Monday, September 30, 2013

Vikings Face Jerry Kill Moment

In Sunday's unnecessarily harrowing 34-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at storied Wembley Stadium, the Minnesota Vikings created for themselves a question that really ought not be a question--who starts at quarterback going forward?

This is a question that another local team recently encountered.  Faced with the decision of whether to start a quarterback, coming off injury, who had not played particularly well this season or his replacement who played well against a common opponent and even better in his first full start, Minnesota Gopher coach Jerry Kill fell back on the old saw that his starter is his starter.  The result was a performance that likely will cost the Gophers 20,000 or so fans per game for the remainder of the team's home schedule--no small significance given the estimate of $75 in revenue per paying customer.

The Vikings are far more adept at marketing and managing a team than are the Gophers, but that does not mean that they will automatically make the right decision in naming a starting quarterback when the team returns to the field.  Like Kill, Frazier and Spielman are judged on wins and losses.  Kill thought that the quarterback he named to start gave his team the best chance to win; almost everyone disagreed and the results tend to support the argument that sticking with the backup would have meant far more to the team in all areas.

Spielman has been wedded to Christian Ponder since using a high first-round pick on him in 2011.  The eye test suggested as far back as 2011 that Ponder was an average-at-best quarterback in the NFL.  Spielman was not convinced, however, and called for patience.  His eyes saw things more clearly, we were told.

Spielman first argued that eighteen starts were necessary to judge a quarterback at the NFL level--an odd claim given that he based his decision to pick Ponder on the notion that the judging had already been done and stated that Ponder was the "most NFL-ready quarterback in the [2011] draft."  When eighteen games came and went, and Ponder still looked just like the quarterback who first took the field in 2011, Spielman changed the requirement to twenty-four games.

After twenty-four games, and no signs of greatness or even a sense of consistency evidenced itself in Ponder's play, Spielman again changed the standard.  "We really need three seasons to get a feel for what Christian can do," he argued, all while planting the seed in the mouths and minds of his trusted couriers in the local media that the first year really should not count as a year, because Ponder did not play the whole year.

Following a solid if relatively average performance by Matt Cassel in London--a performance that netted 248 passing yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions--Cassel represented the lowered expectations that Spielman had set for Ponder, expectations that Ponder was not meeting.

Asked after the game whether Cassel's performance solidified his status as starting quarterback for the Vikings' next game, at home against the Carolina Panthers, Frazier nauseatingly offered that he just wanted to enjoy the victory for twenty-four hours, as if answering a question regarding a starting quarterback and enjoying a victory are mutually exclusive.

In Sunday's game, Cassel was the epitome of the type of quarterback that the Vikings claim they can live with as long as Adrian Peterson is the focus of the offense.  He hit open receivers.  He hit open receivers in stride.  He spread the ball to all of this receivers, even connecting with John Carlson.  He made quick decisions.  He released the ball quickly.  And he produced in the red zone.  Ponder not only does none of these things well, he does all of them poorly.

If, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, Frazier cannot find yet another Ponder injury or simply be bold enough to state the obvious, that Cassel gives the Vikings a better chance to win games, he ought to be given no more credence as a head coach than Jerry Kill is receiving after a lifeless and hapless loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes.  The guess here is that the Vikings' ownership will not allow that result to transpire, no matter the inertia to the contrary in some quarters at Winter Park.

Up Next:  Numbers.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Vikings Laying Groundwork for Ponder's Demotion

This morning, the Minnesota Vikings announced that quarterback Christian Ponder suffered a rib injury early in Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.  Were it left at that, there might be little story.  It is not, however, left at that.

Ponder responded to the statement noting that the hit to his ribs in Sunday's game "caused some discomfort, but I was able to throw."

Yesterday, one day before the team's announcement, Ponder was witnessed throwing passes to London school children in a league choreographed photo op.  Ponder said that, despite some slight discomfort, he was ready to play and was preparing for the game as if he would be the starter on Sunday.  Head coach Leslie Frazier replied that the Vikings are "monitoring the injury" and said the team would make a final assessment on Friday.

After the announcement of Ponder's injury, Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman appeared on the flagship station with Paul Allen and Pete Bercich.  Responding to a question regarding who he looks to to guide the team out of its 0-3 start, Spielman rattled off several names, including Frazier, Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, and Greg Jennings.  Notably, Spielman did not mention his starting quarterback.  That, independent of the injury announcement, spoke volumes.

Tuesday's string of events suggests that the Vikings remain overly concerned about Ponder's psyche.  It also suggests that the Vikings are in circle-the-wagons mode when it comes to a possible change at quarterback with all decision makers now seemingly buying into a plan to use injury as pretext for change at quarterback.

Announcing Ponder's "injury" mid-week provides the Vikings cover should Matt Cassel start on Sunday and perform poorly.  Should Cassel be wretched--not a stretch given his career numbers--the Vikings have left the door open to return to Ponder.  If Cassel plays even reasonably well, however, the Vikings have both performance and "lingering injury" to support a move to Cassel.

Up Next: Favre or Cassel?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why The Vikings Should Be Contacting Brett Favre

In the midst of an 0-3 start that could well be 0-4 by this weekend, the Minnesota Vikings have numerous problems.  The defense is shaky, even when healthy, with linebackers nearly invisible in coverage, cornerbacks awful, and tackles softer than the underbelly of the Minnesota Twins' management team.  Special teams, too, have been suspect of late with long returns by the opposing team increasingly the norm.  And, of course, there is the offense.  Although the offense has produced 22 points per game (adjusted for defensive and return points), that output ranks the Vikings in the middle to the bottom third of the league in scoring, well off the standard set by the Broncos and ten points per game less than division rivals Green Bay and Chicago.

Middling offensive production might be acceptable, were the Vikings in the top third of the league defensively.  Alas, they are not.  And that makes watching Adrian Peterson languish in what should be the prime of his career all the more frustrating and disheartening.  With every passing short dump off on first down, followed by a predictable AP handoff on second down (seven such sequences last week), followed by futile dump off or sack on third down, Peterson's NFL career inches ever closer to its end.

With Vikings' head coach Leslie Frazier now at least refusing to heap generous platitudes on Ponder's performance, the Vikings are left with a decision that they could have made sooner, but for institutional inertia and outright stubborness.  The decision that ought now be made is to transition from Ponder to the team's next starting quarterback.

Unfortunately for the Vikings--and despite claims to the contrary--Vikings' GM Rick Spielman solidified Ponder's status as "best option on the roster" by bringing in a quarterback that nobody else wanted.  How bad was Matt Cassel's performance in K.C.?  Suffice it to say that they thought of Cassel in K.C. the way Minnesotans think of Ponder.  Replacing Ponder with Cassel would require an admission that Ponder is not even Ponder-like--an unlikely concession.

This week, Bus Cook, Brett Favre's manager, put the NFL on notice that Favre is "as fit as ever."  The last time Cook was moved to make such a comment, Favre proved to be as fit as advertised and led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game.

There are only two imaginable landing places for Brett Favre at this stage of his NFL life--Minnesota or Green Bay.  One suspects Green Bay is not interested.  Given commitments to sunken costs, the Vikings might not be interested either, but they should be.

Even playing at half of his 2009 level, Favre would immediately and significantly improve the Vikings' offense, giving the Vikings' someone to pass to Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson, and Kyle Rudolph and a quarterback who would force opponents to reconsider the nine-men-in-the-box strategy.  That would increase the Vikings' time of possession and alleviate pressure on the defense.  It would also give the Vikings the latitude to move Ponder to backup or third-string, use McLeod Bethel-Thompson in mop up situations to better assess his ability, and make plans for drafting a true quarterback of the future.

How likely is it that the Vikings, faced with an overture from Favre to rejoin the ranks, would bite?  Not very.  Frazier would have told the people of Pompeii to "not overreact" and Spielman would have to admit the error of his ways.  To date, neither have seemed a willing participant, even if Frazier is showing signs of wanting to break away.  But one can at least wonder.

Up Next:  Changes.

Monday, September 23, 2013

While Vikings Continue to Look at the Tape, Opponents Appear to Have it Down Perfectly

At Winter Park, coaches and executives gather in their respective groups after each week's games and assess the landscape.  Coaches "review the tape" and look for "corrections that need to be made."  Executives rank assets and liabilities.  Despite an 0-3 start, the Vikings' coaching staff remains unable or unwilling to make the changes necessary to transform the Vikings from a team that competes to a team that wins.

The front office is only, somewhat different, as the Vikings PR people have clearly defined the number one liability as the starting quarterback, Christian Ponder.  Others, including General Manager Rick Spielman, remain committed to Ponder, however.

Spielman can point to two intelligent runs for touchdowns by a quarterback left with room to run by a defense completely disinterested in him, but that's feint praise.  How do we know it is feint praise?  We know because the Browns told us as much.  After the game, a member of the Browns' defense noted that the team's plan played out--"Our plan was to stop Peterson and force Ponder to throw."

The Browns' game plan has been the recipe for success against the Vikings since Ponder became starter.  Epitomizing why such a plan succeeds was the series of plays concluding the game.  With 51 seconds remaining and needing a touchdown to win, the Vikings started with the ball on their own 29-yard line.  On first down, Ponder dumped short to Peterson.  On second down, he dumped short to Rudolph.  On third down, he passed short to Simpson for a first down.  Ponder then went short to Rudolph, yet again.  With 15 seconds now remaining, the Vikings were forced to burn a timeout and still needed to go 48 yards for a touchdown.

After the timeout, Ponder dumped short to Peterson who ran out of bounds.  With the opportunity for one or two more plays remaining, Ponder finally elected to go deep.  Not close.  Fittingly, Ponder concluded his day by taking a sack.

Prior to that series, the Browns' third-string quarterback, a player who had not played all year and who had been relegated to career backup, drove the Browns 55 yards for a game-winning touchdown--four of Hoyer's passes went for more than ten yards.

The tragedy of the Vikings' commitment to Ponder is that it delays other necessary evaluations.  Is the offensive line playing poorly because linemen do not know what to expect behind them?  Is the defense collapsing because it is being put in bad situations by the offense?  Is the offensive coordinator making poor calls or is the execution simply bad?  Is the head coach the head coach of 2011 or the head coach of 2012?  Lots of questions for an 0-3 team.  Few that can be properly assessed if the clear short-comings are not first addressed.

Up Next:  A Bit of Change that Would Do Some Good.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

For the Record: Addressing (Again) the Continuing Revisionism of Ponder's 2012 Season

Most Vikings' fans have by now accepted the reality that Christian Ponder is not a starting-caliber NFL quarterback.  The Vikings and their media minions are another matter, however.  No matter the statements on Ponder, everyone in the Vikings' organization and most media members continue, at a minimum, to trot out the notion that "Ponder has shown stretches of greatness."  

As has been noted here numerous times, nothing could be further from the truth.  Yet, it is this sense of things that permits Vikings' head coach Leslie Frazier and General Manager Rick Spielman to continue to turn a blind eye to the team's greatest weakness.  In the interest of addressing this attempt at historical revisionism on Ponder's play, I, again, address this institutional, wishful myopia.

The Claim:  Christian Ponder has shown substantial stretches of strong play meriting further evaluation of his ability to be the long-term solution at quarterback for the Vikings.

Basis for Claim:  The claim stems from reminiscences of Ponder's final five games in 2012.

Reality:  Christian Ponder had one strong game among the final five games of 2012 with four poor performances.

The Statistics and Context:  In weeks 13-16, Ponder threw two touchdowns and three interceptions and averaged 125 yards passing.  In week 17, against a lousy Green Bay defense attempting to stop a wildly running Adrian Peterson, Ponder threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns.

At best, it can be argued that Ponder's final game in 2012 represented the type of competent game that the Vikings expect of Ponder every week as the team relies on Peterson, first, and Ponder somewhere down the line.

At worst, it can be argued that the final five games of Ponder's 2012 season are a microcosm of both his NFL career and his long-term NFL trajectory--one competent game buttressed by poor performances. 

Up Next:  Where Ponder Founders, Others Prosper. 

Monday, September 09, 2013

The Silence is Becoming Deafening

For much of Christian Ponder's Minnesota Viking career, the Vikings have enlisted the services of the local media to cheerlead a player that the Vikings' front office desperately wants to succeed.  In truth, most Vikings' fans would prefer this outcome, as well.  The difference is that most Vikings' fans would prefer results to smoke and mirrors.

Having failed to convince the fans or will Ponder into becoming something that he is not, the Vikings and their minions now appear intent on denial.  The next step is admitting a long-standing error.  The final step is attempting to rectify the error.

The question for the Vikings is at what point the experiment will end?  Based on comments by those vetted by the Vikings, it appears we are still early in the denial phase.

During a post-game interview with Vikings' head coach Leslie Frazier, Vikings' sideline reporter, Greg Coleman, never at a loss for a preposterous statement, chose silence for perhaps his most preposterous commentary of all time.  Running through a litany of the Vikings' errors, Coleman spoke broadly and took the opportunity to single out players for inquiry.

Curiously missing from Coleman's questioning was any inquiry regarding Ponder.  In a game in which Ponder had three picks and a botched handoff, easily could have had two more picks, and seemed to have only slightly more touch on his passes than Joe Webb, circa 2012-2013 playoffs, Coleman had not one question about the quarterback play.  Punter?  Check.  Cornerback?  Check.  The leader of an offense that has yet to master the short game in run-first offense?  Crickets.  Frazier, not surprisingly, failed to spread the blame, permitting Coleman to pretend that the Vikings' problems were not primarily on a quarterback that is leagues behind his peers in progression.

The tension undoubtedly is building in Eden Prairie.  On one side is a team with key veterans looking to make a playoff push, knowing that the good times--whatever they might be--are being retarded at a key position.  On the other side is a General Manager, heavily invested in a high first-round pick, who has dug in his heels in a fashion that would make Brad Childress blush.  Frazier has yet publicly to split with Rick Spielman, but, as the days of denial progress, the days of admission loom, and admission rarely comes in unison in the NFL. The question is whether Frazier will reach admission and save his career before Spielman relents and admits an error that is likely only to affect his ego.

Up Next:  Apparently Three Years are Not Required to Evidence Significant Strides as an NFL Quarterback.  Plus, with huffing and puffing amateurism waning, stadium construction nears.

Monday, September 02, 2013

As Rome Burns, Spielman Adjusts Timetable for Ponder (Yet Again)

In desperate times, men do desperate things.  So embarks Minnesota Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman, who, in a bid to put a good face on a poor decision, has again likened his 2011 twelfth overall pick in the NFL draft to a Super Bowl MVP quarterback.  The unfortunate part of this equation is not that it reeks of even more desperation on the part of Spielman--that, it surely does--but that it suggests that Spielman and his subordinates are even more dedicated to demonstrating that Ponder is who they thought he was rather than allowing him to be who he is.

During his tenure as Minnesota's head coach, Leslie Frazier has been loathe to even remotely suggest that Ponder is making anything other than significant strides as the starting quarterback.  The refrain is now commonplace--"Christian just needs to get through his progressions and continue to make quicker reads.  We like what we see and we expect him to take another big step in our next game."

The emphasis in both Frazier's and Spielman's remarks on Ponder has been on the need for Ponder to develop his reads and release the ball quicker in the face of pressure.  There is little doubt that these are two of Ponder's short-comings.  Yet, despite Spielman's assurances that Ponder was "the most pro-ready quarterback in the [2011] draft," these short-comings, mighty indeed for any NFL quarterback, were readily apparent from the outset, particularly when Ponder was forced to remain in the pocket.

The point has been made on this site many times before, but it is worth repeating as we enter Ponder's third NFL season as a starting quarterback.  For virtually Ponder's entire NFL career, Ponder has labored under the dictate that he remain in the pocket and become a "pro-style" quarterback.  Having a check-down offense that favors dump-offs to looking down field would be a  hindrance to any pocket passer, but it is particularly challenging to a pocket passer who is not really a pocket passer.

Ponder's greatest asset upon joining the Vikings was that he had an instinct not only for when he should leave the pocket but, more importantly, when he should run.  The Vikings chafed at this talent, because it did not mesh with their notion of what they needed in a franchise quarterback.  In a league gradually cycling toward allowing quarterbacks to roam more freely out of the pocket to set up the passing game--come what may in the form of injuries--the Vikings insisted that Ponder stay home.

For most of his career, Ponder has stayed in the pocket.  The result has been three times the number of games with under 100 yards passing (six) than games over 300 yards passing (two), an improbable statistic for a starting quarterback in today's pass-friendly NFL.

Other numbers suggest that Ponder's norm truly is his norm.  The last five games of 2012, often citied by the Vikings as a sign of Ponder's maturation, support this position.  Over his past five starts in 2012, Ponder had five touchdown passes and three picks with an average of 150 yards passing.  On the whole, approaching care-taker status, assuming a 200-yard rushing game, each game, by Adrian Peterson.  Take away Ponder's one truly good performance in those five games and his numbers are startling awful--two touchdowns, three picks, and 125 yards passing per game.

For the Vikings, the clear dilemma is that Ponder's greatest consistency is in being below average in the pocket.  His stronger games have been the aberration.  For most, that would suggest a change at the helm is in order.  But Spielman has (intentionally) backed the team into a corner, a la Brad Childress with Tarvaris Jackson, anointing Ponder the starter and bringing in Kansas City's cast-off as a backup, with the only true pocket passer on the team relegated to third-string and zero repetitions even in practice.

Now, after two seasons of being told that season three is the year that quarterbacks show whether they have it--unless they play for Seattle, Washington, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Detroit, San Francisco, or numerous other NFL teams, apparently--Spielman is again massaging the timeline, rather than focusing on what is necessary to truly assess Ponder.

Because, as a strict pocket passer, Ponder appears to be an average to below average NFL quarterback destined for a career as a backup, the Vikings stand only to gain at this point by allowing Ponder to leave the pocket and use his legs.  If he gets hurt, he gets hurt and the team moves on.  If he does what he can do, however, he will at least give the Vikings a credible option at quarterback, rather than the imaginary option that Spielman fancies.

Up Next:  Laying the Foundation for Why Ponder Did Not Succeed in 2013.  Plus, done with the political bluster and on to the building?