Overarching sentiment from yesterday's Vikings/Packers game: It was fun to watch the purple again. That doesn't count for anything when it comes to wins and losses, but we had pretty much conceded a loss from the start. So fun was the bar, and the bar was exceeded.
Now, on to two topics: Christian Ponder and the decision late in the game to punt.
At the risk of seeming like we watched the game through rose-tinted lenses, we'll say this: his final passer rating of 59.2 Sunday seemed to lie just as badly as Donovan McNabb's mark of 82.9 this season. He made plenty of mistakes and bad throws. He was predictably picked off a couple of times by a Packers defense that is extremely opportunistic and aggressive. But he also looked poised and capable in the pocket, displaying a presence in there that is more of a "feel" thing than anything else. He looked willing to throw downfield, which certainly could have loosened the defense and influenced Adrian Peterson's monster day (though we'll give the bulk of the credit to All Day, who is running as well as we have ever seen him run right now). He helped the Vikings convert 9 of 16 third downs; Ponder converted 7 situations of 3rd-and-6 or longer into first downs -- six with his arm, one with his legs. Those are money plays. Those are the ones McNabb wasn't making. As we said, there is plenty to clean up in between. It was almost a perfect game in terms of showing him what he has to work on still while also building his confidence. But it was a promising debut, to be sure, when all things are considered. [For any Packers fans wanting to point out Rodgers won his starting debut vs. Minnesota, we will note: He was in his 4th season, not his 7th NFL game. He was also not playing against the undefeated and defending Super Bowl champs. And finally, though Rodgers played very well that day, his squad put up 24 points ... a few shy of what Ponder put up Sunday in this fictional battle.]
Now, the punt. Situation: 4th-and-10 with about 2:40 to go. Ball on Minnesota's 36. The Vikings have all three timeouts left. The building is rocking. The Vikings have scored the last 10 points. Ponder has converted two huge third downs on the drive already, but now it's 4th down. Do you kick it away and hope you get get a stop and get the ball back? Or do you roll the dice and try to pick up 10 yards? The basic stats, which only take into account averages and probabilities, say the situation is about a wash.
Going for it yields a win percentage of roughly 12.2 percent (using only the probability of making it and the probability of then scoring a TD), per Advanced NFL Stats, which adds this (thanks to @klooth on Twitter for the link): A punt would be expected to hand GB possession at their own 26 or so, worth 0.13 WP. But this is where the 3 timeouts might make a difference. But adjusting for the one additional timeout than typical in this situation doesn't affect the numbers much because the factor driving the WP isn't time as much as whether or not MIN can make a stop on GB's initial series. Still, it tips the balance in favor of the punt, giving it a 0.14 WP. Then again, GB's offense isn't typical, so there should be consideration given to keeping the ball out of their hands all together. The numbers are likely even closer, given the assumption that a successful conversion gains exactly 10 yards. Plus, although a failed 4th down conversion attempt yields an almost certain loss, the WP must be something a tiny bit larger than zero.
Leslie Frazier, of course, doesn't have the numbers in front of him. He has his gut, and he has what he thinks is logic. And while his decision is certainly able to be defended, we'll reiterate for those who didn't follow our Twitter rant last night: we hated the decision on multiple levels. This was not an outcome-based judgment. It was immediate. Here are our reasons, which range from visceral to analytical.
*On a pure gut level, the situation begged to go for it. You're a one-win team with momentum against the undefeated defending Super Bowl champs. You have a rookie QB in his first start showing incredible poise and a knack for converting in tough situations. You have a half-and-half crowd suddenly tilted in your favor. You have nothing to lose. Yet you punt. No, no, no, no, no.
*Your likely best-case scenario with a punt is getting the ball back with either zero or one timeouts left, plus the two-minute warning, at around your own 30-35 yard line (this accounts for at least two runs by Green Bay, then either a third run requiring the use of one more time out or an incomplete pass by Aaron Rodgers). That means you are giving your rookie QB in his first start -- not some savvy veteran -- a little over two minutes to go at least 65 yards. Maybe if you need three points, this makes sense. But not six. Not six.
And this is assuming you can stop one of the NFL's best offenses, which includes one of the most accurate, mistake-free passers, to force a three-and-out. Yes, we understand the defense had played better in the fourth quarter. But you're telling me that if the Vikings would have gotten the Packers into another 3rd-and-5, you would have liked Asher Allen and Co. keeping Aaron Rodgers and company from moving 15 feet? And again, this is your best-case scenario, the one you are banking on to get your rookie QB a long field with time winding down? No thanks. The circumstances, personnel and situation all around have to be accounted for, and to us they favor rolling the dice.
You roll the dice and you need 10 yards. You make it, and you have 2:30 left, all your timeouts, and you're at midfield. You're in serious business. Again, nothing is guaranteed, but you still have momentum. Even if you fail, there is a sliver of hope -- and a chance worth taking. You give the ball back, presumably at the 36 (our imaginary scenario can't even comprehend a fourth down completion that is short of the sticks. After all, McNabb wasn't playing). If you make a stop, Mason Crosby has to make a long field goal. Yes, we understand that he's been pretty much automatic lately. But there's a reason why we once said, as Crosby lined up for a long, clutch kick, "Mason Crosby is trying to decide whether to miss left or right." We've seen Crosby miss a ton of big field goals. Let's say you stop the Packers at the 32, and he then misses a 50-yarder. Presuming Brian Robison doesn't kick anyone else in the groin, you have the ball at the 40 with a shot -- albeit without your timeouts, but still a shot.
Bottom line: If statistically it's basically a wash, you have to take the play that at least guarantees you one more crack at an offensive play, one more chance to make the kid a hero and one more chance to make a fun game a memorable victory.