Thursday, August 30, 2012

Vikings Making Difficult Quarterback Situation Worse

With a lockout in place in the summer of 2011, the Minnesota Vikings faced a quandary.  Having used a high first-round draft position to select modestly heralded quarterback Christian Ponder, the Vikings needed to do all that they could to demonstrate that Ponder was the franchise player that the team so desperately wanted him to be.

To further the process, the Vikings put a playbook in Ponder's hands--a playbook that no other quarterback on the team had the benefit of reviewing prior to the end of the lockout.  Ponder, we were told, dove into the playbook with the zeal of an early graduate from a modestly heralded undergraduate program.

After announcing that the quarterback position was "up for grabs" between Ponder and second-year quarterback, Joe Webb, the Vikings immediately moved Ponder to first-team status, giving him the bulk of the reps in the shortened pre-season and providing him the benefit of working almost exclusively with the first team.

The result was a modest first half to the 2011 season for Ponder and a poor second-half performance.  Webb, conversely, mostly played well as a frequent substitute for Ponder in that latter half of the season and, by objective standards, was the more poised quarterback.

Those who continue in their misguided attempts to defend Ponder's second half performance last season point not to anything that Ponder did, but to the fact that Ponder did not have a full off-season, had to adjust to a new offensive coordinator, and had to acclimate to the NFL.  No mention was made of those same obstacles for Webb.

Some of those same people who excused Ponder's play at the end of last season opted, as well, to do so by tearing down Webb, calling Webb a "gimmick" who "takes teams by surprise" and "doesn't have the skill set to be a full-time NFL quarterback."

In light of Ponder's performance in week three of the pre-season, some of Ponder's supporters (and Webb detractors) are at least now hedging their bets on the second-year quarterback, calling for the quarterback to demonstrate "greater urgency."  At the same time, they are attempting to blur reality by suggesting that the Vikings' fourth-string quarterback would be the better fit as the second-string quarterback.  On a team already short on veterans, the player that would remove from the roster is clear.

These continuing, apparently ego-driven commentaries on Ponder's and McCloud Bethel-Thompson's versus Webb's prospects are, of course, belied by the play on the field.  At best this pre-season, Ponder has been average.  At worst, he has been below average.  That does not project a very high ceiling.

Among Ponder's issues are that he is not a pocket passer in a system in which the Vikings, for whatever reason, are insisting that the quarterback remain in the pocket behind a weak offensive line looking for receivers that do not exist.  Reading into the situation--because  the Vikings either are not offering an explanation or do not understand why they are imposing such a restriction on a player that has always been a roll-out quarterback--the Vikings are concerned about longevity and want Ponder to learn to be a pocket passer, even if he is not.  The hope, presumably, is that, by becoming a pocket passer, Ponder would extend his longevity in the NFL.

That's putting the cart before the horse, however.  Before Ponder's longevity should be a concern, his value to the team should be determined.  Other teams have allowed their quarterbacks to learn to become pocket passers (i.e., to learn to limit risk) rather than dictating a style that did not immediately suit the player.  Aaron Rodgers is a prime example.  Still willing to run, Rodgers has gradually reeled in his penchant for running and developed into a solid pocket passer.

Rodgers' transformation was not overnight.  But it also was not at the cost of effective play.  That is because the team allowed Rodgers to use his legs and asked merely that he work on decision-making regarding when to run and when to remain in the pocket.  Rodgers worked on it and to much success.

By not allowing Ponder, or Webb, to learn from their play and forcing them to do what does not now come naturally, the Vikings are actually stunting the growth of both quarterbacks and nearly ensuring that the return from either is the bare minimum.

Ponder has two other liabilities that appear to frustrate his growth.  The first is that he plays shorter than he is, seemingly losing two inches as he rears to throw, particularly on deep routes.  This results in the eephus pass that works fine in college when the receiver is open by twenty yards, but that does not work so well in a league in which players pick the eephus and pummel the intended receiver.

Ponder's other liability is that he is outwardly over-confident (see, e.g., "minor adjustments" comment after taking numerous sacks last week and a sense that things were "fine") and inwardly lacking confidence--as evidenced by his demeanor on the field when the rush is on or the first three-and-out has occurred.

At this point, the long-term prognosis for Ponder is not that sparkling.  But whatever progress Ponder is going to make is going to continue to be impeded by the Vikings' dogmatic insistence that Ponder stay in the pocket.  Even with a solid offensive line and quality receivers, that would be asking Ponder to do what he is not now most suited to do.  Given the holes on the line and out wide, however, it is asking the near impossible.

Of course, all of this begs the question of whether Ponder is even the best quarterback on the Vikings' roster.  Using arm strength, accuracy, poise, and escapability as a guide, Ponder probably ranks no higher than third on this year's team--and that assumes that the hype on Bethel-Thompson is without significant substance.  Despite pronouncements in some quarters to the contrary, Webb has the stronger arm, appears more poised, offers energy that Ponder appears to lack, and can run like a gazelle.  And, at present, Sage Rosenfels probably is better than either Ponder or Webb.

The Vikings claim that they are building a team through the draft and rely on that notion to give Ponder a long leash without competition.  That philosophy might pay off were this MLB and were Ponder a cog rather than someone expected to lead on the field and rally the team.  In the NFL, where dynasties are measured in weeks and teams transform themselves overnight by making solid off-season moves and drafting well, that approach simply will not work.  For, by the time the Vikings have convinced themselves that either Ponder is not their guy or that they have misused Ponder, those young players of today will have moved on as free-agents (assuming the best), leaving the Vikings to start yet another "rebuilding process."

Up Next:  Waiver Wire Help?  Plus, funny how the Vikings stopped spending once the Stadium bill passed.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Vikings Show Shades of Never Before

In 1984, the Minnesota Vikings finished 3-13 playing in the NFC Central.  Last year, the Vikings also finished 3-13, marking the team as arguably the second-worst team in team history--second to the 1984 team because the 2011 team had All-Pro talent at running back (Adrian Peterson), wide-receiver (Percy Harvin), and defensive end (Jared Allen), while the 1984 team had nary a player even worth considering for All-Pro status.

This year's Vikings' team still has Peterson, Harvin, and Allen, but, based on the early returns, little else to be too excited about.  And even this bit of optimism assumes a healthy Peterson and a migraine-free Harvin when the games matter.

After a thoroughly unimpressive performance against the San Diego Chargers' C-squad, the Vikings look poised to make last year's team--and possibly the 1984 team--look like mere challengers for title of worst Vikings' squad in team history.

Few players earned their positions on Friday.  Those who did include running backs Toby Gerhart and Matt Asiata (despite his goal line fumble), tight ends Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison, and Allen Reisner, offensive tackle Matt Kalil, middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, and, probably, safety Harrison Smith (despite a careless roughing penalty that led to the game-winning field goal).

Kicker Blair Walsh missed what should have been an easy, mid-forty range field-goal attempt, but put most of his kickoffs out of the endzone and otherwise did what was expected of him, and Audie Cole showed the kind of vision and tackling ability that the Vikings desperately need at linebacker.

Players who noticeably underperformed on Friday include offensive guard Charlie Johnson, quarterback Christian Ponder, linebacker Chad Greenway, and cornerback Chris Carr.  Ponder and Greenway presumably are safe as starters.  Johnson likely is, as well, if only because the Vikings have few options.  Assuming any alternative, Carr is almost certainly gone.

What ought to be most disconcerting to the Vikings is that, outside of Jared Allen, there is no apparent focused leadership on the team.  Peterson's return will help with leadership, but probably not focus.  And Peterson's return doesn't even solve a problem for the Vikings as, during his absence, Gerhart has played well, as has Asiata--who any thinking GM/coach would keep on this roster.  Winfield brings focus, but diminished skills without any necessary hold on even a cornerback spot where the Vikings are beyond woefully thin.

At this point in his career, Greenway ought to be a middle linebacker presence.  Instead, he continues to look like a player best suited to play the outside, possibly even the weak side.  That's not a terrible indictment, except that it happens to coincide with the Vikings' linebacking weakness as a unit.  Three years ago, the Vikings probably envisioned a linebacking trio of Greenway, EJ Henderson, and some up and comer in 2012.  Henderson is gone, the up and comer, Jasper Brinkley is recovering from a serious injury, and Greenway is not even the best linebacker.  That's left the linebacking corps wanting and needing more than weak-side level play from Greenway.

On offense, the Vikings need a pulse from Ponder, who, tonight, alternated between his Joe Mauer impersonation, absent the numbers, and his rookie impression.  Vikings' play-by-play man, Paul Allen, did his best to spin the night for Ponder, noting that "in fairness, it's tough to be too hard on Ponder given that he had to play without AP tonight."  In fairness, Ponder had solid backs in the backfield all night and played with the first unit.  None of that explains a pass directly to the opponent, the utter lack of motivation or enthusiasm, or the failure to get rid of the ball more quickly.  And we won't even go into the eephus passes down the field.

Leslie Frazier attempted his own spin of the game after a disappointing first half, noting that "this is still the pre-season."  True.  But, unless the Vikings are keeping virtually everything under wraps until the regular season begins--confident that they will be able to execute the more exotic when they cannot now master the elementary--this season portends to be one of the worst, if not the worst, in Vikings' history.

Up Next:  Can Plodding Work in the NFL?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Jackson to Minnesota? No Chance.

In an effort to staunch an increasing exodus of users, Yahoo! appears intent on marginalizing its content by favoring headlines not supported by content and content not supported by research or reason.  Monday's story citing the Minnesota Vikings' interest in recently released Seattle Seahawks' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson certainly appears to fall into one of these categories.

During his most prolific season in Minnesota (2007), Jackson completed 58% of his passes for 1,900 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards passing per attempt and 11 yards per completion, and adding 21 yards rushing per game.  He also threw 12 picks and was sacked 19 times.

Following the 2010 season, with only Joe Webb on the roster, current Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman opted not to bring back Jackson.  Seattle picked up Jackson, immediately anointing him the starter with Seahawks' head coach Pete Carroll chiding Minnesota for its "abuse and misuse" of Jackson and frequently referring to Jackson as the "respected leader of the team."

Carroll's praise for Jackson appears to have been less than sincere.  Without playing a down in the 2012 pre-season, Jackson was cut in favor of a player, Matt Flynn, who has one career start to his name.

Jackson's departure follows a 2011 season in which the former Vikings' signal caller completed 60% of his passes for 3,091 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 6.9 yards per attempt and 13 yards per completion.  Jackson also threw 13 interceptions and endured a mind-numbing 42 sacks.

Although Jackson improved slightly during his one year in Seattle from his best year in Minnesota, there is little question but that that improvement was at least in part the consequence of playing the Rams and Cardinals twice each and going against a porous Eagles' defense.  Even with the slight uptick, however, Jackson was still only 21st in the league in passer rating, 20th in yards, and 22nd in yards per attempt.

Below Jackson in each of these categories was current Vikings' starter Christian Ponder.  While Jackson probably has shown his upside, however, Ponder is a player expected to surpass the modest bar that Jackson has set.

Jackson would never come to Minnesota as a possible starter, but even bringing him in as a backup would be purposeless and counter-productive as his numbers are no better than Joe Webb's prorated numbers, and Jackson does not offer the running capabilities, elusiveness, or even the accuracy of Webb.  And as a third-stringer, Jackson surely offers even less, with Sage Rosenfels providing the Vikings the veteran presence, on and off the field, that Jackson simply does not suggest.

Spielman made the right call on Jackson in 2011.  And nothing to date suggests that he even remotely regrets that decision or has any reason for such regrets.  Given the Vikings' current situation at quarterback, bringing Jackson back to Minnesota thus makes no sense.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Musgrave Brings Into Question Ponder's Purported Intelligence

We've all been regaled by tales of Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Christian Ponder's purported intelligence.  The evidence to date has been that he graduated early from college with a business degree.  I'm not as certain as others that that accomplishment automatically makes Ponder intelligent.

However, for anyone doubting whether even Ponder might need some intellectual fine-tuning--or at least a lesson in independent thinking--Vikings' offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, should at least have stirred the thinking pot.

This week, after reportedly watching game film of other quarterbacks, Ponder concurred with Musgrave that it is safer to slide head first than to slide feet first.  As primary support for this conclusion, Musgrave showed Ponder clips of former Broncos' quarterback, John Elway, and current Packers' quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, sliding head first on numerous occasions, apparently never being hit in the head.

There are two issues involved in this analysis.  The first is whether a player is more protected by the rules when giving himself up one way versus another.  The second is whether, even with the protection of the rules, the player is afforded greater protection a way not envisioned by the rule.  Both rule and wisdom suggest head-first slides are far riskier than feet-first.

Anecdotally, I suspect that even Elway will offer that the head-first method led to some big hits that Musgrave may not have uncovered and Rodgers certainly can attest--though he might not divulge to a division rival who seems unaware--that head-first collisions led to his concussions.  This evidence notwithstanding, the league rule protecting defenseless players and simple physics suggests that a player is far more likely to take a hit to the head when "sliding" head first than when sliding feet first.

The NFL protects players who give themselves up.  To define whether a player has given himself up, the officials look for evidence that a player has conceded the play and is not pursuing additional gain.  Sliding feet-first means that the feet will begin the downing process.  Visually, this is easy for officials to see  Physically, because the feet are already on the ground, sliding feet-first is the quickest way of conceding.

Conversely, the head-first concession resembles in most circumstances any other attempt to gain forward progress and continue with the play, thus making it difficult for officials to identify as quickly as they would a feet-first slide.

Physically, dead-first concessions require that a player essentially make downing contact with their upper body or head.  That takes longer and leaves the player's full body in play until the contact is made.  By rule design and by natural physics, it thus makes little sense for a player concerned with protecting himself from harmful hits to make a head-first concession.

The only time that a head-first dive makes more sense than a feet-first slide, when considering, first and foremost, player safety, is when the player is in the open field and is able to make a concession, without any concern over getting hit.  In such cases, it is far more likely, however, that the player also has the option of continuing further and sliding feet first, gaining extra yardage and ensuring safety, or going out of bounds.  

If Musgrave really needs every inch of Ponder's forward lurch to produce results in his offense, his offense has far greater concerns than whether Ponder goes feet-first or head-first.  If Musgrave's conclusion and instruction to Ponder that he ought to make concessions head-first is based solely on "empirical" evidence, however, it probably would serve Musgrave, Ponder, and the Vikings simply not reinventing a tried and true wheel.

Up Next:  Casualties to the Rescue?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

More of Same Tells Us More of Same

The Vikings' booth was at it again on Friday night as the Minnesota Vikings took on the Buffalo Bills in another pre-season game.  Last week, Vikings' play-by-play man, Paul Allen, offered a mea culpa of sorts, regarding his frequent disparaging remarks about current backup quarterback Joe Webb.  PA stated that, after reviewing the game film, he recognizes that Webb had zero protection against the 49ers and that he had been unduly harsh about Webb's performance.

PA's discrete apology notwithstanding, there clearly is an odd movement afoot to cement in the minds of Vikings' fans the notion that Ponder is the clear-cut meritorious starting quarterback.  Perhaps the motive is to calm Ponder and see what he can do under ideal social circumstances.  Whatever the motive, it is beyond sophomoric.  But that has not stopped PA in his antics.

On Friday, after color man Pete Bercich gushed about yet another gush-worthy run by Webb and noted that, on a subsequent play, Webb had put the ball in the perfect spot for Devin Aromashodu, only to see Aromashodu drop the pass, PA felt compelled to yet again weigh in, commenting that Webb needs to make the pass.  Bercich, as if previously admonished, hesitantly agreed.

With Vikings' GM Rick Spielman in the booth, PA began a discussion on the quarterback position, gushing effusively over Ponder before starting in on his tired and completely out of place line that, to the extent that Webb is effective in the game, it is because he offers "a knuckleball."  Ridiculous metaphor for a ridiculous comment.  Spielman, who drafted Ponder early in the first round with Webb already on the roster, of course, agreed.

On the sidelines near the end of the game, former Viking linebacker and current sideline reporter, Ben Leber, also gushed about Ponder's performance.

Clearly, there is a concern in some quarters that Vikings' fans cannot process what they see and that Ponder needs coddling.  Again, this is both moronic and counter-productive--moronic for the obvious reasons, counter-productive because it actually encourages Ponder not to continue to push himself as though he had competition for the starting spot.

That's not an indictment on Ponder, who played well, but on his unsolicited handlers who apparently feel that this town is big enough for more Sid Hartmans.

Objectively, the Vikings had two respectable quarterbacking performances against the Bills.  Ponder's numbers playing with the first team and having the benefit of most of the repetitions in practice, were good--10-13 for 169 yards and a touchdown.  His loan blemishes were that he took two sacks.

Webb, too, played well.  Although his passing numbers did not approach Ponder's, Webb had three passes dropped by receivers, one likely touchdown negated by an impossibly missed mugging of the Vikings' receiver, and two rushes for a team-leading 64 yards.  Webb's timing was slightly off on a timing pattern, but not alarmingly so and not surprisingly so for someone who takes limited reps in practice.

PA can continue to attribute Webb's success to the "surprise" factor, but if Webb is still a surprise to opponents, then the Vikings likely can expect him to remain such a surprise for as long as he is in the league.  At some point, even PA will have to acknowledge that the "surprise" is actually ability.

Up Next:  Rookies and Free-Agents Who Should Make the Cut.  Plus, what to do at wide-receiver.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Vikings' Play-By-Play Man Sandbagging Webb?

First it was the stadium drive, now, it appears, it is an effort to recreate history.  If nothing else, Minnesota Vikings' play-by-play man, Paul Allen, is a pitch man.  The question is whether he even knows any more whether he is pitching or reporting.

As the Vikings made their push for a new stadium that would more than double the team's value, Allen was at the fore chiding the "uneducated" for not supporting something clearly so good for them and threatening the imminent move of the Vikings to LA (the city that purportedly has two nearly ready-to-go NFL stadiums and which is poised to pluck a team from among the few that have not recently been gifted glowing new stadiums).

Most saw through Allen's clear self-interested pandering, even if the Vikings still got their gift.  Allen's current position on Vikings' backup quarterback Joe Webb offers much the same subterfuge and yet more evidence of Allen's pitching proclivities.

At several points during training camp reporting this season, Allen has offered the unsolicited wisdom that Webb is essentially the beneficiary of "catching teams by surprise."  In support of this position, Allen points to Chicago's ability to "shut Webb down after seeing game film on him."

Notwithstanding Allen's N of 1 problem, his own example does more to undermine his position than to support it.  Webb entered the Chicago game last year in replacement of the ineffective/injured Christian Ponder.  Ponder left the game having completed four of ten passes for 28 yards and a pick returned for a TD.  Entering the game at the start of the second quarter, Webb finished 17 of 32 for 200 yards with two picks in a 17-13 loss.

If Webb's statistics in the Chicago game suggest that Webb is not an NFL-caliber starting quarterback, as Allen claims, Ponder's statistics more than make the point that Ponder's prospects are even more dire.

An objective assessment of Webb last season is that he did a fairly good job at quarterback, facing the same limitations that his counter-part, Ponder, faced--a limited offensive line and wide-receiving corps and generally superior opposition.

This year, Allen appears intent on creating among the fan base an impression that Ponder is the only true option at quarterback, no matter what struggles Ponder might endure.  That belief would help diminish any fan sentiments that the Vikings should do anything other stick with their 2011 first-round pick, no matter the results.

Allen's position, in addition to being myopic, helps promote an environment antithetical to the competition that exists on strong NFL teams and potentially reinforces team justifications for sticking with a sunken cost, should Ponder not succeed.

At this point in Ponder's career, it is unclear whether he will mature into an NFL starter.  Last year was not impressive.  Allen and the Vikings blame that on Ponder not having a full camp (something that Webb, without Ponder's benefit of the new playbook, also did not have) and having to play behind a wretched offensive line.  This year, there will be no such excuses, however, as Ponder will have a much stronger offensive line, a full camp, and a full season to have digested Bill Musgrave's playbook.

That should suffice for Vikings' fans, as the team continues to come to grips with the reality that, as currently comprised, it is not a playoff team.  Unfortunately, that does not suffice for Allen, who appears to be openly lobbying for Webb's trade, pointing to the arrival of McLeod Bethel-Thompson as "a threat to one of the two backup quarterbacks" and noting Webb's "poor" performance in passing drills (guess who Allen things is most in jeopardy of losing his job) .

If the Vikings hope to crawl out of the hole that they have made for themselves the past two years, they will need to do a better job of assessing personnel.  That begins by being objective, not fanciful.  Disparaging Webb's NFL credentials in an attempt to bolster Ponders serves neither this goal nor Ponder's interest.  If Ponder succeeds this year, he will have the position that Allen and the team so desperately hope he can secure.  If not, however, it would be beyond foolish to have dismissed candidate number two merely to protect candidate number one.

Up Next:  Are Vikings Buyers or Sellers?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Spielman's Two Draft Sides Already Evidencing Themselves for 2012 Draft

Since arriving in Minnesota, current Minnesota Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman has had two particular knacks in the draft.  One has been the ability to tab the first-round player that everyone agrees will be a successful NFL player, such as Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and, from all initial impressions, Matt Kalil.  Spielman also was sagacious enough to trade a first-round draft choice for Jared Allen.

Spielman's other knack, however, has been his much less scintillating performance identifying starting caliber talent beyond the obvious--often trading down (sometimes even up) to take players that, by most accounts, the rest of the league considered far more lightly.  

From 2007 to 2011, the Vikings had 33 selections outside of the first round of the draft.  Of those 33 picks, the Vikings arguably identified NFL talent in 12--Sidney Rice, Brian Robison, Letroy Guion, John Sullivan, Phil Loadholt, Jasper Brinkley, Chris Cook, Toby Gerhart, Everson Griffin, Kyle Rudolph, Christian Ballard, and Brandon Fusco.  Of those twelve, only John Sullivan has yet cemented a starting position in the NFL, however.

In 2012, the Vikings again took the consensus safe pick atop the draft board, selecting USC left offensive tackle Matt Kalil.  Again, Spielman appears to have plucked a proven, long-term starter from a small pool of options.  After Kalil, however, Spielman appears again to have transformed into his later round form, selecting primarily players that fit a Vikings' need, but who also had much to prove--at the college level, let alone in the NFL.

Clearly, there are many unknowns about the Vikings' latter round selections in this year's draft, much as there are for all NFL teams.  If form holds, however, the Vikings will have one bona-fide starter to show for this draft and one or two replacement level players.  That, despite the Vikings' and Spielmans' oft-ballyhooed chorus that the team was poised to make significant personnel strides given its recent caches of draft picks.

Whatever happens with the Vikings' 2012 draft picks, it is already certain that one reach was a reach too far.  Despite knowing of a torn patellar tendon that cost wide-receiver Greg Childs part of his junior season at Arkansas and made him mostly irrelevant in his senior season, Spielman drafted Childs in the fourth-round of this year's draft.  On Saturday, Childs went down with not one but two patellar tendon tears, putting him out for the season and probably ending his NFL career.

Draft-day gambles are part of the game, but gambling in the fourth on a player who likely would have fallen out of the draft is a bigger gamble than most teams take.  Childs was one such gamble that already has failed--and he was the less risky proposition in terms of transforming to NFL talent than, until Saturday's injury, was fellow Arkansas receiver Jerious Wright.

With Childs gone, the Vikings are left with one less option at a position already beyond thin after Percy Harvin.  Despite ongoing recovery from his 2010 injury, Childs was already the number two receiver at left wide-out, behind Jerome Simpson.  With Simpson serving a three-game suspension to start the season, that made Childs the incumbent starter on the left side.  Now, that battle will be between a bunch of players that the Vikings do not consider part of even their short-term plans.

Up Next:  Patching the Hole.