Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
A lot has already been said and written about the Vikings’ lackluster 28-10 loss in Chicago on Sunday. And until the Vikings flip the page this weekend in Green Bay, a whole lot more will be said and written about what all went wrong.
But perhaps the simple solution to ceasing all the frantic discussion is with this simple recognition: Chicago is undeniably a better team than the Vikings in all three phases. Done and done.
Still, the Vikings’ failed to light the wick for their upset bid at Soldier Field in big part because they delivered a dud effort offensively in the first half, falling behind 25-3 and never getting back on track. The Vikings had seven possessions before halftime and did next to nothing with any of them.
Just like that, they were buried on the road.
Here’s a snapshot of how the first half in Chicago fell apart offensively.
Three plays, 4 yards
Time of possession: 1:48
End result: Punt
Place the blame on: Right guard Brandon Fusco
Worst mistake: On the first play, with an empty backfield and five receivers spread wide, Christian Ponder had barely caught the shotgun snap when he was devoured by Henry Melton for a 9-yard sack. Melton used a basic swim move to slither past Fusco. Center John Sullivan failed to redirect Melton as well. And that was that. Facing second-and-19 and third-and-18, the offense had little chance to make up for the offensive line’s malfunction.
Four plays, 6 yards
Time of possession: 0:50
End result: Field goal
Place the blame on: Receiver Jerome Simpson
Worst mistake: A Chad Greenway fumble recovery put the Vikings in ideal position to deliver an early uppercut. Taking over at the Chicago 28 should have been just the kind of jolt the Vikings needed to jumpstart their day. Instead, on third-and-4, Christian Ponder’s slant dart to Simpson hit the inconsistent receiver in the hands, then hit the ground. Opportunity squandered.
One play, 1 yard
Time of possession: 0:06
End result: Fumble
Place the blame on: Running back Adrian Peterson
Worst mistake: Peterson was simply carrying the ball too loose and light contact from linebacker Nick Roach jarred it loose. Peterson lost control of the football, the first of his two fumbles on the day and an indication that Peterson might not have had his usual focus. Don’t forget, he also missed the team bus from the hotel to the game and had to take a taxi to Soldier Field.
Three plays, 9 yards
Time of possession: 1:32
End result: Punt
Place the blame on: Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave
Worst mistake: After a 1-yard completion to Simpson on first down, it’s hard to know what the objective was on second-and-9. Musgrave went with two tight ends but kept both Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson in as blockers. That left the Vikings with Simpson trying to get open against Tillman and Michael Jenkins working against Tim Jennings. Jenkins wasn’t even out of his break yet when Ponder bolted from the pocket and rolled right – signs of the receiver’s lack of speed and the quarterback’s impatience. Eventually, Ponder threw the ball out of bounds. A third down completion to Jarius Wright on a drag route netted 8 yards but not enough for a first down.
Nine plays, 53 yards
Time of possession: 3:32
End result: Blocked field goal
Place the blame on: Receiver Jarius Wright
Worst mistake: Technically, you could easily point the finger at Fusco and Phil Loadholt, who both failed to slow the push of Julius Peppers on Blair Walsh’s 30-yard field goal attempt. Peppers blocked that kick. But the Vikings were only left to attempt that after stalling inside the red zone. Most confounding: on second-and-4 from the Chicago 12, Musgrave called in a play that seemed to show his desperation with Percy Harvin out and no other reliable receivers to turn to. Instead, the Vikings only had one receiver on the field: Wright, a rookie, who didn’t really do anything wrong but couldn’t get open in the middle of Chicago’s zone. The Vikings had four other potential pass catchers on the play, including three tight ends. But John Carlson was slow getting off the line, was only 2 yards down field when the pocket began to cave and was knocked off his path by Lance Briggs. Rhett Ellison was still early in his route and Kyle Rudolph was never open. Ponder ended up under-handing an incompletion out of bounds just to avoid a sack.
Five plays, 14 yards
Time of possession: 2:06
End result: Interception
Place the blame on: Quarterback Christian Ponder
Worst mistake: On an afternoon where Ponder never seemed settled and his pocket poise was absent, his worst throw cost the Vikings dearly. On a second-and-10 from the Vikings 25, Ponder felt pressure from Nate Collins and tried to gun a pass to Devin Aromashodu on a dig route 18 yards down the field. But Ponder’s pass sailed way over Aromashodu’s head and hit Bears safety Chris Conte right in the numbers. Conte returned the ball to the 13. And Chicago scored on the very next play. Ponder said after the game that he has to learn not to force the ball downfield. But in truth, the throw was far more worrisome than the decision. Also worth noting: Collins stunted and ran right over Fusco, who had been beaten a play earlier by Israel Idonije.
Three plays, 5 yards
Time of possession: 0:27
End result: Punt
Place the blame on: Ponder
Worst mistake: After taking possession with 1:48 left before halftime, the Vikings inability to run more than 27 seconds off the clock before punting was inexcusable. On first down, Ponder had no one open and skipped a pass in the direction of Wright. On second down, Ponder got pressure from Shea McClellin and airmailed Rudolph on a deep ball down the seam. On third down, Ponder settled for a 5-yard safety valve completion to Wright. The Vikings’ third three-and-out of the day was a fitting way to end the half.
What else would you rather do on a Friday morning than watch a poor man swing away at his weekly NFL Picks and Power Rankings? We’ll even throw in some extra purple with Three Reasons for Optimism and Three Reasons to Go `Uh-Oh.’
If you missed my live Vikings chat on Tuesday afternoon, you can check in here and read the back and forth in full. In addition, each week I will attempt to go overtime, bringing good questions I didn’t get around to answering on the chat here to the Access Vikings blog for discussion. Here are Tuesday’s leftovers. Save them for the day after Thanksgiving if you must.
Question 1: I don't believe Percy Harvin won't play in Chicago this weekend due simply to soreness in his sprained ankle. That dude is tougher than nails and wants to compete worse than anyone. I gotta believe they'll just tape that ankle up and let him go. What do you think?
I think the same way. By kickoff Sunday, Harvin will have had 20 full days between games, a lengthy break that will have given him plenty of time to treat that sprained left ankle. With a division game and so much at stake and also knowing how antsy Harvin always is, I just don’t see him sitting this one out. Unless, of course, there’s some sort of significant setback at practice this week. And you’d have to believe, the Vikings will take it easy on him this week as a precaution.
Stay tuned for our updates from Wednesday’s practice.
Question 2: Vikings 24, Niners 13. Niners 32, Bears 7. I think this one is in the bag. Am I wrong?
Ah, yes. The good ol’ transitive property. Which we all know doesn’t work in the NFL. But if you’re looking for all the common opponents the Vikings and Bears have had to this point, let’s have a little fun with this.
By my count, the Bears are plus 18 overall. Divide that by five opponents. And you find Chicago is plus-3.6. So basically, anticipate a 24-20 Chicago win.
Question 3: It seemed like Antoine Winfield found the fountain of youth this year – fewer snaps, staying over the slot in the nickel defense and thus remaining closer to the line of scrimmage. But since Cook went down, he's had to play more. Is that decreasing his effectiveness?
Aside from Adrian Peterson, no Viking has impressed me more in 2012 than Winfield. The guy is a true pro and one of the most respected players in that locker room. At 35, he’s still playing at a high level and even drawing some chatter as a possible Pro Bowler this year. I don’t buy the notion that Cook’s absence the past two games has decreased Winfield’s effectiveness. He was pretty darn solid in the last outing against Detroit and continues to be a menace in run support. We’ll see if Winfield can stay fresh down the stretch here. But the coaching staff gives him a lot of down time during the week, understanding that they need him fresh on Sundays.
Keep an eye on Winfield the rest of the way. Not so much out of fear that Winfield will wear down but with an understanding that he won’t be around forever. And it’s wise to appreciate just how good a player he is while he’s still around – and excelling.
Question 4: Why do so many fans act as though RG3, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, etc., have so much going for them when their respective teams are NO better than the Vikings in Christian Ponder's first full season?
Question 5: There is a guy named Ryan Mallett sitting in New England. He has a HUGE gun for an arm, he’s accurate and looked great in preseason games. Will the Vikings ever go after this guy?
Move over Dwayne Bowe. We have our first “Why aren’t the Vikings trying to get Ryan Mallett?” question. I just wanted that noted for fun and am not about to spend any more time on that topic. I’ll give the questioner the benefit of the doubt and let him off the hook with the idea that the question may have been somewhat facetious.
But as for that first question, well, that one goes a little deeper. And it’s well documented that I think the most vocal Ponder naysayers are susceptible to premature judgment and can’t allow for even the idea that he will continue to grow as a quarterback and could one day emerge as the real catalyst of the Vikings’ offense.
The kid needs time and patience to test himself and the Vikings coaching staff and front office is doing a great job with managing that situation.
That said, if you can’t see the difference between RG3 and Ponder with a simple eye test, then I’m not sure I can help you. Griffin has only three interceptions in his first 10 starts. (Ponder had 13 picks.) Griffin has completed 67.1 percent of his passes in his first 10 starts. (Ponder had a .544 completion percentage through his first 10 starts). Griffin has a total of 18 TDs in his first 10 starts (12 passing, six rushing). Ponder had 13.
Anyway, to make a long story short, it’d be hard to find anyone with extensive football knowledge who would claim that Ponder had a brighter future than Griffin or Luck. Those two simply are a notch above Ponder in terms of athleticism and talent.
The biggest worries with Ponder come from those stinker games. Like the 58-yard afternoon and 35.5 rating against Arizona in Week 7. Or the 44 net passing yards and 37.3 rating in Seattle. Those drastic dips really don’t settle the anxiety of the fan base. And to date, Griffin hasn’t had a major stinker like that. And now, he’s coming off an effort in a 31-6 thrashing of Philadelphia in which he went 14-for-15 for 200 yards and four TD passes. That marked his fourth game this year with a rating above 100. (Ponder has five such games in twice as many starts).
Luck has had a few dips himself. He had three picks last week in New England, three picks in a season-opening loss in Chicago and was erratic in a 35-9 road loss to the Jets. His rating this season of 77.2 is well below Ponder’s (85.2). That said, Luck has thrown for 280 yards or more seven times. (Ponder has two such games in twice as many starts.) So it’s easy to deduce that Luck seems to be the more prolific quarterback.
Ponder may be in the same ballpark with Dalton when it comes to ability and upside. Dalton aided a playoff charge in 2011 as a rookie and has been pretty solid throughout 2012. He’s 14-12 as a starter. And while that’s not exactly a Canton credential, that kind of early success buys extra time and votes of confidence from all around.
Luck and Griffin get that extra time and those votes of confidence based on where they were picked and their obvious upside.
Ponder? In order to buy himself more time from an always jittery fan base, he needs to continue proving he’s getting better and making the Vikings’ offense better as a whole. Leading a charge to eight wins this season would be a big step in the right direction.
But overall, Ponder also needs to understand that his slumps cannot be as dramatic as they have been in his first two years. His recent funk drew twice as much worry because the end of his 2011 season was such a spill. He’ll also have to proceed knowing there’s a chunk of the fan base that will never be satisfied with anything he does. It’s just part of it.
Question 6: Who do you think needs to step up most these last six games for this team to make the playoffs?
I’ll give you a handful of names.
If you missed my live Vikings chat on Tuesday afternoon, you can check in here and read the back and forth in full. In addition, each week I will attempt to go overtime, bringing good questions I didn’t get around to answering on the chat here to the Access Vikings blog for discussion. Here are Tuesday’s leftovers. And surprise, surprise, there’s a lot of Christian Ponder talk still percolating …
Question 1: Ponder needs to sit. At 5-4, why risk wasting a whole season? Bench him and let Webb take over. How long will Frazier wait? Is he really prepared to go 5-11 with Ponder at QB? Ponder can compete for the job again next year.
Question 2: Why not play Webb? I get that we need to see how Ponder handles things but we still have a shot at the playoffs. Anything can happen in the playoffs. So why not play Webb?
We need a nickname for these people, don’t we? Webbies? Webb-sters? Something.
Anyway, let’s get to the flaws in the premise that “anything can happen in the playoffs.” The greatest thing that’s happened to the NFL in recent years has been the surge of teams that are mediocre for a while, get hot in January and then win the Super Bowl. Shoot, the 2010 Packers were 8-6 on Christmas day, almost missed the playoffs and then won it all. Last year’s Giants? They lost five times between Nov. 13 and Dec. 18, then rallied from a 7-7 record to win the Super Bowl.
Overall, wild card teams have won the Super Bowl five times in the 21st century. So that’s created the idea that any team can win the Super Bowl every year.
Great for fan interest. Dangerous for realistic expectations.
And so if, at any point this season, you truly believed the Vikings had everything it took to win a Super Bowl this year, let me just tell you that you were nuts. Plain and simple.
And if you think that Joe Webb is suddenly an upper-echelon quarterback that rights this ship for the rest of the season, well, yeah, you’re probably being too hopeful.
We’ll get more into Webb here shortly. But just understand that this season was never ever ever supposed to be about chasing this year’s Super Bowl. It was supposed to be about building for the future and developing a nucleus of young players.
Paramount to that was finding out what exactly the Vikings have in Ponder and whether he’s truly wired to lead them to a bright, bright future. Things certainly don’t look good right now. But it’s only proper and fair and logical for the future plans to give him the rest of this season to prove exactly what he is.
Question 3: I completely understand why we cannot go to Webb. We have to see if Ponder is our guy for sure and he will be the starter all season. BUT when will the Vikes know what route to take? Ponder looks worse every week. He looks scared to throw, scared to get sacked, very hesitant. And when he does throw, it is often inaccurate. He’s nowhere near what we saw in Weeks 1-4. You can blame a poor receiving corps and shaky protection all you want. But the biggest problem is Ponder. How can he right the ship? Confidence isn't in the coaching mechanics handbook.
Yeah. That’s why this is going to be such a tough, tough stretch. Because there aren’t very many easy ways to restore confidence that’s been shot. It comes down to the individual, most times, pulling himself out of the funk. Coaches can try to dial up high-percentage throws that build confidence. Like in the Tennessee game, after Ponder threw interceptions on back-to-back passes, the rest of the game was a lesson in restoring confidence with short throws that allowed Ponder to hit his stride again with easy throws. But the big problem now is that the Vikings have only succeeded with short passes all season. So now defenses have the book on that. And they haven’t adjusted with the plays they’ve called or the throws Ponder has made to take advantage of a field that should be wide open a lot with defenses crowding the box. Worst of all, Ponder is now missing – and sometimes badly – on short, easy throws.
Question 4: We all know Mr. Ponder has been awful for a few games now, with Seattle being the worst. My concern, as possibly indicated by Percy on the sidelines, that his teammates have lost confidence in Mr. Ponder. Do you have any way of gauging that? Also, why not find some way to use Webb? Anything.
Overall, Ponder is a likable enough guy who teammates want to succeed for many reasons. He’s smart. He’s personable. He’s driven. Heck, he is best friends with his center and his top tight end. So naturally he’s going to have a lot of support within the locker room. Even Adrian Peterson, who has the most reason to be upset, has publicly voiced his support, which is all you can do at a time like this. But if Ponder’s struggles worsen, the frustration will soon bubble up. And when your top receiver (Percy Harvin) is yelling at the head coach and making veiled comments after the game that he’s behind Ponder because “he’s who the staff picked,” you start to wonder how fast internal confidence could erode.
As for getting Webb involved somehow, someway, I’m OK with this suggestion. No, you don’t make him the starter now. But for a guy this athletic, this dynamic, this explosive, it seems strange that the Vikings haven’t found anything for him to do other than take one kneel-down handoff to close of the Titans game. When the Vikings were winning and playing well offensively, you don’t mess with success. But now? The offense is clearly disjointed and frustrated and needs a spark. Webb has been Mr. Spark at times. There has to be something they can find for him to do.
Question 5: Ok ... Let’s assume the Viking keep struggling and finish with a top-10 pick next year... Who are the top three QBs coming out next year?
It likely won’t be a strong quarterback class for the 2013 draft. There’s a possibility of only two first-rounders: West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson also should get a later first-round nod. If you’re looking for an underclassman who has some intrigue, give Tennessee’s Tyler Bray a look.
And if you want another Florida State quarterback, E.J. Manuel has some skills.
Question 6: What would Peterson have to do to be in contention for MVP?
Question 7: AP seems like such a team guy. How does he keep his motivation going through seasons like 2011 and now the slump this year? He's playing stronger than ever through these struggles.
Peterson is on pace for 1,700 rushing yards and more than 1,900 total yards. Coming off major knee surgery, he’s having one of the more remarkable seasons by a running back ever. And week by week, he just seems to be getting better, too. Which is a scary thought for opposing defenses. Still, in order to get serious MVP consideration, the Vikings will probably have to keep themselves in playoff contention into December. Which means Peterson may have to carry them there single-handedly.
As for his character and motivation? The guy has drive and focus and a positivity about him that is unrelenting. He has no time for negativity and instead channels his frustrations into working harder. He’s a unique individual and probably deserves more national acclaim for the way he’s playing right now.
Question 8: After a disastrous season do you think Percy will shop around or re-sign when the time comes?
Well, for starters, the Vikings have him under contract through the end of the 2013 season. So Harvin couldn’t become a free agent until March 2014. So shopping around isn’t something he’d be able to do for a while.
More than anything, before Harvin signs an extension with the Vikings, he should try to have a feel for what the situation will be around him for the long haul. And that means making an educated guess as to what the future holds for Ponder, Bill Musgrave and Leslie Frazier using that to decide if this is the situation he’d want to stay in.
Question 9: Based on preseason expectations, should we as fans be seeing the glass as “half-empty" or "half-full"?
Both? I mean, truthfully, if anyone was expecting a frustration-free season, they were delusional. I saw no one picking the Vikings to finish at .500. And right now they’re 5-4.
Scratch out two more wins and a 7-9 season and you’ve either hit or exceeded the preseason expectations of just about everybody, right?
So here are your reasons to feel “half-full” – the two first-round draft picks (Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith) look like hits and guys who can stabilize your offensive line and the back of the secondary until 2020; the franchise running back apparently did not suffer a career-threatening injury last Christmas Eve and appears to be as good as ever; the rookie kicker is a weapon; Percy Harvin is leading the NFL in catches.
And reasons to feel “half-empty”: Ponder is currently regressing; the run defense has sprung a huge leak; Chris Cook’s broken arm significantly weakened the secondary; clock management at the end of halves is often lacking; the receiving corps is marginal; Ponder is currently regressing; teams have figured out the Vikings’ weaknesses and are attacking them; and, oh yeah, Ponder is currently regressing.
Question 10: I'm expecting the Vikes to go winless the rest of the way. All their wins have been against poor teams – excluding the 49ers. Do you think that 49ers game was a fluke or is this team capable of playing that way again this year?
Well, clearly the “half-empty” crowd has a spokesman.
In beating the 49ers, the Vikings played a near-perfect game. They won the turnover battle. They played physical. Their quarterback managed the game well. The defense was nasty throughout. They limited their penalties.
Yes, I think they can deliver another performance like that this year. For certain.
But I also think it’d be naïve to think that would be the norm. Still, it wasn’t just the San Fran win that was impressive. They played pretty well in Detroit, especially on defense, winning a key division game on the road. They took an inferior Tennessee team and stomped on them early and never let up. Those performances happened within the past six weeks. I do think they’re capable of digging deep and winning at least one more game they’re not supposed to. The problem is, most of the games the rest of the way will be games they’re not supposed to win.
Question 11: In hindsight should the Vikings have kept Sage? He is more of a seasoned game-manager.
Yep, this is where I lose faith in the intelligence of people. Because there are people out there who think Sage Rosenfels would have the answer for this team. You know, the 34-year-old who, in 11 seasons, won a total of six games as an NFL starter. You know, the guy who not only couldn’t compete with Ponder for the starting job but failed to beat out Webb and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, too. You know, the guy who made his last start in 2008. You know, the guy who has so much to offer that he’s not even on an NFL roster right now. You know, the guy with an 81.2 career quarterback rating. These are the kinds of questions that make me want to behave like Percy Harvin did when he went ballistic on the sidelines in Seattle. Speaking of which …
Question 12: Any insight on what really went on with Harvin being so fired up?
Neither Harvin nor Leslie Frazier would elaborate on what had the receiver so miffed late in the second quarter. They both gracefully explained it away by saying Percy just wants to win and was agitated by a promising drive that stalled late and resulted in a field goal. Harvin seemed most angered by a second down bubble screen pass that Ponder failed to complete. But even if that pass had been complete, Harvin may not have gained anything with Seattle having it read perfectly. So was Harvin angered by the bad throw? By the play call? By both? It’s hard to guess.
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