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.

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