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.




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Rick Danielowski said...
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