Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bridgewater's Start Harkens Back to Ponder's

In Christian Ponder's first start for the Minnesota Viking, the player who now serves as the Vikings' back-up quarterback only by virtue of Matt Cassel's injury, offered some encouraging signs for Vikings' fans.  In the 33-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers (in a game in which Greg Jennings scored on a 79-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers), Ponder was 13 of 32 for 219 yards and two touchdowns, including a late game pass to Michael Jenkins that offered the Vikings a glimmer of hope.  Ponder added 31 yards rushing on four attempts.

In the aftermath of Ponder's first start, those who wanted so desperately to believe that Ponder was the Vikings' franchise quarterback overlooked the 19 incompletions and two interceptions.  "He will only get better," they admonished those who dared to suggest that Ponder had a long way to go.

Things generally got worse for Ponder after that first start.  Some of that was attributable to the insistence of the coaching staff that he stay in the pocket and not ever scramble--regardless of whether that was a strength of Ponder's.  But, for the most part, Ponder's decline was his own doing--or, at a minimum, the product of his limited abilities.

Like Ponder, Teddy Bridgewater showed some encouraging signs in his first start for the Vikings, making quick reads, releasing the ball quickly, and throwing with accuracy on short passes.  Even generally staid analysts such as Pete Bercich and Ben Lieber, apparently beaten down by the Ponder years, gushed at Bridgewater's "promise."

With a few more starts now under his belt, the bloom is off the rose for some, but not for all, with respect to Bridgewater's promise.  While Lieber now expresses some concerns about certain aspects of Bridgewater's game--mostly the passing part, which tends to be a large part of what being a quarterback in the NFL is all about, others, such as KFAN's Paul Allen are gung-ho on Bridgewater, excited even to have the opportunity to walk in the same corridors with the rookie, and even more excited about "the possibilities." Allen makes clear that Teddy is doing what we should expect of a franchise quarterback early in his career.

Of course, what Bridgewater is doing is looking less and less like a franchise quarterback and more and more like Christian Ponder redux.  After showing well against a putrid Atlanta defense, Bridgewater has done little to suggest that he is a bona fide franchise quarterback.  He lacks the ability to throw the deep ball, holds the ball far too long in the pocket, locks in on receivers, throws to his blind side as if there will be no defender in the vicinity, and seems overly casual where urgency seems requisite.  That's at least the objective view.

Bridgewater finished Sunday's game 24 of 42 for 241 yards, one touchdown, and no picks.  Those numbers are not bad, but they came against a team yielding 286 passing yards per game and ceding 31 points a game.  Moreover, the 13 points that Bridgewater orchestrated in the game were no fluke--the Vikings' offense deserved no more than 13 based on what the quarterback was able to do.

For the entire season, Bridgewater has had every conceivable benefit of the doubt.  His proponents have noted that he is playing behind an offensive line with injuries, started earlier in his career than was hoped--due to Cassel's injury, played without Adrian Peterson, and had to manage without effective receivers.

The excuses paper over several realities, however.  On Sunday, Bridgewater had ample time to pass, had the benefit of a reasonably good running game, and had receivers get wide open and make an impossible catch or two.  Still, Bridgewater struggled.  He struggled because he did things that he probably can learn not to do--stay in the pocket too long when afforded a running lane, hold the ball too long, telegraph the pass, and lack urgency with the clock dwindling.

But Bridgewater continued to evidence short-comings that Ponder showed and that crippled Ponder in the pocket-style game that the Vikings insist from their quarterbacks.  He checked down more often than not.  He failed to spot wide open receivers, despite ample time.  He failed to get the ball down the field when he tried.  And he appeared to have little pocket presence--something that he seemed to have in his first game but now seems to have utterly lost.

As those who want to believe and refuse to be objective admonish the rest of the NFL-watching world to trust that Bridgewater will evolve, it is worth recalling that the most ardent Ponder supporters offered the same admonishments and the same excuses whenever Ponder fell short of expectations.  Unfortunately, the latter helped perpetuate three seasons of excuses and under-performance at the quarterback position.  Given that the Vikings have invested yet another first-round pick in a quarterback whom they have already anointed as the franchise quarterback, it is likely, particularly given the early and increasing use of the excuse machine by the team's cheerleading squad, that Vikings' fans are in for another three-year prove it period.

As they say in the business, "cheerleaders gonna cheer."  That's certainly true of most members of the  media covering the Vikings.  At some point, however, sensibility must overcome myopia and hope.  If, at the end of the season, Bridgewater is still averaging less than half a touchdown passing per game, less than 7 yards per pass attempted, and less than 65% pass completion rate despite the low passing-yards-per-attempt figure, then the Vikings need to accelerate the analysis of Bridgewater and determine if there is a better option on the market.  Three more years of watching something that is virtually unwatchable won't cut it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Time for the Vikings to Revert to The Musgrave

At 2-4 and looking up at three better teams in their own division, the Minnesota Vikings would have to put together a string of performances unlike anything that they have done this year to contend not only for a final wild-card spot, but also to improve on last season's dismal 5-10-1 record.  Given the issues at seemingly every position on offense and some persisting concerns on defense, this is unlikely.  That notwithstanding, the games will be played and the Vikings might as well attempt to learn what they can from each contest.

What the Vikings need at Buffalo is a semblance of a pulse on offense and continued improvement on defense.  The latter should happen, given the return of Chad Greenway, and the former has a chance--but Vikings' fans almost certainly will not like the formula.

Defensively, the Vikings have had three primary challenge this season--cohesion, inexperience and talent, probably in that order.  In the base defense, the Vikings are starting only two players at the same position that they started at last year with the team and two other players playing the same position that they started at for any other team in the league last year.  That, by itself, is sufficient to create gaffes.  Issues attributable to cohesion should eventually diminish, however, if only by definition.

The Vikings also are giving five defensive players their most meaningful minutes of their careers and asking them to hold their own without much depth.  If those players can perform up to their draft levels and contracts, the inexperience concern will gradually become a non-issue.  If they cannot, the inexperience concern will become a talent and/or coaching concern.

Then there is the issue of talent.  There are weeks when the Vikings' defense holds its own in the face of difficult odds--such as last week, when the offense was awful.  There are also weeks when the defense looks like a sieve--see the Green Bay and Atlanta games.  The most obvious difference between the strong and weak defensive performances appears to be the opposition.  When the Vikings have faced a talented passing attack, the defense has played poorly.  When the Vikings have played a team with a weak passing attack--or a team with a key player, such as Calvin Johnson, missing from that attack--the defense looks better.  The remainder of the season will tell whether the issues are ones of cohesion and inexperience or more a matter of talent.

More alarming than the performance of the team's defense at this point is the total shambles that the offense has become.  When he wasn't getting sacked last week, Teddy Bridgewater was either under siege or throwing the ball to the defense.  But for more sacks and fewer short-yardage completions and last week's version of the Vikings' offense looked every bit as bad as any non-Adrian Peterson led offense of last season.

The Vikings' problems on offense start on the offensive line.  Despite the presence of a group that has played together for long enough to figure things out, the Vikings' offensive linemen are getting beat in every conceivable way--straight up, in a four-man front, in a three-man front, and certainly against the blitz.  Only Pittsburgh and Detroit have permitted more sacks than Minnesota's front five and, with a mere three passing touchdowns on the season--only two more than Cincinnati wide-receiver Mohamed Sanu, no team has shown anywhere near the futility scoring through the air that the Vikings have shown.  Add to that a league-leading nine picks, and the passing protection and passing attack have conspired to undermine the team's below-average rushing attack.

In the running game, it says a mouthful that fullback cum running back, Matt Asiata, leads the team with a 37.7 yards-per-game average.  That's roughly seven yards fewer per game than Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson averages.

It's all a recipe for disaster and a sign that, against a respectable defense in Buffalo, the Vikings either will need fortune to smile or an epiphany on offense.  That epiphany might be a reversion to something that no Vikings' fan would wish upon even their most reviled opponent, but something that is probably necessary to get the offense moving in the right direction--a reversion to the Musgrave.

Under former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, the Vikings led the league in dump-offs, behind-the-line-of-scrimmage passes, rushes up the gut, and third-down passes short of the stick.  That seemed a dramatic misuse of the best running back in the league.  However, now that the Vikings are without Peterson and, if you believe head coach Mike Zimmer, without receivers who can gain separation at the line, the Vikings must resort to some form of the Musgrave, if only to keep Bridgewater upright and breathing.

For offensive coordinator Norv Turner, today's offense must be quick-rhythm, short pass, and whatever the team can get from the running game, including having Bridgewater leave the pocket.  That's not how the Vikings wanted to operate things under Turner or with Bridgewater, but it's the best response to an awful offensive line and a marginal receiving corps that has accounted for a league-low two touchdowns and 217 yards receiving per game.

As always, the Musgrave approach is highly susceptible to defeat, but it does offer the benefit of permitting an offense to pull itself up to a level just slightly below mediocrity and--if the stars and moon properly align--an occasional blip or two above that.  In the wake of two straight offensive offensive performances, that arguably would be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Second Start and An Even Better Scenario for Teddy Bridgewater

Things could not have gone worse for Christian Ponder last week.  Nor could they have gone better for Teddy Bridgewater.  After Bridgewater led the Vikings to a victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Ponder was called upon to replace his injured teammate against Green Bay.

In addition to being asked to provide Bridgewater's encore, Ponder was asked to do so on a short week.  For any quarterback, that's likely to lead to sub-standard results.  When your standard results are already sub-standard, however, that's a recipe for disaster.  And for Ponder, disaster followed.

When it mattered against Green Bay, Ponder was awful.  His passes were off target, into the wrong hands, and late to receivers.  And those were the high points.  After the game, it was evident probably even to Rick Spielman that Ponder's career in Minnesota, and possibly the NFL, was over, but for the final paperwork.

Prior to the Atlanta game, everything had set up perfectly for Bridgewater to get his first start.  After Ponder's performance against Green Bay, everything is once again setting up beautifully for Bridgewater.  Not even Mr. Spielman would have had the audacity to attempt to script this.

The expectations for Bridgewater against Detroit are tempered by numerous factors.  Bridgewater is still purportedly limited by his injury against Atlanta; the Vikings were awful in all phases against Green Bay; nobody stood out in the Green Bay game and, as a result, nobody looks to be a standout against a far tougher Detroit defense; and Detroit is the favorite, despite playing on the road.

If Bridgewater merely stands his ground, picks up some yards, and keeps the game close, most Vikings' fans will consider the game a stepping stone in Bridgewater's maturation process.  If he does anything more than that, he will be viewed as the next coming of Fran Tarkenton.

The encouraging thing for Vikings' fans in a season that might otherwise have been a disaster, is that Bridgewater not only has shown promise with a quick read and release, evasiveness and awareness in the pocket, and decent arm strength at least up to mid-range passing, but he also seems to be charmed.  For Vikings' fans accustomed to the opposite, that's a welcome change and one that they will take with no apologies.