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.

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