Monday, December 31, 2012

In Aftermath of Ponder's Finest Moment, Time for Reality Check

The Minnesota Vikings defeated the Green Bay Packers on Sunday to clinch a spot in the 2012-2013 NFL playoffs.  The victory meant a seven-game improvement over last year's win total, ensured that head coach Leslie Frazier will be extended, and demonstrated, yet again, that Adrian Peterson not only is valuable to this team, but that he is the heart of the team.

These were the primary take-aways from Sunday's game.  Yet, because he had set expectations so low, Christian Ponder's 234 yards passing and a handful of nice passes are being cited as proof that he is the Vikings' quarterback of the future.  While rekindling memories of Ponder's first game in the NFL gives reason for something other than utter disappointment, however, christening Ponder's "arrival" is perhaps a more fanciful response than even the most purple-infused follower routinely would dare offer.

To the objective observer, Ponder was above average over the course of yesterday's game and did precisely what needed to be done at at least three critical moments--he (twice) found Michael Jenkins open in the back of the endzone on a drive that required a Vikings' touchdown, he hit an open receiver in stride for a 65-yard pickup that set-up Jenkins' touchdown, and he hit a wide-open receiver on the sidelines on the winning drive to keep the drive going.  He also kept from turning the ball over.

If Ponder had missed on any of those plays, threw a pick, or put the ball on the ground, the Vikings probably would have lost to a Green Bay team that was eating alive Minnesota's suddenly porous secondary and suddenly suspect kick-return coverage team.

That, as the Vikings like to say, is what Ponder is asked to do.  Make the plays that need to be made.  That's good--but it certainly is not great.

Ponder also had his miscues and warts on Sunday--all of which he got away with because Green Bay was so desperately attempting to do what it simply cannot do, stop the best running back in the league.  Peterson gashed the Packers for 199 yards and two scores despite facing mostly eight- and nine-man fronts.  For the lay person, that means that Ponder had, at worst, single-man coverage on every receiver.  Often, however, the Packers opted not to cover a receiver--as they did on the third-down pass late in the game--hedge the run and dare Ponder to complete a pass to a wide-open Michael Jenkins.

What Ponder demonstrated in Sunday's game is nothing more than that he has it in him to hit wide-open receivers often enough to require at least single-man coverage by the defense.  In the case of the touchdown pass to Jenkins, he also demonstrated an ability to put some zip on a five-yard pass.

One of the local scribes who is normally properly critical of Ponder has suggested that Sunday's performance put Ponder on the same plane as Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers, if only for one game.  Hardly.

With virtually no running game to speak of and needing points the entire game, Rodgers shook off a sleepy first quarter to sling the ball anywhere he wanted.  Passes that typically lope from Ponder's hands into those of his receivers' zip with alacrity into the striding reach of Packers' receivers.  Long passes look artful, rather than a means of last resort fraught with danger.  And statistics strongly favor Rodgers--even in Ponder's finest hour.

Despite the outcome, there is, then, ample reason to maintain a cautious watch over Ponder.  Sunday offered several such examples.  One, in particular, stands out.  At a critical juncture in yesterday's game, Ponder dropped back.  Facing a heavy rush, he could not decide whether to throw the ball or eat it.  He chose both, heaving a ball forty yards up and twenty yards out.  The ball hit the hands of two Packer defenders and settled in the hands of a surprised Viking receiver.  It was a horrible decision that could have cost the Vikings the game, but for a miracle.

On Sunday, everyone in the NFL universe knew that the Vikings would force the Green Bay Packers to beat them on the ground.  With little ground game, the Packers nearly beat the Vikings through the air with Rodgers amassing 365 yards--a season high--and four touchdowns.  Despite this attention to the passing game, the Packers accumulated a mere 72 yards rushing.  Nobody in Titletown is marveling at the rushing attack.

While everyone in the NFL universe knew that the Packers would force the Vikings to beat them through the air, Peterson amassed 199 rushing yards and two scores.  Those numbers are on par--if slightly higher even--with Rodgers' quarterbacking numbers.  In Minnesota, Ponder's performance is being hailed as magical in some quarters.

The two forces on Sunday were Rodgers and Peterson, not DuJuan Harris and Ponder.  That Ponder did slightly more than expected--that he hit some wide-open receivers against a sell-out-against-the-run defense--only shows that, when he plays really well, Ponder can do just that.  As long as the Vikings have Adrian Peterson, that might be good enough--assuming it is the norm, rather than the high-end aberration.

Up Next:  Peterson Carrying Vikings on Both Sides of the Ball.  Plus, with cash in hand, Vikings need to resign Percy.

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