Friday, November 30, 2012

And Troy Williamson's Numbers Compare Favorably to Jerry Rice's Numbers

In either an attempt to ingratiate himself with somebody in the Vikings' organization or as a result of utter delusion, our local long-time sycophant scribe continues to offer excuses for why current Vikings' starting quarterback Christian Ponder has failed to achieve the success that the Vikings (and he) predicted for him prior to the start of the season.  In his screed, the scribe argues that Ponder's second-year numbers compare favorably to the second-year numbers of several now established starting quarterbacks.

In the same column, the scribe suggests that Ponder has been victimized by dropped passes to such an extent that his greatness has been masked by the failures of his receivers.  Not surprisingly, our scribe fails to support his ludicrous claims (in fact, the only numbers he offers are those that purport to support the claim that Ponder's statistics compare favorably with such quarterbacks as Tom Brady and Drew Brees--even though the numbers clearly show the opposite).

In previous columns, I have addressed the myth that Ponder has been the victim of dropped passes any more than any other quarterback in the league, pointing to statistics showing that the Vikings' receivers rank 25th in the NFL in dropped passes.

Apparently, that is not sufficient evidence for some, however, as the myth continues to circulate that "the Vikings don't know for certain whether the problem is Ponder or the receivers, particularly given all of the dropped passes by the Vikings' receivers" (quote courtesy Vikings' color man, Pete Bercich).

Again, the Vikings' receivers rank 25th in the league in dropped passes.  That means that 24 receiving corps have more dropped passes.

At least as telling as to where the Vikings' passing woes rest are statistics on individual dropped passes. Not one Viking receiver resides in the NFL's top 20 for dropped passes--eighteen teams have a player in this group with Tennessee and Denver having two such butterfingered wideouts.

The Vikings are represented in a corollary category, however, with two players among the top ten active receivers for percentage of passes thrown to them caught.  Percy Harvin is third in the NFL with 60 receptions on 61 catchable passes thrown to him.  Michael Jenkings ranks 10th in the NFL with 24 of 25 catchable passes caught.

Among the teams with receivers that drop the highest percentage of catchable passes are Denver (Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas), Washington (Santana Moss), New Orleans (Lance Moore), New England (Brandon Lloyd), and Green Bay (Jordy Nelson).  Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and RGIII rank one through four, respectively, in passer rating, Drew Brees is 12th.  With two of the league's more reliable receivers--and none of the league's least reliable receivers--Ponder ranks 24th in passer rating and well below all five of the these quarterbacks in passing yardage and offensive output.

Whether you believe that Ponder is being undermined by something other than his own limitations, the statistics strongly suggest that dropped passes is nowhere near the fore of the cause(s) of Ponder's problems.  If that myth can be put to rest, perhaps the Vikings can begin making plans in accordance with what the statistics and eyes tells us about Ponder's performance.

Up Next:  Will Minnesotans Be Represented on Stadium Commission in Lease and Revenue Stream Allocation Discussions?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

And if Jermome Simpson Would Have Caught That Four-Yard Pass, Mitt Romney Would Be President

Those who went all in on Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Christian Ponder are finding it difficult to admit the apparent--that Ponder never will be the Vikings' savior.  Faced with admitting the error in their judgment or doubling down with nothing in the bank, many, unfortunately, are electing the latter.

The most recent manifestation of this myopic commitment to Ponder is the dedication to identifying all of the obstacles to Ponder's success over which Ponder purportedly has no control.  The offensive line is bad, the coaching stinks, and the play-calling is putrid.  These, not Ponder's shortcomings, are the reasons for the quarterback's poor performance this year.  But for these ills, Ponder would be holding the Lombardi Trophy this year.

Added to all of these obstacles is the flavor of the week for Ponder's entrenched supporters--his receivers cannot catch a pass.

Objectively speaking, the Vikings do not have one of the better receiving corps in the NFL.  But to argue that the Vikings are without receiving options greatly understates what is happening with Minnesota's receivers in a Ponder-led offense.

Among the Vikings' receivers are one of the better receiving tight ends in the NFL, Kyle Rudolph, one of the top slot receivers, Percy Harvin, a capable possession receiver, Michael Jenkins, and three players who each appear to have downfield ability--Devin Aromashodu, Jarius Wright, and Jerome Simpson.  And the Vikings have a running back that makes all of the receivers more open, more often than they otherwise would be.

Yet, based on reports from Ponder's supporters, one would think that the Vikings suffered an unusual spate of drops in the game against the Bears.  The facts, however, do not support this conclusion.  While dropped passes do not aid any quarterback, pointing the finger at these isolated plays misses both the fact that passes are part of every quarterback's performance.

Including dropped passes against Chicago, the Vikings rank only 25th in the NFL in passes dropped, with 17.  The three dropped passes on Sunday would put the Vikings marginally ahead of their season's pace.  Given that the passes were all short, the impact of dropped passes in the Vikings' system is even less apparent.

Dropped passes notwithstanding, few, if any, other meaningful statistics suggest anything other than that the primary source of the Vikings' passing woes is Ponder.

Green Bay has allowed 37 sacks, had a leading rusher with 302 yards, and a stable of receivers on IR.  Still, Aaron Rodgers has 28 passing touchdowns this year. New Orleans has a modest offensive line (21 sacks), a leading rusher with 341 yards for the season, a reasonable deep threat in Marques Colston, and a good tight end in Jimmy Graham.  Drew Brees has thrown 31 touchdowns this year.

On the other end of the spectrum, Arizona has allowed 47 sacks this year, has a rushing leader with 312 yards on the season, a leading receiver named Andre Roberts, and a revolving door for both offensive philosophy and quarterback.  Despite these shortcomings, the Cardinals have passed for 10 touchdowns this season.

Adrian Peterson leads the NFL with 1236 yards rushing--nearly 200 more than the number two back in the league, the Vikings offensive line is near the league mean in sacks allowed, and Percy Harvin is 28th in the league in receiving yards--despite missing more than three games.  Yet Ponder ranks 24th in passing yardage, touchdown passes, and quarterback rating.

What the numbers suggest and the eye test supports is that Ponder is an average to below-average NFL quarterback.  He does not make the players around him better, but he definitely makes one wonder whether any reasonable determination can be made regarding the offensive line or the receiving corps as long as he is behind center.

For Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman, the question now becomes whether he is more committed to sunken costs in Ponder or in assessing the degree to which he ought to remain committed to his other decisions--Musgrave, Simpson, Wright, and John Carlson.

Up Next:  More Myths.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Peterson Not Enough to Propel Ponder

After a 3-13 2011 season in which Christian Ponder started 10 games, finishing with 1800 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, the Vikings' front office and coaching staff put us on notice--wait until 2012!

Why the optimism?  Those not buying the usual sales pitch of a general manager reaching to defend a reach were admonished that Ponder would improve and improve exponentially in 2012 as the result of a full off-season and training camp, a starting role from day one, greater familiarity with the coaching staff, and greater understanding of the game.

When things began to go south in 2012, the Vikings' General Manager told us that quarterbacks need 25 games before they properly can be judged.

As things went further south in 2012, the Vikings' General Manager told us that three years are required to make a proper assessment of a quarterback.

Eyes and statistics tell us, however, what Rick Spielman currently is unwilling to admit--that Ponder is, at best, a caretaker quarterback.  Sunday's performance only further cements that impression.

Through eleven games in 2012, Ponder is minus 399 yards passing against the opposition versus the mean.  That means that the rest of the league averages nearly 400 yards more passing against the Vikings' opposition to date than does Ponder.

That statistic, alone, is not nearly telling enough, however.  Far better is a comparison of that figure to one offered by another quarterback that virtually no team in the league, save his own, currently considers anything other than a sub-par quarterback--Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins.

On the season, Tannehill has passed for plus 114 yards against the opposition versus the mean.  For the average quarterback, the difference between Tannehill and Ponder is nearly two full games of passing.  For Ponder, it is at least double that figure.

Even in the one game for which Ponder received accolades this year as a meaningful force on the field--the San Francisco game--Ponder passed for but one more yard than the league average.

Passing yards are but one statistic--one measure of a quarterback's value to a team.  But passing yards are particularly meaningful for evaluating a quarterback's value because the current NFL is a passing league with rules intended to promote passing, every 100 yards of passing tends to equate to seven points, and teams that pass well tend to win.

Passing statistics are also particularly relevant for assessing Ponder's career, because Ponder has had the luxury of playing with Adrian Peterson--a luxury that should make Ponder appear even better than he is.  Fear greatly how Ponder would look were he blessed with merely a Toby Gerhart in the backfield.

Up Next:  Was Reinventing The Wheel Musgrave's Demise in Carolina, As Well?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Governor Dayton's Curious Letter to Vikings Subjugates Weightier Revenue Issues

Yesterday, Minnesota Governor cum military attache, Mark Dayton, penned a letter to the Minnesota Vikings in which he expressed dismay and dissatisfaction with the team's apparent plans to incorporate personal seat licenses (PSLs) into their ticket-pricing plans and the team's commitment to play one or more home games in London.  On the former, the Governor is either obtuse or a fraud.  On the latter, he has a case he needs to continue to push.

If Governor Dayton is serious about his dismay over the Vikings' pursuit of a PSL, that dismay does nothing but suggest that the Governor is woefully out of touch with one of his primary policy "achievements"--the Vikings' stadium bill.  The final language of the agreement to construct a new Vikings' stadium specifically confers upon the stadium management authority the role of coordinating with the Vikings the sale of PSLs.  The language of the agreement makes clear that, though not a fait accompli, PSLs are both permissible and, seemingly, expected.

Assuming Governor Dayton is not simply suffering an episode of dementia, it is impossible to believe that he did not understand the language of the stadium agreement--language requiring only rudimentary reading skills to comprehend.

That leaves only the more troubling possibility that Governor Dayton's outrage is not sincere.  That would be unfortunate, as it would undermine the second source of his outrage--the one not addressed by the Vikings in their otherwise germane response to the Governor's letter--the Vikings' decision to play at least one home game in London.  It would also quite unfortunately suggest that Governor Dayton does not understand that there remains a considerable degree of negotiation over the new stadium left to be had, should his minions on the stadium authority council be so directed.

The Vikings' decision to play a home game in London is disgraceful on every level.  It comes only after passage of legislation providing substantial public funding for the team's new stadium and undercuts the team's purported commitment to those who made the stadium possible and whose livelihoods depend on the home games.  The Vikings' rationale for the decision is that the NLF has guaranteed the team a lot of money and that the team will be able to "grow its brand."  If you did not before understand where the Vikings stood regarding the loyalty relationship between fans and team--the one that the team called on in support of a new stadium and now betrays--you should now.

The London issue is one that Dayton ought to continue to press and one that he ought to instruct his stadium authority friends to hold over the head of the Vikings in negotiations on a lease for a new stadium.

That latter element is something that Dayton appears not be fully versed on either.  For, as of this moment, the Vikings have not yet inked the terms of their lease agreement in the new stadium.  Under the new stadium agreement, the stadium authority is vested with the power to grant the Vikings all revenue streams--or none.  That spectrum is something that will determine whether Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and Minnesota struck a good deal on the stadium.  And that is the issue that should be consuming Governor Dayton's sports facility-occupied time.

Conversely, Dayton should care whether the Vikings employ PSLs only to the extent that the Vikings' ability to impose PSLs may be used as leverage by the stadium authority to obtain similar revenue benefits for the public that is footing the bill for the stadium.  Otherwise, Dayton should be content with  the knowledge that the Vikings can only impose PSLs if fans are willing to pay for them--and that almost assuredly will depend both on how much the team charges and for which seats.  Objections to such licenses logically would need to carry over to objections to higher ticket prices.  For, if the team does not impose PSLs, it almost assuredly will charge more for tickets (above the increase that fans already will realize in the new stadium).  That's simple economics.

In short, if Governor Dayton truly is sincere in his disgust with the Vikings' latest money grab, he should save his public venom for the Vikings' commitment to playing in London and pursue recoupment for that commitment and the near-certain imposition of PSLs through negotiation of a more public-friendly lease agreement that confers upon the public more of the benefits from the stadium's various revenue streams.

Up Next:  Rick Spielman Changes Timeline on Christian Ponder

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ponder Mediocre

Five calls into the Vikings' flagship station's post-game call-in show, Minnesota Vikings' PBP announcer, Paul Allen, called into the station to give his two bits.  Sounding like someone who had already had another, Allen offered a rant all but demanding that all those who have been down on Vikings' quarterback Christian Ponder now sing the quarterback's praises.  Leaving aside matters of professionalism and PA's own recent criticism of Ponder (including his curious decision to ask Ponder whether he would have benched himself), the request offers a singular misunderstanding about Ponder's performance--on Sunday and to date.

On Sunday, Ponder did what he had done in several games earlier this season.  On Sunday, Ponder was neither spectacular nor awful.  He was, instead, the definition of a caretaker quarterback.  He (under) threw one deep pass, but otherwise opted for the short pass and gave Adrian Peterson the ball.

Ponder's performance put him right in the middle of starting quarterback numbers in week eleven, with his numbers greatly assisted by injuries to at least four other starters and poor weather in at least three venues.

On Sunday, Ponder had his health, perfect weather conditions inside the dome, a new receiver, and running back the likes of which no other team in the league even remotely offers on their roster.  And, yes, the Vikings were playing a Detroit team that was without its two starting safeties.

With Peterson in the backfield, Detroit stacked the box with eight or nine players.  For most quarterbacks facing a depleted secondary, that would mean a field day--even more so when stacking the box failed to curtail the running game.  For Ponder, it meant passable numbers.  But passable numbers do not equate to a passable performance.

What would have been a passable performance for Ponder on Sunday?  For starters, a better than 25% touchdown rate inside the red zone.  From there, more than a tip of the cap to mid-range and longer passing options.

Unfortunately, after several weeks of setting the bar ever lower, Ponder's 221 yards and two touchdowns look like the stuff of legends.  When this is where, by the Vikings' own predictions, Ponder was supposed to have been coming out of college and, by more reasonable assessments, the point from which Ponder should have been building from the beginning of the year to a much higher point today, there should be little taken from Sunday's game regarding Ponder's play other than that he did not put the final nail in his coffin.

That's not the stuff of legends, nor is it grounds for any request for a mea culpa from Ponder's critics.

Up Next:  Dayton Calls Out Vikings.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Vikings Find Media Support for Tired Refrain on Quarterback

Entering the 2011 off-season, the Minnesota Vikings committed themselves to identifying their quarterback of the future.  Already on the roster was Joe Webb, a 2010 sixth-round pick who had started two games for the Vikings in 2011--winning one in dramatic fashion and losing the other with less impressive numbers.

Desperate to show conviction in identifying a franchise quarterback, the Vikings used the number twelve pick in the 2011 draft to select Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder.  Ponder, widely regarded as a 2nd to 4th round pick, was the fourth quarterback to go in the first round.  Twenty-three picks later, the Cincinnati Bengals used the 35th pick in the draft to select quarterback Andy Dalton, widely regarded as a late first-round, early second-round pick.

To date, the Vikings' gamble on Ponder has not paid off.  Against marginal opposition earlier this year, Ponder looked modest to good (against San Francisco).  In the last three weeks, against Arizona, Tampa Bay, and Seattle, Ponder has thrown for 58, 251, and 63 yards, respectively, with the bulk of the yardage against Tampa Bay coming in garbage time when Tampa Bay was giving 20-yard cushions (and Ponder was still dumping off and relying on YAC).

Through 19 NFL starts, Ponder has 23 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions, with the ratio beginning to skew negatively.  More alarming are that Ponder ranks near the bottom of the NFL in yards at catch (as opposed to yards after the catch) and in third-down conversion percentage.  Add to these issues the fact that Ponder's nookie blanket, Percy Harvin, may not be available in the near future, and there is every reason to worry that Ponder's problems will only accelerate over the remainder of the season.

The Vikings'--and Ponder's--explanation for Ponder's problems are that Ponder simply needs to play better.  The eye test says that Ponder needs to work on his mechanics, gain pocket awareness, and work on arm strength.  The intelligence test says that, if those things were not possible against the easiest schedule that any NFL team faced in the first nine weeks of the 2012 season, they are highly improbable over what is regarded as one of the toughest remaining schedules of the 2012 season.

When the Vikings selected Ponder, those in the local media charged with cheerleading everything done by the local teams went all in, noting Ponder's intelligence, arm strength, and agility, and putting their full faith in the wisdom of someone paid to evaluate talent.  For those suggesting that Webb had shown enough to merit consideration as starter, there was contempt and derision.

That contempt, that derision, has taken on Republican proportions.  Despite the evidence to the contrary, those who offered unwavering support for the curious decision to draft Ponder number twelve overall in 2011 now apparently feel too invested to back down.  Boxed in by the certainty of their own convictions, they now offer nothing more than a tired cliche--"Ponder deserves an opportunity to finish the season and show what he has"--as if the end of an NFL season marks some magical moment of clarity that can not equally be found in weeks six, ten, twelve, or any other.

For those crouching in their Ponder bunkers, there is more nauseating ammunition, however.  Not only does Ponder deserve to finish out this season, we are scolded, but Webb deserves nothing.  That Webb merits no further consideration, we are told, is evident from the fact that Webb "had his chance." Remember those two starts?  Webb showed nothing in those two starts, we are told.

Revisionism aside, in those two starts, Webb was 1-1 with three passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, and two interceptions.  Those critical of Webb would have us focus not on Webb's rushing ability, which can be electric, or his greater lack of talent on the offensive line and in the passing game, but on Webb's two picks--Ponder's average over the past three games.

Webb's critics point to his "weak arm" and lack of pocket presence in trumpeting their conclusion that Webb has had his chance.  Notwithstanding Webb's strong arm, Ponder's eephus pitches when not rolling to the right, and the utter lack of any semblance of an offensive line for Webb's two starts, Webb's critics mystifyingly are able to deduce about Webb after two starts what they cannot bring themselves to deduce about Ponder after nineteen starts, despite personal statistics, a 7-12 career record, and the always useful eye test.

The Vikings have an excuse for their myopia on this issue--the General Manager, coach, and team have invested heavily in a player who most other teams regarded as far less of an NFL certainty.  And the Vikings did so with hubris, calling Ponder "the most NFL-ready quarterback in the 2011 draft."

Those covering the team have no such excuse.  Based on performance to date, there is nothing in Ponder's resume that even remotely suggests that he will turn things around this year.  If he does not, the Vikings will enter 2013 no further down the path to reestablishing the team as a playoff contender than the day the team drafted Ponder.  If the metric, therefore, is performance, Ponder ought to be replaced sooner rather than later with Webb given more than the two games he has been provided to prove his mettle.

Up Next:  2013 NFL Draft.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Vikings Considering Move to Webb

The rumor out of Winter Park is that, in the wake of yet another dismal performance by quarterback Christian Ponder, the Minnesota Vikings are strongly considering a move to third-year quarterback Joe Webb.  Supporting the move is said to be team owner Zygi Wilf with head coach Leslie Frazier apparently moving in that direction.  Opposed to the move is said to be General Manager Rick Spielman, the person largely responsible for drafting Ponder and inserting him into the starter's role.

The Vikings likely are considering two options.  One would give Ponder one more week--in a home game against the Detroit Lions--to offer a dramatic turn-around.  This option would give the Vikings one more week to assess Ponder's progress and give the coaching staff the bye week to prepare Webb for his first start in 2012.

The second option would insert Webb into the starter's role against the Lions, permitting Webb to get his feet wet at home against a weaker opponent.

At this point, the best option appears to be the latter.  The guess here is that the Vikings are presently considering the various maladies that Ponder could be said to have.

Up Next:  More Rumors.  Plus, debunking myths.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Fixing Ponder--For Better or Worse

Having tied their fortunes to Christian Ponder in all-in fashion by virtue of anointing their 2011 first-round draft pick the uncontested starter at quarterback--come hell or high water--the Minnesota Vikings are now facing at least high water.  Absent an attempt to jolt Ponder to attention by at least pretending that his hold on the quarterback position is tenuous, the Vikings need to address Ponder's ills differently than they currently are doing.

At six feet tall and with a penchant for throwing off the back foot and sinking his shoulders when behind the line of scrimmage, Ponder plays more like a weak-armed 5'8" player.  To correct this, the Vikings could spend the rest of this season and innumerable additional seasons attempting to get Ponder to stand tall, square his shoulders, and step into his passes.

Or, the Vikings could work with the player that they drafted--the player who shows signs of good play when he rolls to the right and is not forced to be a pure pocket passer.  That decision is on the Vikings.

For Ponder to succeed, he must roll out of the pocket a significant percentage of the time--more than most NFL quarterbacks.  Rolling right allows Ponder to properly square up on his passes and to use the squaring up process to get sling on his passes.  That means some zip on downfield passes rather than the usual eephus toss that Ponder exhibits as a back-foot passing pocket passer.

Having to anticipate the rollout also requires opposing defenses to reconsider blitzes and forces defenses to keep a spy on Ponder.  That takes pressure off of the offensive line and allows the Vikings to work more with Ponder on his pocket passing in a lower pressure environment.

Ponder likely would have longer NFL shelf life as a pocket passer.  That, along with a desire to maintain the freshness of the offensive line, is undoubtedly one of the primary reasons that the Vikings prefer Ponder as a pocket passer.  But that's not what he is--certainly not now.  And continuing to pound the square peg in the undersized round hole will prove increasingly counter-productive.

Up Next:  Receivers, Quarterback, or Coaching?  Plus, a funny thing happened on the way to assessing Joe Webb.