Going into the 2012 NFL season, one of the biggest concerns that fans of the Minnesota Vikings had was that of the development of their young quarterback, Christian Ponder. While even fans with the darkest of purple tint on their glasses weren't expecting the Vikings to be a contender this season, they realize that the development of Ponder is a key to how this team will function going forward.
So, I was surprised after the Vikings' 23-20 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday to see so much vitriol being directed towards Ponder, as though he was a major part of the reason that the Vikings lost on Sunday and that he's more of a liability to this team than an asset. After reading a few columns around the internet, viewing some highlights, and parts of the two games the Vikings have played thus far, this is the conclusion I've drawn.
If you've watched the first two games of this Minnesota Vikings season and come to the conclusion that Christian Ponder is this team's biggest problem. . .or even one of this team's biggest problems. . .then I'd like to know what the heck games you've been watching.
Has Ponder had his issues during the first two games? Sure, a couple. . .but he's also shown a ton of improvement over his rookie campaign.
-One of the biggest concerns about Ponder going into this season was his accuracy. Through the first two games of the season, he's completed 75.8% of his passes. Only Alex Smith has a higher number in that category.
-He has a quarterback rating of 110.6 through the first two games of the season. That's good for seventh in the NFL in that category.
-He's averaging 8.3 yards/attempt, which is pretty good considering that his longest completion this season went for 29 yards
So some might say, "Okay, but he's not taking any chances deep."
About that. . .As Tom Pelissero points out in his column that came out just after the game, the reason that Ponder apparently isn't taking any shots deep is because. . .well, it just isn't there. Outside of Percy Harvin, this team doesn't have a single receiver that can regularly beat man-to-man coverage and stretch a defense. Michael Jenkins can't do it. Devin Aromashodu can't do it. Stephen Burton can't do it. Jarius Wright can't even get on the field at this point.
Jerome Simpson can probably do it, but we won't find out for sure until September 30 when he can finally make his regular season debut for the Vikings following his suspension. Is Simpson a panacea for this offense? Probably not. . .but, seriously, his presence can't hurt. Simpson and Ponder were starting to develop a pretty decent chemistry during training camp and during the pre-season, and hopefully he's going to be able to open things up a bit for the Minnesota offense.
Honestly, I've seen the "Fall Flat for Matt" stuff (or whatever dumb rhyming thing anyone might like to use) already in the hopes of the Vikings landing USC quarterback Matt Barkley. You've got to be kidding me. If you think that Matt Barkley comes onto this roster and automatically makes the Vikings a 10-6/11-5 team, then you've apparently lost your mind. Reason #1 is that no rookie is going to come in here and make this a 10-6/11-5 team with this group of receivers. Reason #2 is that, quite frankly, I don't get all the Barkley hype, and certainly hope that we're not the team that uses a high first-round draft choice on him.
And he's damn sure not good enough to tank for, if that's your line of thought.
There are things about this team that concern me a heck of a lot more than Christian Ponder at this point, and one of them is supposed to be this team's strength.
The Indianapolis Colts went into this afternoon's game without two of their starting offensive linemen in left guard Joe Reitz and right tackle Winston Justice. Seth Olsen started for the Colts in Reitz's spot, and Jeff Linkenbach started for Justice. During the game, Indianapolis center Samson Satele went down with an injury, meaning that right guard Mike McGlynn had to slide over to the center spot, and newly signed Trai Essex came into the game at the McGlynn's right guard spot.
That meant that, of the Colts' usual offensive line starters, left tackle Anthony Castonzo was the only one on the field for much of the game. And the Vikings' defensive line took advantage of this by. . .not doing a whole heck of a lot. Sure, they blew up the running game, as well they should. . .the Colts aren't exactly the '72 Dolphins when it comes to running the football anyway. . .but the defensive line didn't register a sack of Andrew Luck until Everson Griffen's monster 22-yard thumping of Luck that preceded the Vikings' final offensive possession.
Jared Allen and Brian Robison, who should have been able to make some serious hay, were virtually invisible. Robison had a play where he had Luck dead to rights in the end zone, but basically just bounced off of him, allowing Luck to throw the ball away. Allen's biggest contribution came on a dumb late hit penalty that allowed the Colts' first possession of the third quarter to extend long enough to get a field goal on the board. The Indianapolis Colts played a rookie quarterback. . .granted, a really good one. . .behind a bunch of back-up offensive linemen, and our vaunted defensive line let that guy do basically whatever he wanted all day long.
That's frustrating. Seriously, we knew the secondary of this team was going to be a weak link, because they're young across the board (save for Antoine Winfield) and raw in most respects. But the front seven was supposed to be a strength, particularly when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback. If they can't do that, things are probably going to get ugly here soon.
This brings me to the subject of penalties. . .and I know what some folks are thinking. Yes, the replacement refs stink and they're awful and they're horrible and they missed this and they missed that and they called this when they shouldn't have and blah blah blah.
The Colts were playing with the replacement officials, too. It's not as though the NFL was trotting a crew of the "real" referees out there when the Colts had the ball and going with the replacements when Minnesota took over. And, at the end of the day, the Minnesota Vikings got called for 11 penalties, costing them 105 yards, with the majority of them coming at the absolute worst times. Because of penalties, the Vikings actually got three third down stops on one drive on the Colts' first possession of the third quarter, but two dumb penalties. . .legit or otherwise. . .allowed the Colts to keep going and convert for a field goal.
In the third quarter, the Vikings ran five offensive plays and gained 23 yards. In that same quarter, they were penalized five times for 65 yards. There were three personal foul penalties (roughing the kicker on Andrew Sendejo, Allen's late hit, and Matt Kalil getting flagged for unnecessary roughness), a holding penalty on Phil Loadholt, and a block in the back on a punt return by Christian Ballard. When you have nearly three times as much penalty yardage as offensive yardage. . .well, I'm no stat guru or anything, but that's bad, I think. (Thanks to A.J. Mansour of KFAN for that stat.)
If I can draw a parallel to the college game, the 2012 Minnesota Vikings are kind of like one of the service academies. If you're Air Force or Army or Navy, you're not getting 5-star recruits to come to your school, and you're not going to beat teams on talent alone. For those teams to be successful, they need to be precise and execute their scheme and stay disciplined. This Vikings team doesn't have a ton of talent, and what talent they have is mostly still young and developing. If they're going to beat teams, they need to be disciplined and they need to execute better than the guys on the other side of the ball. Today, they didn't do that, and an opportunity to go 2-0 for the first time since 2009 went by the boards.
The 2012 season is going to be a season of growing and maturing for a very young team. I think this team is better than last year's team (though I'm not exactly setting the bar at Sergei Bubka level by making such a declaration), and I think they'll get better as the season progresses. However, Sunday showed that they still have plenty of issues that they need to address before they reach "contender" status.
In my eyes, however, the guy lining up behind center simply isn't one of them.