Through the first quarter of the 2012 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings stand 3-1 and atop the NFC North division. Having faced three suspect teams and one team widely regarded as a Super Bowl contender this year, that record is not all that surprising.
What has surprised many is that the Vikings not only beat the 49ers in sound fashion, but that the Vikings also defeated Detroit, at Detroit, without the benefit of a passing attack. Those closely following the Vikings' quarterback situation--nearly everyone in any way following the team--appear split on what the Detroit game suggested for the Vikings' second-year quarterback.
On one side of the aisle stand those who view Ponder's 16-26 for 111 yard passing effort against a Detroit team previously ranking near the bottom of the league in pass defense as a function of circumstances. With the Vikings already up in the game, they contend, Ponder was given a conservative script and asked to protect the ball. This resulted in mostly short passes and limited yardage.
Those on the other side of the aisle note that 111 yards passing on 26 attempts is never a good thing, notwithstanding the final victorious result.
Debating Ponder's performance in 2012 is meaningless, however, if not put in some form of relevant context. Fortunately, there are viable contextual mechanisms for drawing conclusions about Ponder's performance this year. The most obvious are afforded by Ponder's contemporaries.
The Vikings' 3-1 record follows from two road and two home games, with the sole loss at Indianapolis. Through those four games, Ponder has thrown for 825 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Of the 825 passing yards, 406 are yards-after-catch--nearly one-half of Ponder's passing yardage total.
Fellow second-year player, Andy Dalton, has compiled 1111 passing yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Of Dalton's 1111 passing yards, 468 are yards-after-catch--approximately 42% of Dalton's passing yards. Dalton's Bengals are also 3-1, having played one home game--a season-opening loss to the Ravens--and three road games.
First-year player, Robert Griffin III, has passed for 1070 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Of Griffin's 1070 passing yards, 404 are yards-after-catch--approximately 37% of Griffin's passing yards. Griffin's team is 2-2, with three road and one home game in the books.
Much has been made of Ponder's protection of the ball and the value of protecting the ball versus attempting longer passes. Through one quarter of the 2012 season, there is significant evidence, however, that the benefit of passing beyond the sticks pays.
Interesting in comparing Ponder, RGIII, and Dalton is that Ponder arguably has the best offensive talent around him. The Vikings have legitimate offensive skill players in Percy Harvin, Adrian Peterson, and Kyle Rudolph and a good offensive line. Cincinnati has A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham and a suspect offensive line. Washington has no legitimate offensive threat outside of Griffin and has the most suspect offensive line of the three teams.
Even more interesting, however, are the offensive points per game put up by Minnesota, Cincinnati, and Washington, respectively. Minnesota is averaging just over 17 offensive points per game, Cincinnati is averaging 32 and Washington is averaging 34.
The most glaring difference explaining this disparity--despite similar opposition for each team--is in the degree of commitment that each team has made to moving beyond the dump-off pass. The Vikings have made virtually zero commitment to this, despite being the only team of the three noted here with a legitimate rushing attack. With far higher passing to yards-after-catch values than the Vikings, Washington and Cincinnati clearly have committed more than have the Vikings to at least the mid-range passing game.
The Vikings revel in pointing to wins following from limited touchdown and passing yardage games. That's a fine sentiment if it proves itself over the long haul. But it just as easily could prove fatal as it ensures close games on the average. Better is the approach that takes sound intermediate risks for a much higher relative average return than that offered by the dump-off passing game of limited risk, limited return.
The question for the Vikings is whether Ponder can transform from the dump-off passer that he predominantly is to something more akin to Dalton or Griffin. The answer rests not only with Ponder's ability, but also with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's willingness to properly manage Ponder--allowing Ponder to move out of the pocket at times and encouraging Ponder to learn the proper balance between scrambling and staying in the pocket.
Up Next: Time to Open Check Book.