There were only flashes Thursday night of the kind of offensive play needed to succeed in the NFL.
Christian Ponder defiantly told reporters early this week that he had "already moved on" from his miserable outing against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
Understandably, he didn't seem eager to relive the gory details. He'd probably prefer to purge from his memory a performance that saw him complete only one pass for 4 yards in the second half. Try as he did to push that to the background though, Ponder picked up where he left off four days later.
He completed one pass for -- you guessed it -- 4 yards and heard plenty of boos in the process in the first quarter of a 36-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night at Mall of America Field.
His night improved after the rough start, but only slightly, as the entire Vikings offense intermixed a few nice moments with a heavy dose of sloppiness and general incompetence that tested the patience of a restless and rowdy crowd.
"I obviously have to play better for this team," Ponder said. "I don't know what's particularly wrong. There's things that I can always work on and will work on. But I don't know if I can pinpoint one thing."
Ponder wore the largest bull's-eye as fans repeatedly showered him with boos after his misfires. The offense's struggles weren't solely his fault, however. Not even close.
Ponder felt constant pressure all game as the line failed to hold its ground, and his receivers still don't get much separation. Their ugly performance was a collective failure, but Ponder's body language suggests he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Ponder padded his statistics in garbage time and finished 19-for-35 passing for 251 yards and one touchdown and one interception. The Bucs also sacked him three times and kept bodies in his vicinity.
His night ended with one final low light, an interception with 57 seconds remaining. The outcome was long determined by then, but that gave Ponder seven interceptions and eight turnovers in the past four games.
Somehow, he needs to find whatever it was that worked so well early in the season. Everything just looks like a struggle for him right now. Again, that's also a function of poor play around him. But Ponder looks like a shell of that confident, nothing-fazes-him quarterback that we watched the first four weeks of the season.
Thursday's game figured to be the perfect opportunity for the passing game to get on track and to establish a rhythm. The Bucs entered the game ranked 31st in pass defense at 323 yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks had completed 66 percent of their passes against that defense.
But not even that proved to be a tonic for what ails this offense.
Ponder's night started rather inauspiciously. He threw incompletions on his first five attempts. Three were throwaways, and one was a miscommunication with Jerome Simpson on a go route.
Fittingly, his first completion went for 4 yards to Simpson, who promptly fumbled the ball over to the Bucs.
Ponder showed signs of life in the second quarter by relying on his security blanket -- Percy Harvin -- and a script that paid dividends early in the season. He got the ball in Harvin's hands on quick-hitting screens and swing passes and let him do his thing in space. Ponder completed the first scoring drive by delivering a beautiful touch pass to Harvin for an 18-yard touchdown. That was one of only a few highlights, though.
The Vikings clearly wanted to get Simpson involved as a vertical threat that's been missing from this offense. Ponder has thrived on dink-and-dunk passes, but this offense needs to open things up and force defenses to respect the deep ball. Opponents are keying on Harvin on short passes so the Vikings must be able to counter with a vertical passing game that loosens up defenses.
Ponder attempted three deep balls to Simpson in the first half and finally connected on a 33-yard completion that set up a field goal. He tried another deep fade in the third quarter, but the pass drifted out of bounds. The Vikings need to get Simpson involved in the offense -- but maybe try something besides low percentage fades.
"We just need to keep working together," Simpson said. "We're going to get better. We've just got to go back to the drawing board."
That's never a good sign.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org