Friday, October 26, 2012

Ponder Not the Answer for Vikings

In Thursday night's 36-17 home loss to the previously 2-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Christian Ponder was 19-35 for 251 yards, one touchdown and one interception.  Those appear to be relatively modest numbers.  Appearances, as they say, however, can be deceiving.

Where modest appearances often mask spectacular quality, Ponder's modest numbers on Thursday masked what can only be described as a horrid performance.  For three straight weeks, Ponder has underwhelmed in the role of caretaker quarterback--falling below even the levels of his predecessor, Tarvaris Jackson.

With a season and one-half under his belt, Ponder, on Thursday, verified that he is not the franchise quarterback that the Vikings desperately hoped that he would be when the team reached for him with the twelfth overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.  Nor, unfortunately, is Ponder, at this juncture, even capable of being the caretaker quarterback.

Through the first quarter on Thursday, the Vikings had four yards of offense on 0-5 passing by Ponder.   That was good, somehow, for a passer rating of 39.5.  Against the 29th ranked pass defense, Ponder had 75 passing yards at halftime, when the game was still in doubt.  His pass to start the final drive of the first half was so awful, that the Vikings decided to run out the clock rather than risk yet another turnover in their own end.  Not until Tampa Bay had the game firmly in hand and had shifted to a deep cover zone did Ponder amass the bulk of his mostly meaningless yards.

In addition to the awful numbers, Ponder progressively--or regressively--exhibits characteristics opposite of those necessary for strong on-field performance.  He routinely throws off the back foot, throws across his body, attempts to make impossible plays rolling to the left, fails to spot wide open receivers, opts for the check down, exhibits no strength on his downfield passes, and shows no confidence.  And, despite contentions by some affiliated with the team, Ponder's greatest flaw is not his lack of confidence--the greatest flaws are mechanics, lack of arm strength, and the fact that he appears to be in over his head far too often and increasingly so.

Early last season, Ponder appeared to be making progress toward being at least a decent NFL quarterback.  That seems like eons ago, however.  Were Ponder a free agent today, no NFL team would pick him up--that's how bad things have become.

Unfortunately, those in large part responsible for this mess--not because they drafted Ponder, but because they failed to develop an out-of-the-pocket quarterback into a part pocket, part out-of-the-pocket passer--probably will refuse to admit their mistake until Ponder's contract expires.  That could make for a long interlude for Vikings' fans.

The options, were the Vikings willing to consider them, unfortunately are not all that appealing anyway.  If the Vikings are insistent on molding a pocket passer, Ponder is not their guy.  Nor is Joe Webb--the stronger armed, better running version of Ponder.  Only McLeod Bethel-Thompson has the arm strenght and staying power to meet the requirements of the pure pocket passer that the Vikings, for whatever misguided reason, feel is necessary to lead the team.  And the odds of the Vikings benching Ponder for an untested rookie are lower than Ponder's quarterback rating.

For all involved, Ponder's journey in the NFL has been unfortunate.  Ponder entered the league as a modestly armed passer, good at hitting short routes and wide-open long routes for which the eephus toss that characterizes his downfield passing is more suited for the college game.  He was also gifted at scrambling.

The Vikings liked Ponder's IQ and personality, but they wanted a different football player--a pocket passer.  To transform Ponder into something that he is not, the Vikings permitted and encouraged Ponder to milk the short pass.  Ponder, to his detriment, eschewed the run and dumped it short--often behind the line.  Now, he is incapable of even assessing situations outside of the dump pass and looks both miserable and lost.

Most telling of Ponder's short-comings was not a failure on Thursday, but a success.  His second-quarter touchdown to Percy Harvin was his longest touchdown pass of the season.  The play went for 18 yards.  In game eight of the season, that statistic says a mouthful.  In year two of a career in which he has had the opportunity to play with Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and Kyle Rudolph, it fills the stomach.

Up Next:  What's Next?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Time to Spend on Harvin

Through the first seven games of the NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings rank 22 in the league in passing yardage, near the bottom of the league in passes for more the forty yards, near the bottom of the league in passes for more than thirty yards, and near the bottom of the league in passes for more than twenty yards--all that, despite the fact that Percy Harvin is, by far, the league leaders in yards-after-catch, outdistancing the number two receiver in this category, Wes Welker, by nearly 100 yards.

The Vikings' passing statistics reveal two things that most Vikings' fans already know.  The first is that Harvin has become indispensable to the Vikings' offense.  The other is that the Vikings must open the coffers and extend Harvin before Harvin either becomes even more valuable--as he will if the touchdowns begin to follow from his receptions--or he has the opportunity to gauge the interest of the rest of the league.

With $10 million in salary cap space--and more almost certainly to flow back to the team in the form of unearned incentives--the Vikings are in an ideal position to sign Harvin now and have the cap hit count against 2012 rather than 2013 salary cap numbers.  A player of Harvin's abilities likely will command a contract in the neighborhood of $50 million over five seasons, with at least $22 million of that guaranteed.

When the Vikings were pushing for a new stadium, the front office's philosophy was to spend nearly to the salary cap limit and use the roster bonus when signing players.  Now that the stadium is in the bank, the team has backed off both commitments--ominous signs for a team with a pressing decision on Harvin that could and should be resolved yesterday.

Harvin currently earns $915,000 per season--slightly more than Jerome Simpson ($800k) and nearly one-third what Michael Jenkins ($2.5m) receives.  That low figure is a disincentive for the Vikings to renegotiate Harvin's salary this year.

The argument for extending Harvin this year, however, is that the Vikings do have a surplus that otherwise will be unspent and they can use that surplus to pay for at least half of Harvin's likely bonus (assuming at least half of the bonus is in the form of a roster bonus) and pro-rate the remainder over the five years of the contract--considerations that the Vikings need to contemplate as they look down the road to the expiration of other, team-friendly, rookie contracts.

Up Next:  6-2 a Must if Vikings Want to Stay on Playoff Course.  Plus, Time to Truly Develop Quarterback.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Vikings to Fans: Thanks for Pushing Through Stadium, Now F Yourselves

True to the form we've come to expect from entities such as NFL ownership groups, the Minnesota Vikings announced on Sunday that they have committed to play a 2013 home game in London.  For the uninitiated, that was a voluntary decision.

The Vikings' decision to play in London will mean at least two things.  First, it will mean that the local fans and local businesses--the bulk of the support for the Vikings' publicly funded new stadium--will lose a game.  No doubt, however, the Vikings will find some way to recapture the "lost" revenue.

Playing overseas next year also ensures the Vikings a tidy NFL payout--a guarantee likely to exceed what the Vikings would have made had the team merely honored its commitment to play in Minnesota.

Rest assured, the Vikings are already in spin mode on this, sending out missives to the effect that, without a lease agreement for next year, the team is both free to play elsewhere in 2013 and that the team must protect its interests.  Rational fans and members of the public will see that for the canard that it is.  Members of the local media--still vested in everything purple--will certainly come to the Vikings' defense.

The Vikings pitched a stadium deal employing a marketing theme centering on the notion that the team and the community were intertwined.  It appears that that sentiment was exactly as it objectively appeared to be at the time--a one-sided marketing ploy.  Never mind the good faith presumptions of such dealings--such legalities were intended for those paying, not those receiving.

Nothing says bend over and grab your ankles quite like NFL ownership groups.  And as long as the fans buy into the bit, the demands will increase and the money will continue to flow out with less and less received in return.

Up Next:  Vikings Sitting on Salary Cap Cash.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Will Vikings Coast Into Playoffs?

For the first time since 2009, the Minnesota Vikings have at least four wins in their first five games.  In that season, the Vikings started 5-0, defeating one playoff team and four largely woeful teams.  Minnesota finished the 2009 season with a disheartening 31-28 loss at New Orleans, following a 12-4 regular season.

The 2009 Minnesota Vikings were built on a strong offense with Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, and Visanthe Shiancoe leading the way.  On the season, the Vikings were second in the league in scoring and fifth in total yards.  Defensively, the team was more pedestrian, finishing number one against the rush, but in the bottom third against the pass; the 2009 Vikings also ceded 26 passing touchdowns.

At 4-1, the 2012 Vikings have the look of the polar opposite of the 2009 Vikings.  Through five games this year, the Vikings are in the top ten in the league in points allowed, passing touchdowns, and rushing yards and touchdowns, and just outside the top ten in passing yards allowed.  Offensively, however, the Vikings are less impressive, with mid- to bottom-third rankings in points and passing, respectively, and a near top-third ranking in rushing offense.

Like 2009, the 2012 Vikings have begun the season against mostly non-playoff caliber teams.  The question, then, is whether the Vikings are more the product of improvement or opposition.  The answer to that question might not be known until the playoffs.

Playoffs?  Playoffs!?

To date, the Vikings' 2012 competition has compiled a 9-14 record with only San Francisco (4-1) above .500.  Of the team's remaining eleven opponents, only five (Chicago twice) currently have records at or above .500 and only Chicago and Houston have demonstrated any semblance of balance on both sides of the ball.

Based on where all NFL teams currently stand and the Vikings' remaining schedule, a strong case can be made that the Vikings will be favored to finish no worse than 11-5.  In NFL history, only three teams with at least eleven wins have failed to make the playoffs.  Since the introduction of wild-card teams, only the 2008 New England Patriots have met such misery.

Making the playoffs would have been unthinkable for Minnesota in the off-season.  But that was before the Vikings demonstrated that they could play some defense and before the Lions and Packers decided to check out for the season.  With the other divisions muddled, the NFC North is likely to have two playoff teams.  And, at this point, regardless of competition to date and lingering offensive concerns, the Vikings ought to be favorites to secure at least a wild-card spot.

Up Next:  Money and Linebacker.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Ponder's Management Style Pales in Comparison to Contemporaries

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.