Right there? Ponder’s play gives Vikings quick glimpse of their future

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2011 - 2:22 AM

The Vikings see reasons -- that young quarterback among them -- to look past their 2-6 record and ahead to better times.

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Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder (7) ran on the field during introductions before his first professional start.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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As Leslie Frazier pulled up a chair in his Winter Park office Monday, he was asked about the image frozen on the projection screen to his right.

"That's it right there," Frazier said, flashing a mascot-sized smile. "That will always brighten the mood."

The Vikings coach was still evaluating the previous day's 24-21 victory at Carolina but chose to leave the film paused at the ultimate feel-good moment: Quarterback Christian Ponder putting a knee down on the team's second win.

So much had gone right in Charlotte. From Adrian Peterson's 162 total yards and two highlight-reel touchdowns to injured Percy Harvin's ferocity on the game-winning field goal drive. From the composure of a rookie -- see: Ponder's 102.7 quarterback rating -- to the contagious hustle of a veteran leader -- Jared Allen played a role in the two Vikings takeaways that led to 14 points.

Frazier had no choice but to praise the performance.

"All of a sudden, the team takes a deep breath and says, 'OK we can do this,'" Frazier said. "All the good teams I've ever been around, even the dominant teams, there are games you had to dig deep and win in the fourth quarter. To see that happen, you get a glimpse of what our future could be."

With 15 days between games, who's to blame the Vikings for cramming their bye week suitcases with so much hope?

Yet along with such delight comes this midseason reality: The Vikings remain, indisputably, the worst team in the NFC North, closest in the standings to a Chicago squad that beat them by 29 points just three weeks ago.

At this point, only two NFL teams have more losses -- the Dolphins and Colts.

And sure, the Vikings depth chart includes a few show-stopping stars. But it also has more holes than a pasta strainer.

That leads to a three-pronged riddle: Is the Vikings' newfound optimism justifiable?

If so, just how close are they really to turning a corner and becoming a playoff team again?

Or did that narrow victory over the Panthers, coupled with a gritty effort the week before against Green Bay, simply leave the Vikings sailing into the season's second half with a longboat full of fool's gold?

Upbeat loss

Two days before the conquest in Carolina, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe stopped beside the practice field and agreed to gauge the team's pulse.

Somehow, the Week 7 home loss to rival Green Bay had rejuvenated the locker room. After all, the Vikings had the ball in the final five minutes with a chance to take the lead on the defending Super Bowl champs. And Ponder's positive energy had everyone believing it was going to happen.

In the end, at least the 33-27 stumble wasn't as bad as the oddsmakers projected.

Plus, the Packers, unbeaten since before last Christmas, are the obvious favorites to shower in Super Bowl confetti three months from now. So if the Vikings can hang with them, how far away can a turnaround be?

"You almost beat the champs, that shows you your potential," Shiancoe said. "You can definitely sense something building. I see a new and strong chemistry here. There's a vibe that we're all in sync. If we can just clean up a few tiny mistakes that are very easily correctable, we're right there."

Right there. Nipping on the heels of the Super Bowl champs, with another measuring stick battle against the Packers next week.

Right there. That's also what the Vikings claimed after early losses to San Diego and Tampa Bay and then again after falling to Detroit and Kansas City.

The cage match between hope and deficiency is a long way from over.

At present, the Vikings secondary seems shakier than a naked ice fisherman. The offensive line registers as merely average. And outside of the oft-injured Harvin, Ponder's receiving corps is without a true game-changer.

Right there?

Who knows?

"At times, we're lights out. Unstoppable," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "But to be honest with you, man, it's foolish to start looking too far forward to what we wish was the picture.

"We've lost six games. You can't run from that. All the 'What ifs?' in the world can't erase our record. You can try to build hope and all. But wins are the ultimate proof -- the only proof, really."

A two-win team

The Vikings' 2011 victories are less than convincing, coming against Carolina and Arizona, teams that have combined to lose 37 of their 47 games the past two seasons.

During moments of introspection, Frazier can't help but see all the talent and promise. He also sees a 2-6 record that contradicts his cheer.

"It is a little frustrating," he said. "Because going into the season I felt we could compete with everybody that was on our schedule. And we have for the most part. We've just fallen a little bit short.

"In the end, it results in 2-6. And you go, 'How did we end up 2-6 playing so hard for so long?'

"That's the reality we have to deal with. And we have to figure out a way to deliver some wins that can justify what we think we have here."

Unquestionably, the Vikings have several sturdy building blocks. They have a running back in Peterson who has more rushing yards this season (798) than anyone in the NFL.

They have a defensive end in Allen who is on pace to record more quarterback sacks this season than anyone ever has.

And they have a rookie quarterback in Ponder who, after just two starts, seems to be providing direction. If that continues, Frazier will be able to check the "All Set" box beside yet another critical position.

"If we're right about Christian," Frazier said, "what a luxury that will be."

Before this season, Frazier was certain the Vikings could hang around games deep into the fourth quarter, needing only one or two big plays to triumph. Now he's certain Ponder has the confidence and focus to help make those plays.

Hey, it happened last week in Carolina.

"That line is so thin," Frazier said. "You find a way to win those games in the fourth quarter, now a 7-9 team all of a sudden becomes a 9-7 team. I'm seeing glimpses that we're closing the gap in that area."

Reason for hope

The NFL is designed for quick turnarounds.

Those highly hyped Detroit Lions, 6-2 and making a playoff charge with a nucleus of young stars? Just three seasons ago, they went winless. They were 8-24 the two years after that.

Those upstart Buffalo Bills, suddenly tied with New England atop the AFC East? Last year at this time, they were 0-8. Then the new starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, settled in, won his teammates' support and catalyzed a revival.

This pothole-filled back road the Vikings have been bumping down the past two seasons? Suddenly, they see signs that an express ramp to relevance could be ahead.

Address those big needs in the secondary, offensive line and receiver wisely through both free agency and the draft ...

"With the number of Pro Bowl-caliber players we have and to see the quarterback position beginning to be solidified, it really gives you hope for the future," Frazier said. "Now, yes, we have to fix some areas. I'm not naïve enough to tell you this roster is perfect the way it is. There's no way when you're 2-6. But some of the cornerstones are there."

Frazier's assertion comes with that image motionless above him, one victory secured and commemorated on a projection screen.

Soon, though, Frazier will need more convincing office décor than a still frame from a narrow victory in Carolina to sway outsiders into believing that "right there" can soon become "right now."

  • Up next: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at Green Bay • TV: ESPN (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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Buffalo 17 4th Qtr 2:28
New England 9
Cleveland 10 4th Qtr 9:20
Baltimore 6
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Washington 10
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Tennessee 10
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Houston 21
San Diego 7 4th Qtr 10:02
Kansas City 19
NY Jets 27 4th Qtr 11:37
Miami 24
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Minnesota 13
Philadelphia 24 4th Qtr
NY Giants 19
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Tampa Bay 20
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Detroit 3:30 PM
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San Antonio
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Portland
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Concordia (MI) 42 FINAL
Eastern Mich 100
Harvard 43 2nd Half 5:04
Arizona State 49
Longwood 42 2nd Half 8:03
Ball State 50
Sacred Heart 60 2nd Half 9:17
Brown 58
Colgate 46 2nd Half 5:12
Columbia 53
MD-Eastern Shore 68 2nd Half 5:17
Duquesne 59
UNC Greensboro 43 2nd Half 7:35
East Carolina 61
Marist 34 2nd Half 8:33
Elon 49
NJIT 50 2nd Half 6:59
Lafayette 61
Cincinnati Christian 42 2nd Half 7:16
Liberty 54
Morgan State 35 2nd Half 11:32
Marquette 55
Campbell 40 2nd Half 7:06
Samford 55
Bucknell 54 2nd Half 7:40
Siena 57
Long Beach State 50 2nd Half 13:08
Syracuse 58
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Evansville 67
UMKC 43 2nd Half 8:39
Indiana State 41
Hofstra 45 2nd Half
Long Island 25
Coast Guard 12 1st Half 6:52
Army 42
Thomas (GA) 17 1st Half 7:09
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Texas Southern 5 1st Half 9:26
Kansas State 15
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Monmouth 26
NC Wesleyan 18 1st Half 5:47
NC A&T 17
South Dakota St 18 1st Half 6:25
Northern Iowa 24
Central Penn College 16 1st Half 10:50
Radford 25
Bowling Green 25 1st Half 4:52
South Florida 25
Harris-Stowe 24 1st Half 6:30
SE Missouri St 23
Robert Morris-IL 17 1st Half 4:46
SIU Edwardsville 38
Northland College 23 1st Half 4:50
North Dakota St 37
Milwaukee 21 1st Half 5:49
South Dakota 25
Northwestern St 2:30 PM
Arkansas
Saint Peters 3:00 PM
Cornell
St Katherine 3:00 PM
Fresno State
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Oral Roberts
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Houston
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UMBC
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Washington St
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Grand Canyon
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Washington
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Wisconsin
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California
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Virginia Tech 33
(15) Arizona State 36 FINAL
Duke 31
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So Carolina 24
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(24) USC 45
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(20) Louisville
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Central Michigan 74
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SIU-Edwardsville 49
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IUPU-Ft Wayne 56
Gardner-Webb 42 2nd Half 8:45
Longwood 43
New Hampshire 46 2nd Half 3:57
Manhattan 43
Bucknell 57 2nd Half 5:52
Binghamton 47
Northeastern 53 2nd Half 7:38
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Towson 56
Richmond 40 2nd Half 12:25
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Cincinnati 20
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Florida 52
(14) Georgia 43 2nd Half 7:20
Seton Hall 56
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(12) Kentucky 60
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Northwestern 50 2nd Half 6:58
(20) Michigan State 46
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Lehigh 68
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Loyola-Maryland 36
(17) Rutgers 52 2nd Half 9:07
Indiana 38
(24) Green Bay 57 2nd Half 5:19
Dayton 59
Western Mich 29 2nd Half
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UNC Greensboro 8 1st Half 14:13
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(23) Iowa 20
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2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
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Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
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