To the extent that the Minnesota Vikings have a team philosophy--something governing both front office and on-field maneuvers--Sunday's loss at Detroit highlights the flaws in that philosophy and suggests that the Vikings are well-behind the curve in football acumen in this era of the NFL.
For a team generally low on "explosive" plays, there were an inordinate number of such plays--on and off the field--on Sunday. On the field, Christian Ponder, last season's number one pick, was having an off game, looking more like a late-round pick than a first-day selection. Ponder began the day fumbling into his own end zone for a Detroit touchdown. He ended the day with his third pick--all earned and all well-advertised in advance--at the start of the third quarter.
Ponder's implosion should not be read to suggest that the rookie is incapable of becoming an established, bona fide starter in the league. But it should be read in the context of what happened next. Namely, Joe Webb entered the game and did everything that Ponder did not do.
With the Vikings trailing 31-14, Webb replaced Ponder and immediately began moving the team. Where the Vikings stalled under Ponder when the pass was not open, Webb took to his feet, dashing for a Vikings' quarterback rushing record of 109 yards on seven carries behind the same offensive line that had produced just three 100+ yard running back games all season. Webb also chipped in 84 passing yards, nearly equaling Ponder's passing statistics, with three fewer interceptions.
The lesson for the Vikings' front office, whomever that might be, is that the team had a player capable of being molded into the quarterback of the future prior to last year's draft. Presumably, the reason that the Vikings selected Ponder was because the team was less-equipped on the evaluation side than it is on the fear side--fear of resting the team's fortunes on a late round draft pick. Because of that fear, the Vikings opted for Ponder with the rationale that if Ponder fails the team can always fall back on the claim that it took the dip into drafting a quarterback high and it just did not work out. Had Webb failed, conversely, and had the team passed on Ponder, the team would have been left, in its collective mind, having to explain having passed on Ponder (or someone equivalent).
On Sunday, Webb demonstrated that he is at least the equal of Ponder at this point and there remains little reason to doubt his ability to develop--except that that development probably will never be pursued in Minnesota.
The selection of Ponder highlights a more fundamental flaw with the Vikings' organization, that of living in the past. The Vikings selected Ponder not just because of the fear of fan reprisal should a late round pick fail to become a star quarterback in the NFL, but also because of the team's continuing insistence that a starting NFL quarterback must be a pure pocket quarterback. The sample size guiding this rationale is small, at least prior to this year, with the Vikings unquestionably looking at the stunted careers of both Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick in support of the impression that quarterbacks that run do not survive or thrive in the NFL.
The latter part of that assumption has proven wrong, of course, even before this season. When healthy, both McNabb and Vick had spectacular success using their legs, and that allowed them to work on their passing games. The flaw in the theory that NFL quarterbacks must learn in the pocket is instructed, however, by the careers of McNabb and Vick, who both refused the opportunities to learn to become pocket passers during the height of their success running the ball. Webb shows no such disinclination, already evidencing a better arm than at the end of last season, despite rarely playing this season.
More fundamentally, however, the Vikings are assuming that a team ought to be built around pure pocket passers. The value of pocket passers is that they live longer in the NFL, sometimes as long as offensive linemen. But that does not mean that other styles ought to be eschewed, particularly if they are successful.
Webb is neither a pure pocket passer nor a scrambling quarterback. Rather, what Webb is, and what suggests that Webb's style can work in the NFL even if not modified too greatly, is a good passer who picks his running opportunities, protects the ball during the run, and mostly avoids contact. That means that Webb is productive and safe--the latter missing from the rushing ploys of McNabb, Vick, and Rodgers, who all often attacked a defense up the middle, lowered their helmets to gain extra yards, and took hits on virtually every running play. Webb's hybrid of the running-passing quarterback means that he is a threat not only to pass and run, but also to survive in the NFL. That, and ever-evolving rules that protect not only quarterbacks but also all players from hits, means that NFL GMs need to rethink their view of the "proper" quarterback. Right now, Webb ought to fit the conception, even if in Minnesota the front office cannot get its head around that fact.
Toby Gerhart arguably made a similar point on Sunday, if in even more dramatic fashion. Though I have been less than praising of Gerhart's heretofore plodding play--a well-deserved description until the second half of week 13's game--Gerhart did everything on Sunday that the Vikings have come to expect of Adrian Peterson, and more.
Not only did Gerhart rush for 90 yards, he also caught three passes for 19 yards and a touchdown, the latter something that the Vikings rarely expect of Peterson and the former slightly above Peterson's season average and more than adequate to do the job expected of an NFL running back.
Gerhart's performance, and Peterson's presence on the sidelines, highlight the folly of investing in a running back $17 million per season for any length of time, unless that running back is also a highly targeted receiver, such as Marshall Faulk. Clearly, Peterson is not highly targeted, making him a one-dimensional back. Either the Vikings need to figure out how to make Peterson multi-dimensional or, probably more prudently, the Vikings ought to trade Peterson for players and picks that allow the team to rebuild in a short period of time. There certainly would be many takers, even at a high asking price, despite all evidence pointing to the inherent flaw in making a one-dimensional running back the highest paid player in a passing league.
In addition to demonstrating the value of Webb and the absurdity of the team's extensive investment in Peterson, Sunday's game further highlighted the need for capable players at all positions. Either the Vikings have no such players in the secondary and at linebacker, or the coaching is abysmal. Given the low bar required for showing capability, the strong sense is that coaching is a problem with this team.
Two weeks ago, the Vikings' secondary was lit up when the safety failed to cover for an always overmatched Cedric Griffin. This week, with Griffin out, that problem abated somewhat, but the Vikings still failed to produce in the secondary the way one would expect of a team putting significant pressure on the quarterback.
Continuing a theme from Leslie Frazier coordinated defenses, Minnesota has a paltry six interceptions this season. That statistic ties Minnesota for dead last with the Indianapolis Colts who, so frustrated with the play of their secondary, earlier in the season fired their defensive coordinator. Green Bay leads the league with 27 picks. Three players have more interceptions than the entire Minnesota defense.
That's bad scheme as much as it is bad players as even bad players can be put in position to make plays. This team too often simply has players clearly out of position, and that's been a standard in the secondary for the past several years. That's not only on the secondary and defensive coordinator, but also on former defensive coordinator and current head coach, Leslie Frazier.
The secondary issue is exacerbated by the poor play of the linebackers, all of whom have looked terrible for much of the season. That shortcoming was no more evident than on tight end Brandon Pettigrew's touchdown on Sunday when the Vikings utterly failed to cover the lumbering end, possibly signaling the final nail in linebacker coach Mike Singletary's run in Minnesota.
Finally, there is the issue of wide-receiver. After force-feeding fans and teammates awful doses of Bernard Berrian, Greg Camarillo, and walk-ons for the first half of the season, the Vikings have decided that Percy Harvin can and ought to be part of the passing game, other than as a wild-card. The Vikings' coaching staff is to be applauded for this discovery, even if it only stumbled upon the revelation due to Peterson's injury. Harvin and anyone else out of the backfield is a scary proposition, unless Harvin is never used.
Some of these ills fall at the doorstep of the front office, some are on the hands of a coaching staff that appears consistently to arrive late for games or leave early, accept poor play too long, fail to innovate preferring staid, safe, if losing approaches, and take risk only when risk absolutely should not be taken. Whomever the culprit, the Vikings clearly have made their own bed out of outdated approaches to the game on both sides of the ball and outmoded methods of putting together a team. If the Vikings hope to have success in the future, they need to change these philosophies immediately, before the next round of changes in the league pass up the team's acceptance of the current successful approaches.
Some teams lead in innovation, others adapt, others, still, follow behind the curve. At present, the Vikings are miles behind the curve in many departments.
Up Next: Is Frazier Part of the Solution, Part of the Problem, or Both?