," Vikings fans. If your team wins only a few more games this season they will be in pretty good position to add Kalil to their team in the draft. He's the guy Vikings fans should be eyeballing. He's the player Vikings fans should be campaigning for. Should we call it the "Reel for Kalil" or the "Keel for Kalil" campaign? I'm not sure which I like better, so I'll as VikesCentric nation to chime in below with the slogan they like best.
 
Share your comments below. "Keel for Kalil" or "Reel for Kalil"? Or something else I'm not clever enough to have thought of?
 
Bo Mitchell is VP of content at SportsData and co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday mornings on KFAN 100.3 FM.
 

You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

VikesCentric: Stats (probably) don't lie - the offensive line is improving

Posted by: Updated: October 13, 2011 - 3:01 PM

Football doesn’t lend itself to “sophisticated” statistical analysis quite like baseball does. The entire game of baseball essentially boils down to a series of one-on-one confrontations (between pitcher and batter, for example, or fielder vs. ball), the outcome of which is easily measurable (a batter either gets a hit or he doesn’t, a hit is a single, a double, a triple, or a homer, etc.). In the NFL, there are 11 moving parts on both of sides of the ball that largely have to work in unison to make anything happen. There are no traditional statistics to measure the play of an offensive lineman, for example, or anything but the most rudimentary stats to measure the effectiveness of, say, a cornerback (interceptions and passes defensed don't tell the whole story).

There are, however, a couple of websites that have made inroads into the world of in-depth statistical analysis for the NFL. The two most prominent of these are Football Outsiders (FO) and Pro Football Focus (PFF). Others include KC Joyner’s work at ESPN and ESPN’s recently unveiled and shamelessly over-promoted Total QBR statistic. From time-to-time, I plan to use these sources (primarily FO and PFF) to enlighten you, trusty VikesCentric reader, on... well, anything that strikes my fancy as being more than passably interesting to Vikings fans.

An important caveat here is that there is a huge element of humanity involved in how both FO and PFF compile their advanced statistics. By that, I mean that they aren’t able to simply take “traditional” stats that are easy to measure, twist them up in impressively mathtastic ways, and spit out a new stat that more accurately describes an individual player’s performance (like a baseball sabermagician might do when referring to a pitcher’s FIP, for example). Instead, they have an army of presumably intelligent people that analyze every play of every game in extremely minute detail. This is referred to, generally, as game charting. And it’s not for the faint of heart. According to PFF, charting a single game takes roughly 16 hours. These people are intimately familiar with their televisions and the pause/rewind/slo-mo functions of their DVR remotes. And, as with any human endeavoer, it involves a certain amount of subjectivity on the part of the game charters. A play deemed successful by one charter may not necessarily be graded the same way by another, etc. In any case, after the charting is complete, FO and PFF have their own systems of grading the performance of, say, a cornerback or an offensive lineman.

Which brings me to a nice starting point; the Vikings offensive line, which by most accounts was expected to be a serious cause for concern coming into the season. While the results have been mixed – particularly in terms of pass protection – the game charters and math wizards would have us believe there are several notable trends emerging along the Purple’s offensive line:

1) Phil Loadholt is quietly becoming a very good right tackle.

2) John Sullivan isn’t as bad as you may have been lead to believe.

Let’s begin with Loadholt. According to PFF, Loadholt registered the highest single-game run-blocking score of his career during last week’s win over the Cardinals. Loadholt, matched up primarily with Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett, paved the way for the Vikings to average 7.0 yards per carry on runs to either side of Loadholt a week ago, and according to the ICSIWMOTE Index that I just made up (I Can See It With My Own Two Eyes Index), he threw key blocks on two of Peterson’s three touchdown runs. Loadholt was given a +3.8 rating for run blocking last week, bringing his yearly total to +9.4. Generally, a grade of 0 means a blocker did essentially what you’d expect the average NFL offensive lineman to do on any given play. A grade of +0.5 or +1 (up to a max of +2) is an indication that the player made “a positive intervention on the game” of varying degree, a negative grade means the opposite (a “negative intervention,” I suppose... soon to undoubtedly be coined a "T-Jack"). In the Loadholt example, you add up all the zeroes, positives, and negatives for every single play of last week’s game to eventually arrive at a total of +3.8. It’s science.

Putting it in a little more perspective, Loadholt’s cumulative +9.4 run blocking grade ranks first in the NFL through five weeks, well ahead of the Packers’ Bryan Bulaga and the Patriots’ Matt Light. If that hasn’t yet sunk in, according to smart people who watch every play of every game over and over and over (and over) again for up to 16 hours at a time, Phil Loadholt is the best run-blocking tackle in all of football. Even if you include guards and centers, Loadholt is still the No. 2 run-blocker in the NFL, according to PFF. Side note:  For the purposes of this analysis, I’ll conveniently overlook the fact that Loadholt has graded out at -9.7 in terms of pass blocking, due primarily to the fact that he allowed six quarterback pressures, a hit, and a sack in the come-from-ahead loss to the Lions three weeks ago. We’re talking about run blocking here, folks, not pass blocking.

The Football Outsiders tend to agree with this assessment. According to FO’s “adjusted line yards” stat (for a detailed description and to see the full rankings, click here, and consider yourself warned that it includes terms like “regression analysis,” “normalize,” and “move out of your mom’s basement already.”), the Vikings’ offensive line ranks third in the NFL on runs over right tackle, and eight in overall run blocking.

As for Sullivan, he’s also been noticeably better this year than he was during an injury-plagued 2010 campaign. Sullivan has graded out positively in the running game in all but one game thus far, and at a cumulative +4.4 for the season, he ranks as the No. 5 run-blocking center in the NFL. Last year, Sullivan earned a cumulative -7.9 grade, and only garnered positive rankings in five of the 14 games in which he played significant snaps. For the record, Loadholt came in at a whopping -14.3 in run blocking last season.

The idea of Sullivan and Loadholt creating running room can also be shown through an analysis of Adrian Peterson’s yardage gained by “rush direction.” PFF’s analysis shows that Peterson has gained 8.4 yards per carry on rushes between Sullivan and right guard Anthony Herrera, 4.7 per carry to the right of Herrera (and left of Loadholt), and 4.3 per carry over right tackle. As previously noted, FO ranks the Vikings as the third-best team in terms of runs over right tackle. And finally, if you’re looking for any additional corroboration from a more "traditional" source, Peterson's situational stat page on Yahoo indicates that he averages 5.9 yards per carry when running “right” and 5.7 when running “wide right”.

Another side note Jared Allen and Brian Robison migh find interestig heading into Week 6: The Bears' starting tackles from 2010 (and for most of 2011 after first-rounder Gabe Carimi got injured), D'Marcus Webb and Frank Omiyale ranked as the 77th- and 75th-worst tackles in the NFL last year (out of 78 that qualified for the ranking), according to PFF. In other words, with only one exception (Cardinals' revolving door Levi Brown, who finished 78th overall), neither of the two starting tackles for the Bears would have been good enough to start on any other team in the NFL.
 

Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and is a contributor to Vikings.com, the 2011 Maple Street Press Vikings Annual, and the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday Mornings on KFAN 100.3 FM.

VikesCentric: If not now, when?

Posted by: Updated: October 4, 2011 - 3:53 PM

I’m sure the Vikings can see what everyone else can see. They aren’t going to make the playoffs this year. There are too many holes on the roster – from defensive back to the offensive line to the obvious problem at quarterback – and at 0-4 with two 4-0 teams in the same division, the season is effectively over.

You can’t possibly expect the coach or organization to admit that, though, which is exactly what they’d be doing by inserting Christian Ponder over Donovan McNabb right now. No rational organization would send such a signal after just four games, no matter how deflating the four losses have been. The only way a team can pull that off is by admitting that they’re rebuilding right from the start. Had the Vikings opted not to acquire McNabb and instead said right from the get-go that they were going to sacrifice the season in favor of developing Ponder for the future, that’s something you can at least attempt to sell to the public.

Once the Vikes brought in McNabb and trotted him out as the starter in Week 1, they were declaring their intentions. They weren’t the Bengals or the Panthers – teams that could afford to start their own rookie quarterbacks coming off of a long history of futility (not to mention, it’s a different story if you’re Carolina and your rookie quarterback is the No. 1 overall pick in the draft). They weren’t even the Jaguars, who announced their intentions loud and clear when they canned veteran signal-caller David Garrard on the eve of the season with the obvious intention of playing rookie Blaine Gabbert sooner rather than later.

The fans in Cincy and Jacksonville are used to losing. They’re ready to be sold on the future, even if it means there’s no hope for this year. The Bengals can be excited (well, not that excited, but we’ll get to that in a bit) about watching Andy Dalton and A.J. Green with no expectations other than seeing some sign that there’s hope for the future.

But the Vikings are only one full season removed from the NFC Championship game. It’s a lot tougher to sell a rebuilding effort when you were on the cusp of the Super Bowl less than two calendar years ago. Or when you’re paying millions of dollars to a couple of high-priced defensive stars (Jared Allen and Kevin Williams) in the prime of their careers. Or when you’re trying to sign two of your young building blocks (Chad Greenway and Adrian Peterson) to mega-contracts before they walk away to less purple pastures. And if you can’t sell a rebuilding effort to your own locker room, it’s an even tougher sell to the fans. This wasn’t a rebuilding year to the tens of thousands of season ticket holders who renewed their seats after last year’s wasted season. It wasn’t a rebuilding year the day single-game tickets went on sale. It wasn’t even a rebuilding year the day they picked Ponder in the first round of the NFL Draft.

And it’s not a rebuilding year now, either. Not publicly. Just four games in, the Vikes just aren’t at a point where they can admit their mistake and look to 2012. Not yet. Not when there are tickets to sell for the next home game. Just ask Leslie Frazier. Or, ask the Bengals. Bengals fans in the immediate Cincinnati area are so excited about the “hope” being sold by Dalton and Green that they haven’t seen their squad play on TV since the middle of last year. Turns out, hope is a tough sell, as they’ve now failed to sell out their last six consecutive home games.

As of last Tuesday, the Vikings were 6,500 seats shy of a sellout for this week’s game. I get the sense the insertion of Ponder would actually be a short-term boost from a PR perspective, even if it’s a long-term hit when the team inevitably continues to lose. A cynic might say the Vikings must be close to selling out this week’s game already and that they don’t need the Ponder PR boost this week.  Perhaps the team is keeping that bullet in the chamber with the expectation that they'll need it in mid-November, the next time they’ll be in danger of a home non-sellout (the only home game between Arizona and November 20 against the Raiders is the always-sold-out Packers on October 23).

And who knows, perhaps by November 20 the McNabb-led squad will have engineered an unlikely about-face with four consecutive wins over the Cardinals at home, the Bears on the road, Green Bay at home, and Carolina on the road. Actually, nevermind. But even so, November 20 is still the next-most likely date for Ponder’s unveiling. Even at 0-5, you wouldn’t throw him to the wolves at Chicago next week or at home against the Packers the week after that (remember, cynics, you don't need to sell tickets to that game). October 30 at Carolina is a possibility, but the Week 9 bye sure would be handy from a preparatory standpoint to start giving Ponder first-team reps in practice. And asking a rookie to debut on Monday night on the road against the Super Bowl champs in Week 11 is just asking for disaster.

That brings us to November 20, at home against the Raiders. Realistically, at that point the Vikings are 2-7, maybe 3-6 if they catch a few breaks, and with very little chance of selling out against an annually non-contending AFC team. And then, with hope undeniably lost for 2011, it will be time to start selling hope in the future.

 

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