Sunday, January 20, 2013

In Off-Season, Ponder Continues to Do What Vikings Ask of Him

The presumption was that it would not take long for local scribes to begin revising the Vikings' season that was.  For the record, it took not even two weeks.  After that brief period, these wise men have already deemed the window shut on the collective memory of the Vikings' fan base.

On Sunday, the West Side locals journeyed to the land once primarily reserved for our elder statesman scribe.  No more.  With season ticket sales on the line and an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with Vikings' ownership, the WSSs have already begun cranking out new memories of Christian Ponder's heroic season.

To begin, the WSSs offer that Vikings' fans should be "excited" about the quarterback position next year.  Huh?  Excited?  Yes, you read that correctly--excited.  And if their editors had let them, the WSSs probably would have put that in all capital letters followed by several exclamation points.

For the dismayed, objective observers who saw in Ponder one or two starter worthy performances in 2012, the WSSs are here to set you straight.  You saw more than that--much more, we are being told.  Not only did Ponder play "the best game of his career" in the Vikings' win over the Packers in week seventeen--a win attributable more to Ponder, according to the WSSs, than to Adrian Peterson's 200 yards rushing and the near singular attention that that drew from the Packers' defense--but the play continued his run of "strong" play to end the season.

In the good old days, prior to internet and easy access to statistics, tripe like this likely would slide.  Thank goodness we are no longer in the good old days.

In Ponder's last four games leading up to the Green Bay game to end the regular season, Ponder was not good or even marginal.  Rather, he was bad.  In fact, he was the definition of a sub-replacement level quarterback, holding his position out of front office stubbornness and fear of the unknown.  In those four games, Ponder threw for 119, 91, 131, and 174 yards with 2 touchdowns and three interceptions.  Those numbers put Ponder at the bottom of the league in passing and had established NFL talent assessors remarking that Ponder was the worst starting quarterback in the NFL.

In week 17, with Adrian Peterson drawing all of the Packers' defensive attention, Ponder mustered 234 yards passing and three touchdown passes with zero interceptions.  By Ponder's standards, those numbers were fantastic.  By NFL standards, they were merely mediocre--and certainly not even remotely cause for suggesting that Vikings' fans should be excited about Ponder being under center next season.  

As Ponder was putting up his "marvelous" numbers in week 17, 15 NFL quarterbacks threw for more yards than did Ponder.  None of those quarterbacks had Adrian Peterson in the backfield.  None of them even had a 100-yard rusher.  And more than half pulled off their accomplishment without the benefit of a marquee receiver or a 100-yard receiving performance.

Vikings' fans long have deserved better coverage of their team than is routinely offered by local scribes who have insisted on cheerleading the team rather than offering objective analysis that might offend the ticket seller.  This weekend's pablum by the WSSs surpasses even the traditional level of suspension-of-disbelief-requiring analysis, however, venturing into the utterly absurd and patronizing.

Up Next:  Vikings Need Harvin More Than He Needs Them.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Another Team Shows the Vikings the Way, But the Vikings Don't Seem Interested

For the past two seasons, the Minnesota Vikings have attempted to force the larger square peg into a round hole, insisting that Christian Ponder conform to the team's notion that only pocket passers need apply to play quarterback.  On Saturday, in San Francisco, yet another team offered irrefutable evidence that, not only is this a mistaken philosophy, it is also dangerous to the bottom line in the current NFL.

Against the Green Bay Packers, first-year starter Colin Kaepernick displayed what the new NFL offense is all about--a quarterback that can run the ball and make passes, when necessary.  In just his eighth NFL start, Kaepernick was 17 of 31 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

Those look an awful lot like the numbers that Ponder put up in what generally is regarded as his crowning NFL performance--a 37-34 victory over Green Bay in which he was 16 of 28 for 234 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

For Kaepernick, however, there was more.  Much more.

In the 49ers 45-31 rout of the Packers, Kaepernick added 181 yards rushing and two rushing touchdowns.  In Ponder's greatest performance, he added a mere 16 yards rushing.

The difference between Ponder's and Kaepernick's performances against Green Bay is the difference between winning narrowly and winning handily against a relatively good opponent; the former can just as easily turn to a loss, the latter is always a victory.  For the Vikings, however, the difference is in both how the team views the league and who they believe is able to address the challenges that the league offers.

While teams like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington insert untested quarterbacks with strong legs and instruct them to play, the Vikings continue to coddle a second-year starter with 26 starts under his belt and instruct him to become a strict pocket passer.  That strategy has yielded perhaps two wins for which Ponder can accept any meaningful credit.  The question is whether a different philosophy might have proved more beneficial to the Vikings--a philosophy such as a let-the-quarterback-learn-to-pick-his-moments philosophy.

Ponder has some legs and can run when necessary.  Joe Webb has legs and prefers to run.  A mix of the two would be ideal for the Vikings and probably make the decision about the future quarterback easier.  The Vikings do not have that mix currently ready to perform, however, with Ponder being told not to run and Webb not given an opportunity to hone his passing game.

In 2012, Ponder averaged 183 yards passing with just over one touchdown and just under one interception per game.  Those who recall Ponder's second game against the Packers look to that as Ponder's upside mean, rather than as his upside high.  They also now recall a much different Ponder than the one that actually played, referring to Ponder's last five starts as "pretty good."  For the record, of Ponder's last five starts, only one was pretty good--and none were tremendous.  The other four were not good, with Ponder averaging 125 yards passing with half a pick and half a touchdown passing per game.

Starting his first game in over a year, with zero opportunity to prepare or to get into sync with what the Vikings have routinely explained away as a receiving corps in need of work, Webb passed for 180 yards with one touchdown and one pick.  He added 68 yards on nine carries.  The passing mostly was not pretty, the runs were, however, and were sufficiently so to merit consideration into whether Webb can improve his passing with practice.

Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman has made clear that the guy that he drafted with the number twelve pick in the NFL draft will start the 2013 season for the Vikings.  Spielman's explanation is that quarterbacks need three full seasons to truly show what they can do--that, mind you, is the second upward revision that Spielman has offered regarding Ponder's timeline, starting at 18 games and then adjusting that to 26 when 18 did not offer what Spielman had hoped.

Despite his contention, Spielman is certain that after just four starts, Webb is not the answer at quarterback.  Spielman might be right in dismissing a quarterback whose legs are as good as those of any other quarterback in the league but who needs work with the receivers, but it is more than a bit noticeable that Spielman's prescience in recognizing Webb's warts is not transferable to his assessment of Ponder.

More significant, however, is the fact that the Vikings appear trapped in yet another of their time warps, believing that they can prosper with their current quarterback when Adrian Peterson does not run for 200 yards.  If this year proved nothing else, it demonstrated that when Ponder plays other than his best game and Peterson does not rush for nearly 200 yards, the Vikings cannot expect to win.  The plan for next year, however, appears to be to hope that against what should be tougher competition, Peterson can continue to post 200-yard performances, permitting the team to merely rely on what it is asking Ponder to do.

Peterson might have one or two more peak seasons left and he might be able to parlay those periods into play similar to what we saw from him this year.  But with Ponder, the Vikings are planning for the next decade.  Barring a Peterson-like replacement for Peterson, that portends a scary offensive future for the Vikings in the post-Peterson era, an offense with a pocket passer capable of mediocrity.

Were Spielman and Leslie Frazier risk-takers, they might take one of two approaches.  One would be to  view Webb for what he is--a great runner from the pocket with a strong, unbridled arm.  They would take that talent and mold it the way they have attempted to mold Ponder.  The payoff would be a Kaepernick, Russell Wilson-style player.  The Vikings, like the 49ers and Seahawks, would have to accept the risk that employing a running quarterback brings.  But, if the Vikings' opponents are increasingly accepting that risk, the Vikings will only fall further behind if they settle for the more conservative approach under Ponder.

The second option would be to challenge the notion of a changing league, but in far more dramatic fashion, molding McLeod Bethel-Thompson as the pure pocket passer that the Vikings wish they had in Ponder.  That, too, however, is likely too ambitious for a Viking team that is both risk-averse and nervous about the possibility that the window is closing on key players such as Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, and Peterson.  In Ponder, the Vikings know what they have, even if they are not that excited about what they have.  In Webb and MBT, they are too uncertain--and apparently too afraid to explore.

Up Next:  Spielman's Twins Moment.  Plus, still time to sign Harvin for this season.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is NFL Doomed to Extinction?

The revelation that former San Diego Charger linebacker Junior Seau suffered from CTE as a result of recurring hits to the head further cements what we already knew about football and the possible effects to the human brain of taking frequent hits.  Unfortunately, that's the good news for the NFL and NFL fans.

The bad news is what Seau's injuries--and increasing discoveries of similar brain trauma to other current and former NFL and college football players--portend for the NFL.  Not only is the NFL defending against a legal claim that it turned a blind eye to the known harms of playing in the NFL, continuing to promote and even encourage play no longer permitted in the league, but it now faces the very strong possibility of extinction as more parents ward their children away from football.

Clearly, the NFL has two options for dealing with the seemingly established link between taking hits in the NFL and brain injury.  The first is to make play safer.  That requires either more greatly reducing contact or providing more protective equipment.

Already, contact is greatly limited in the NFL compared to what was permitted just ten years ago and recent contact rules make the game virtually incomparable to play in the 60s and 70s when all hits were within the rules and hits that paralyzed were glorified.  While there remains room for improvement, outside of making football a no-tackle sport, additional changes likely will make only a minimal difference in a sport that, by necessity, has constant contact.

Improved protection thus seems like the NFL's last best help for salvation at a time when former players are discouraging their children from even taking up the sport.  The question is whether that protection will prove as discouraging to participation as the potential for injury against which it is protecting.

Up Next:  Spielman Pulls a Terry Ryan.  Plus, Harvin seeks assurances--personnel and financial.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Rodgers' Performance Evokes Bad Memories for Vikings' Fans

In 2005, Aaron Rodgers was going to be the number one pick in the NFL draft all the way up to draft day.  Then, in a stroke of Denny Green-like insanity, the 49ers picked the "hot" quarterback from the combines, selecting Alex Smith.  With other teams having greater needs and/or simply making bad picks, Rodgers plummeted down the draft board.

One of those teams making bad decisions was the Minnesota Vikings.  With the 7th and 18th picks in the 2005 NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings selected Troy Williamson to replace Randy Moss, who had been traded to Oakland to save Red McCombs a few bucks, and Erasmus James.  Rodgers went six picks after James.

Williamson and James did nothing but embarrass the Vikings during their runs in Minnesota.  Rodgers did what he continues to do.

As if passing on Rodgers were not bad enough, Minnesota also passed over Roddy White, Logan Mankins, Lofa Tatupu, Vincent Jackson, Frank Gore, Justin Tuck, and many other notables.

Up Next:  Vikings' Move.

The Vikings' 2012-2013 Post-Season WTF Moment

The Minnesota Vikings waited until the day of their NFC wild-card playoff game against the Green Bay Packers to decide that quarterback Christian Ponder would not play in the game.  Vikings' head coach Leslie Frazier stated that "we watched Christian in warmups and, after seeing him struggle to get the ball more than fifteen yards downfield, we decided to go with Joe."

Fifteen yards downfield?  That's fourteen more than the Vikings asked of him during the regular season.

For the season, Ponder averaged 6.1 yards per passing attempt and 9.8 yards per completion.  He averaged 6.2 yards in depth of target (how far, on average, his receivers were from him when he attempted to pass to them).  All figures were league lows for a starting quarterback with six or more games started.  By that standard, fifteen yards sounds heroic.

Up Next:  Changes the Vikings Can Make in 2013 to Challenge for the Division Crown.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Webb's Performance Dooms Vikings

With but three snaps under his belt in the 2012 season and sparse first-team repetitions in practice, Joe Webb provided perhaps the most horrific half of quarterbacking in NFL post-season history on Saturday night.  At one point, Webb's numbers read 3 of 12 for -2 net yards.  And the performance was actually far worse than that.

In addition to the horrid statistics, Webb was far more feeble making routine decisions.  Twice he attempted to throw passes to nobody in particular while in the grasp of a defender--both times, he escaped disastrous picks only because Green Bay's defenders did not anticipate even the possibility of such poor decision-making.

Webb also grossly over- and under-threw receivers all night long.  Typical of these misfires was the pass near the goal line on the Vikings' opening drive, when things were still going well.  Webb threw the ball into the ground, despite have a player wide open just three yards directly in front of him.  A completed pass would have set up a first down inside the five.  The errant pass resulted in fourth down and a Blair Walsh field goal.  The Vikings never recovered.

As if to punctuate his awful first half, Webb missed a wide open receiver on one of the easiest pass plays in the NFL, just as the half ended.  The pass was a dart, 15 yards wide of its mark.  The receiver was dismayed, the Vikings' sideline clearly dejected.  The game, certainly, was over.

For those hoping that Webb would at least push Ponder to hone his own game, that now seems like a pipe dream.  Webb's first half performance was so bad that it is nearly a certainty that the Vikings will turn out the player whom they refused to insert in the face of a 57-yard passing performance by Christian Ponder.  That was when Webb had shown some earlier promise.  Surely there is even less of a comfort factor now with Webb.

This was not all Webb's doing, to be certain.  He had taken but the three aforementioned snaps all year, primarily because the Vikings wanted to build Ponder's confidence.  That decision might pay off in the long run, but it certainly did not pay off tonight.

In the first half, Webb looked like a player playing in his first NFL game--directly out of high school.  In the second half, he settled down some, made some decent passes and finished with some of statistics that the Vikings have lauded Ponder for posting throughout the season.  Had he started the game the way he finished, the game might have been more entertaining and Adrian Peterson might have been more of a factor.

None of that happened, however, likely leaving the Vikings only one off-season question at quarterback--whether to bring in a steady veteran to fill in if Ponder does not progress or a younger veteran with possibly more upside to challenge Ponder.  Either decision almost certainly will mean the end to Webb's tenure in Minnesota.

Up Next:  The Harvin Question.  Plus, ranking the holes.

Keys to Vikings' Victory

The Minnesota Vikings enter tonight's NFC wild-card playoff matchup a ten-point underdog against the Green Bay Packers.  That's a sizable margin, even for a home team but especially for a home team that has trouble with the Vikings' strengths.

That spread suggests two things.  One is that Packer fans are betting heavy on their team.  The other is that both those setting the odds--the original line was Packers -7--and those accounting for the vast majority of betting believe that the Vikings will be playing without injured cornerback Antoine Winfield and with an injured Christian Ponder.

If Winfield is out and Ponder plays with what has been reported to be a bum elbow, the Vikings will need to do something miraculous to win tonight's game.  After Winfield left last week's game, the Vikings' secondary collapsed, with Aaron Rodgers throwing with impunity against Winfield's replacement, Mike Sherrels.

For those thinking that this all stacks up nicely for the home team Packers, there is reason, beyond Mike McCarthy's jittery ramblings, for grave concern.  First, Ponder had his finest moments after injuring his elbow last week.  What Ponder did last week was not miraculous or other-worldly, it was simply competent with occasional inspiration.  If Ponder can mimic that level of performance this week, he will have done all that the Vikings can really hope for.  But even if he falls no more than slightly below that level, at worst, he will only be a non-factor.

Second, with an injured Winfield in the game, Green Bay did almost nothing through the air.  The question is not whether, if he is in the game, Winfield will make a difference on pass defense, but whether Winfield will be in the game.  One suspects Winfield will at least put forth his strongest effort to participate, even if that means consuming a copious amount of pain killers.

Third, the Packers have not yet stopped Adrian Peterson.  Last week, with a bye week at stake, the Packers' corners and safeties appeared both in awe and ghastly afraid of the Vikings' rugged and speedy back.  Getting back an aged and hurting Charles Woodson could help, but probably only at the margins.  The Packers have suggested that they will key in on Peterson even more this week, probably resorting to more eight- and nine-man fronts.  That would only give the Vikings more opportunity to hit uncovered targets, get the lead, force the Packers out of those fronts, and more greatly open the door for Peterson to charge toward a playoff rushing record.

For Minnesota, the keys to victory tonight are clear--Winfield must play, Ponder must not flail, Peterson must carry the ball at least 30 times, Rodgers must be held under 300 yards passing with less than three touchdowns, and the Vikings' special teams must keep the Packers honest.  Those are a lot of ifs.  But they are still more favorable than the one much larger requirement that the Packers must meet if they are to beat the Vikings--they must stop Peterson.  Until they do, there is no reason to believe that they can and no reason to point to a tomorrow in this year's playoffs for the Pack.

Up Next:  Winner Go Home?

Thursday, January 03, 2013

McCarthy's Anxiety Loud and Clear

Green Bay Packers' head coach, Mike McCarthy, strode to the interview podium earlier this week attempting to put the best face on yet another failure by his rushing defense against Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.  Striving to boost the confidence of his players, McCarthy suggested that Sunday's clearly deflating loss to the Vikings--in a game that the Packers desperately wanted to win--was the result of factors that won't be present on Saturday when the teams meet yet again.

McCarthy noted that, unlike last week's game, Saturday's rematch at Lambeau Field will be outdoors and suggested that any noise at Lambeau not only will natural but pro-Packer.  Leaving aside the high-decibel blaring of the Packer's chant piped over Lambeau's speakers, McCarthy likely is correct on these points.  These are nothing out of the ordinary in the NFL, however, and things that good teams overcome by taking the lead against the home team.

McCarthy continued his confidence-building tour, offering less supportable claims.  He began by encouraging the Vikings to blitz more.  "We love it--it opens more holes," McCarthy belched.  "We hope they do more of it on Saturday."

Unfortunately for Green Bay, McCarthy's cajoling likely will fall on deaf ears in Minnesota.  Last Sunday, Minnesota recorded five sacks and seven hurries--all by defensive linemen and all without the benefit of the blitz.  Those numbers suggest not only that Minnesota did not greatly benefit from the blitz on Sunday, but, also, that Minnesota likely can afford less of the blitz and more of the standard defense on Saturday.

McCarthy was not done, however, noting that Vikings' quarterback Christian Ponder had his best game to date.  Ponder's game was generally good and arguably his best game to date, but that, as McCarthy well knows, is beside the point.  Ponder was good not because he had "one of those days" (he did not), but because he had three epiphanies simultaneously--he realized that, with Peterson in his backfield, he was guaranteed at least one open receiver on any given play, he realized that those receivers only had value if he got them the ball downfield, and he realized that he had to stand up to pressure, even if it meant making himself more vulnerable throwing off of his front, rather than his back foot.

Those things came together for Ponder on Sunday because necessity so dictated.  It helped tremendously, as well, that Ponder began throwing off the shackles that the Vikings have imposed on him in attempting to make him a pure pocket passer, rolling left often and even to the right once or twice.  More Ponder left against a Packer team selling out to stop Adrian Peterson and any chance of Ponder scrambling to his strong side should only create more problems for Green Bay on Saturday.

McCarthy saved his most dubious contention for last, however, all but dismissing Adrian Peterson's accomplishments on the season and in the game.  "He's a nice back," McCarthy backhandedly deadpanned, "but we need to maintain our assignments and stay in our gaps."  McCarthy suggested that Peterson's Herculean performance on Sunday, four weeks after a similar performance in Green Bay, was both mundane and eminently addressable.

Nothing in Green Bay's recent past even remotely supports McCarthy's nervous insight.  On the season, the Packers have surrendered 409 rushing yards to Peterson.  Moreover, since 2010, Peterson has faced the Packers six times.  Over those six games, he has averaged 150 rushing yards and one touchdown.  Only twice has he failed to eclipse 100 yards rushing--both in blowout losses in which the Vikings were forced to abandon the running game early--and not once did Green Bay keep Peterson out of the end zone.

But this year is unlike 2010 or 2011 for Peterson in that he has absolutely owned the Packers, averaging over 200 rushing yards and scoring three times.  The reason for this dominance is clear--Peterson is stronger than ever, the Vikings have been in their games with Green Bay, and the Vikings have relied on Peterson as the primary rather than as the secondary offensive weapon.  Add to that the fact that Green Bay still has no answer for Peterson, and Green Bay's rushing defense woes extend well beyond whatever gap issues the time purportedly has when facing the Vikings and Peterson.

Whether McCarthy wants to admit it, this year's Viking team has been successful not because of opponents' miscues, but because of Adrian Peterson.  Never has one player so completely held the destiny of his team in his own hands.  When Peterson gets the ball, he is John Riggins-like, but in a more dynamic mold.  He eats up the yards, opens up the passing game, draws down the game clock, wears down opposing defenses, and keeps opposing offenses off of the field.  That's good enough to beat most teams in the NFL.  With Ponder finally hitting his receivers--those receivers Minnesota fans have been instructed all year did not exist on the roster--Peterson is the Superman that McCarthy so clearly fears will end Green Bay's season.

Up Next:  The Silence You Hear Is Lambeau Field.