There were a lot of debates about our quarterback situation last season. A lot of the criticism (fair or unfair) seems to focus on the accusations that he is an inaccurate passer, runs from the pocket too much and had a horrible game in Green Bay last year. Well, that quarterback is now a wide receiver. Oh wait a minute! Did you think I was talking about Christian Ponder? Well, after last Sunday's game in Cleveland, you could have been forgiven for thinking that we would have been better off with putting our receiver back at quarterback, because if I'm going to take a quarterback whose best work on Sunday was running the ball, then I'm going to go for the quarterback that runs the ball best.
But this is not actually a post about bringing Webb back to the quarterback position. That ship has sailed. I continue to believe that the Vikings invested in the wrong quarterback, not because I know that Webb would have been good, but because I'm convinced Ponder never will be better than an average NFL backup quarterback. I think he's a good guy, and I think he'll be a success in life, but I don't think that success will come as a NFL quarterback.
The reason I'm saying all of this is because I keep hearing from a loyal and vocal contingent of the Daily Norseman faithful that:
1. Ponder is a good quarterback who needs more time to develop
2. Ponder's Offensive Coordinator is the problem and is what's holding him back
3. Ponder is continuing to show improvement
4. How can you expect Ponder to do well when his
receivers O-line plays so poorly?
5. Ponder isn't the reason that we lost [insert game here]
I think comments 1-4 are wrong, and comment 5 is usually wrong. I'm going to use the Cleveland game as evidence of why I think that. The Cleveland game was a heart breaker, because the game was lost in the final minute and because the team we played was 0-2 and appeared to insist on playing the game with one hand tied behind its back (i.e. 3rd string QB, traded away the 3rd pick of 2012's draft and lost its kicker in the first half). However, this game was very winnable. I think the defense actually did its part of Sunday (as I posted last night in "KCSkol's Defense of the Defense (kind of sort of)"). Special teams was a mess for the second week in a row and spotted the Browns 7 points in what would ultimately be the difference between a win and loss. However, the offense was not good on Sunday, and Christian Ponder was a big reason why.
When I look at an offense, I look at the offensive line, the tight ends, the receivers, the running backs and the quarterback. Of those elements, I think the two most important components are first and foremost, the quarterback, followed closely by the offensive line. Normally, I don't think much about the offensive coordinator, but I'll make an exception in this case, because so many fans on the DN seem to be clamoring for Bill Musgrave to get the boot. (Spoiler alert: I'm not one of those people). Here;s my view of things generally, and specifically as it relates to the game in Cleveland last Sunday.
The Receivers: It's a bit tough to evaluate the wide receivers and the offensive coordinator, because so much of what both do is off camera. However, I think our wide receiver corps is actually quite strong this year. I think Jennings is top notch as a receiver and I nearly fell out of my chair after seeing one of his blocks last week. Simpson has been pretty impressive this season as well. He's getting open deep and making some really nice grabs... and he's not dropping the ball when it's catchable. I'm embarrassed to say that after last season's play, I'd seen enough from Simpson and wanted him cut from the team this preseason. I'll give the coaches their due on this one. Keeping Simpson was the right decision. Cordarrelle Patterson looks like he is going to be the play maker that the Vikings drafted him to be. Wright has been good, and I like Webb in the limited action he's seen. Basically, I think this year's receiving corps is pretty dang good.
Musgrave: With respect to Musgrave, I have to temper my enthusiasm a bit, mostly because it is difficult to know if some of the play calling issues are a result of Musgrave's inclinations to be ultra conservative, or because he still finds himself needing to coddle Ponder in order to give the Vikings the best chance to win. At one point in the second half, we seemed to get into a passing play on 1st (usually an incomplete), followed by a 4 yard run on second down. The number of runs on 2nd and 10 surprised me, and I wondered if the intent was to give Ponder a better chance on 3rd down. I don't know. I didn't like all of the 2nd and 10 running calls, but that might be quibbling given that it was a relatively small part of the offense's action that day. On the bright side, the deep game has opened up a bit this year which is exciting. Unfortunately Ponder is not a good deep game quarterback. Ponder's abilities (or the limits thereof) make him better suited to the short ball, because his accuracy isn't good (admittedly even on short balls) and his internal clock when in the pocket tends to panic at the 2 second mark.
I think Musgrave is a creative play designer, and I think he shines when in the red zone. Last year, I was amazed at how many times Musgrave designed passing plays in the Red Zone within the 10 yard line that resulted in open receivers (and I'm not talking about the bubble screens to Harvin). That's still happening this year, but Ponder is missing them. One was the play last week in Chicago when Ponder overthrew Rudolph as he went to the end zone, and there were two this week against Cleveland as Ponder overthrew a wide open Webb in the corner of the end zone and was late and underthrew Carlson who was wide open (until a defender was able to recover and defend the pass by having it bounce off his back). There have also been plenty of cases in which receivers have been open in the end zone, but Ponder never saw them. Why? Vision of the field is not one of Ponder's strengths. In all seriousness, if I were Bill Musgrave, I would be at my wits end with Ponder. I can recall only one play this entire season in which Ponder looked at one side of the field and then came back to the other side of the field for a look. It happened once against Cleveland (and it wasn't pretty - but I'll get to that later). It never happened against Chicago. And I don't recall it happening against the Lions, but I didn't take notes on that game so maybe I missed it. On passing plays, Ponder is looking at anywhere from 20% to 40% of his options depending on how many receivers are on the field. In Chicago, I saw him staring down his dump off targets for Pete's sake! How can that be an OC's fault? So, until I see a competent quarterback playing for this team, I am not going to jump on the Fire-Musgrave bandwagon. I see plenty of stuff I like about Musgrave, and a few things that make me wonder a bit. But on that last point, I still don't know if it's the Vikings problem at quarterback that is causing Musgrave to dial back the risk on some plays.
The Running Backs: This year, the Vikings running game has been just okay. People are loath to blame Peterson, and the knee jerk reaction is to blame the offensive line or, in rare cases, his lead blocker - the fullback. Well, this year, I think it's fair to blame Peterson for his two fumbles. They were important turnovers in what turned out to be two very close games. That said, I think Peterson has been classic Peterson. He continues to be a monster when he gets to the second level. He just isn't getting to the second level as much. And whose fault is that? I think it's everybody's including Peterson.
First off, let me try to dispel the myth that Peterson sees a ton of 8-men in the box situations. I don't see that. Musgrave has been using a lot of 3 and 4 receiver sets, and he has a great pass catching TE in Rudolph. Putting 3 receivers on the field (Jennings, Simpson, Wright/Patterson) makes it really tough for defenses to stack the box. In fact, while I wasn't particularly focused on the 8 men in the box issue, I don't recall seeing it in the Cleveland game. If it happened, it didn't happen much.
In my opinion, Toby Gerhart is better at finding the holes in the line and pounding them than Peterson is. Part of that is Gerhart's patience in getting to the line but part of it is simply that Peterson just isn't that great at it. I think one of the reasons that the plays with fullbacks leading Peterson are working so well is that the fullbacks are spying the holes for Peterson. In one case in Cleveland, Zack Line peeled off and went to a giant hole that had formed on the left side of the line. Peterson decided to go his own way to the right and was tackled for no gain.
Peterson is an amazing athlete and one of the best runners in the game following his knee surgery last year. His pass protection remains suspect. His catching out of the backfield is much better now that it was early in his career. His breakaway speed is back (it kind of left him in 2010/2011 in my opinion). However, in my opinion, he's not great until he's through the hole. Up to that point, I think he's pretty average.
Regarding Zach Line's play on Sunday, I thought he was pretty good. I did notice on the first offensive play of the second half that Line got up at the end of the play a bit awkwardly and appeared to look at his left knee. He then seemed to have a slight limp back to the huddle. It was subtle, but now that he's on IR, it makes me think he really gutted out the rest of the second half. On a few plays, tight ends came in and set up in the fullback position, but Line was on the field a number of times in the second half, and by and large, I think he played well.
The Tight Ends: I don't have a lot to say here. I was neither impressed nor unimpressed with the tight end play on Sunday. The receiving was okay. The blocking was okay. Neither Rudolph nor Carlson is known for their blocking skills, but I think with only a couple of exceptions they were competent. I'm going to leave it at that for now.
The Offensive Line: Okay. Here we go. I think the biggest surprise for me as I studied the game is that the offensive line had a pretty decent day, and on the occasions that the O-line fell apart, it fell apart as a result of the play of two linemen in particularly - Sullivan and Loadholt. For all of the grief that Johnson and Fusco get, I expected to see the breakdowns coming at their positions. That wasn't the case. Another surprise to me is that I would put the blame squarely on Ponder for 3 of the 6 sacks that the Vikings suffered on Sunday. I'll address that when I get to the quarterback review next.
I recorded 9 plays in which I felt that the offensive line did a bad job. The first bad play didn't occur until the Vikings 4th offensive series. On that series there were 9 plays for 80 yards which took 4:43 off of the clock. It consisted of 5 runs (including the QB draw for a TD) and 4 passes. Of the 9 plays, the offensive line had 4 bad plays as follows:
1. 1st and 10 from the Minnesota 20 ("1/10 M20"): Terrible pressure on Ponder comes up the middle. The pressure is the result of Sullivan completely whiffing on his initial block. Johnson who was tasked with giving an initial push to the tackle lined up opposite him did not have time to get over to help Sullivan who missed his block spectacularly. The Vikings still managed to get 11 yards on the play but Ponder was planted into the turf by Phil Taylor (#98).
2. 2/4 M37: Loadholt whiffed on his block and Zack Line (playing TE at the time) had trouble getting to his block. Despite the chaos, Peterson managed 8 yards on the play.
3. 1/10 M44: Sullivan got blown up on this play. He gets knocked down by Cleveland's #67 who proceeds to run down the line and limit Peterson's options on the play. Peterson loses one yard on the play.
4. 1/10 C7: Sullivan gets pushed 3 yards into the backfield and trips the fullback (Line) in the process. Line missed his block (Kruger #99) who ends up making the tackle on Peterson. Peterson gains one yard.
The remaining bad offensive line plays carry on in a similar pattern:
5. 6th Offensive series (1/10 M20): Phil Taylor (#98) blows up Sullivan. The rest of the line's pass protection was very good, but Ponder gets sacked.
6. 8th Offensive series (1/10 C23): Loadholt gets beat outside but recovers. Ponder throws to a wide open Wright for a 4 yard gain.
7. 2/6 C19: Loadholt is beat again, this time by completely whiffing on a speed rush to the inside. Ponder gets rid of it quickly to Gerhart who makes very good catch on a high throw and then runs for 9 yards down the sideline.
8. 2/10 C10: Loadholt now manages to complete the worst series of his season by whiffing on a speed rush to the outside. Sheard (#97) had his way with Loadholt on this series. Ponder was strip sacked on the play that end the first half.
9. 11th offensive series (2/6 C47): Sullivan is again blown up, and Ponder is sacked as pressure comes up the middle when Cleveland rushes 5. On this play, Sullivan is pushed all the way back to the quarterback which blocks Johnson from being able to continue his block on Hughes. Hughes goes around Sullivan to the other side and gets the sack, but this is entirely on Sullivan. Loss of 6 yards on the play.
Of these 9 plays, the pattern was pretty clearly this: Sullivan gets overpowered in one-on-one situations and Loadholt gets beat by speed rushes (both to inside and to the outside).
However, keeping everything in its proper context, there were 79 plays on offense and only 9 plays in which I thought the O-line failed in its responsibilities. And I think there were a lot of plays in this game in which the Vikings O-line did very well. Oddly the O-line breakdowns came in spurts. The 4th and 8th series accounted for 7 of the 9 breakdowns.
Like my review of the defense last night, I don't think the O-line was great, but they weren't bad. What troubles me most is that I think opponents are going to see that Sullivan got manhandled in one-on-one situations and that Loadholt got beat badly when facing a DE lined up from way outside. I predict even more of the same struggles in the weeks ahead.
Quarterback: It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Christian Ponder as quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. Pretty early on in his first season with the Vikings I started to notice what I thought were potential limitations with Ponder's physical abilities and was concerned that Webb seemed to show more poise in the pocket than Ponder did. My frustrations with Ponder had less to do with him being a bad quarterback than the coaching staff's decision to anoint him as the QBotF. I was also frustrated that some were so happy to throw Webb under the bus while giving Ponder a pass for his own failings.
Last year, I found Ponder's play to be insufferable. Ponder's preoccupation with short throws and numerous moments of panic started to be a focus of defensive game plans against him. By week 4 or 5, defenses were clearly pressing the line and daring Ponder to beat them. He didn't. Ponder had a number of legendarily bad offensive performances but finished the season with, what I would call, some uninspired but not terrible quarterback play. It helped that Peterson was rushing for the record books in the second half of the season and may have had the best month of rushing (December) ever seen in the NFL. However, what concerned me is that whether Ponder did poorly or averagely statistically, he still largely behaved the same way on the field. He still didn't go through his progressions. He still couldn't place the ball where his receivers could maximize their yardage opportunities. He was still staring down his receivers. He still had trouble throwing an accurate, well timed, out route. My concern with Ponder wasn't with his "inconsistency" as many here have complained. My concern was with the fact that Ponder was consistently not functioning in the way that good NFL quarterbacks do. When evaluating a quarterback, I am generally less concerned with the stats than I am with how they got the stats, and I was upset with Ponder's performance last year as a result. He was not developing as a QB in my opinion.
At the start of this year, I hoped for the best. Webb was gone after having a horrible game in Green Bay. Matt Cassel was brought in in his place. And MBT remained on the staff but wasn't viewed as a credible replacement for Ponder this season. Basically, 2013 was going to be Ponder's season to shine, because it was the consensus view that there wasn't another quarterback on the staff that was better than him. And that may be the case, I don't know, but I do know that Ponder is a quarterback with 29 starts under his belt, and he's just plain bad. If I had a spot on my team for a developing quarterback, I wouldn't give it to Ponder. If I had a need for a pedestrian quarterback to fill a backup role on a team that needs one for a year or two, maybe, just maybe I'd take Ponder. I didn't think Ponder physical limitations would get better in the offseason, but I hoped Ponder would come into 2013 showing better poise in the pocket, better decision making on the field and show evidence that the game "was slowing down for him." None of that has happened.
The last time I thought "our QB" was better than "their QB" was when the Vikings played against Skelton and the Cardinals. I think Skelton ended up with the better stats (I think), but I thought Skelton was awful. That was the last time I thought Ponder was better than the quarterback he was playing against. Sunday was no different.
Lack of Vision: This is my main gripe about Ponder. He still isn't seeing the field. In fact, he really isn't even trying to see the field. Over the last two games, I have watched and re-watched and re-watched every play. On only one occasion did I see Christian Ponder look from one side of the field to the other on a play. That happened on Sunday, when Ponder looked to the right side of the field and then looked left for Rudolph. Unfortunately, Ponder rushed the throw and released it before Rudolph had turned around. That might have been okay if Rudolph was 10 yards down field or at the side line, but Rudolph was on the line of scrimmage not quite half way to the side line. The throw was not accurate and Rudolph only managed to get a hand on it. The ball was incomplete. Ponder has no patience and little feel for the pocket. The alarm bell in his head starts ringing very early and as a result he just doesn't look for open receivers. He essentially appears to make his decisions at the line of scrimmage and then either throws it to his #1, dumps it off or scrambles. He almost never goes through his progressions.
Pocket Presence: In his 29th start on Sunday, he was mechanical rather than natural in the pocket. At the snap on passing plays, he looked at the center of the field (perhaps to "freeze the safety") for a split second and then proceeded to stare down the receiver he intended to throw to. Even when rolling out, Ponder didn't look around for options but continued to lock onto one target.
When the offense managed to give Ponder a nice pocket from within which to throw (which happened quite a few times throughout the game), Ponder still didn't look for options. Disappointingly, Ponder is missing wide open receivers who are running directly in Ponder's field of vision. In Chicago, last week Ponder almost threw an interception by throwing to Carlson who was tightly covered by a linebacker (Anderson) who had inside position. It had Pick 6 potential written all over it. However, just behind Carlson, Jennings was running through the back of the end zone looking back at Ponder and no doubt hoping for a pass. It would have been a TD, but my guess is that Ponder had already decided to throw to Carlson at the time the ball was snapped. He never looked off of Carlson, and never saw Jennings as a result.
Of the six sacks on Ponder on Sunday, I think that 3 of them are Ponder's fault. Here they are:
1. 3rd Offensive Series (3/10 M20): Ponder is in the shotgun. Cleveland rush 4. Ponder gets the ball and sets himself up 10 yards back from the line of scrimmage. It looks like both Kalil and Loadholt were blocking their guys assuming Ponder would be 7 yards deep. Kalil's guy goes straight at Ponder which forces Ponder to step up as Loadholt's guy comes around as well. In the meantime, Sullivan is getting pushed back up the middle. The timing of the play is now off, and Ponder is sacked quite easily. If Ponder had gone seven yards deep as he did on the previous play or on the next passing play in the next series (also from the shot gun), I think both Kalil and Loadholt will have contained their guy and Ponder could have focused on the receiver rather than avoiding the pass rush from edge. In the second half, the same thing happened to Hoyer when he was in the shot gun and then set himself up to throw from 10 yards deep.
2. 11th Offensive Series (3/12 C47): The play occurred because Loadholt cut block Mingo who rolled and recovered quickly. However, rather than throwing to with Wright, Jennings or Simpson who were all open on the play, Ponder makes the early decision to tuck the ball and run. He gets sacked by Mingo for a one yard loss as a result.
3. 16th Offensive Series (2/10 C34): Ponder has good protection on the final play of the game but opts to run out of the pocket for reasons that aren't obvious. He is immediately sacked for an eight yard loss. The game ends.
On the final drives this season, Ponder has also seemed to go for clock killing short throws to the middle of the field that do more harm than good. Several times I found myself wishing that Ponder had simply thrown the ball into the turf rather than completing his dump off passes. He just seems to lose his head at critical times. He's a smart guy, but he doesn't play that way.
Lack of accuracy: Ponder has been inaccurate all season long. Sometimes the inaccuracy is scarily obvious like Ponder's crazy overthrow to Jennings on 3rd and 4 to the sideline on a critical 4th quarter drive. The result of the play was that the Vikings went 3 and out, and the Browns started their final drive from their own 45 yard line. Sometimes the lack of accuracy is more subtle; Ponder's receivers catch the ball but lose all of their momentum in process. Hoyer frequently put the ball on his receivers where they could do something with it after the catch. Ponder doesn't do that often. More often than not, whether deep or short, Ponder's throws cause his receivers/running backs to change direction or jump for his balls.
And when Ponder puts the proverbial mustard on the ball, his throws go high. That has been happening all season long, and there are just too many examples to go through to highlight them all here, but let me use the 13th offensive series (at the end of the 3rd quarter/start of the 4th as an example). There were 8 passes (which include 2 scrambles - I'll address only one of the scrambles) on this 12 play drive.
1. (1/10 M28): Ball is thrown 40 yards deep and misses Wright by 10 yards. Wright ran into the CB on a double move, so it isn't clear where the ball would have ended up had Wright ran his route unobstructed. No blame on Ponder here.
2. (1/10 M44): Ponder badly underthrows Simpson on a 20 yard deep ball. The pass protection is very good. Simpson falls down trying to get back for the ball and looks pissed off. He has brief, angry arm gesture when he gets back up. I'm not sure what he's doing, but he's clearly not happy.
3. (3/6 M48?): Jennings is wide open 1 yard short of the 1st down marker, but Ponder's inaccurate throw forces Jennings to stop and turn back to the center of the field instead of continuing outside for an easy 1st down. Jennings gets the first down anyway, but it requires Fusco helping him out and pushing him for the first down.
4. (1/10 C45): Ponder rolls right on a designed roll out. There is no pass pressure. He overthrows a wide open Simpson downfield by a country mile. The trailing defender jumps and gets a hand on the ball. Ponder was very lucky this ball wasn't intercepted.
5. (3/7 C42): This is actually a scramble by Ponder. He gets the first down and a 15 yard face mask penalty. However, on the play Cleveland rushes 7. Pre-snap the safety presses the line leaving the receivers in one-on-one situation without safety help. Immediately after the snap, Simpson who's opposition a defender pressing him at the line, gets inside position on his man, and if Ponder accurately throws it from his shotgun position, I think it's a big gain and possibly a TD. At a minimum, it's a first down. The play worked out anyway, but it was really ugly. As near as I can tell, despite the obviousness pressure coming pre-snap and the obvious opportunity facing Simpson, Ponder never goes there.
6. (2/5 C15): Nice play action pass call that works out. Rudolph releases to one yard short of the first down marker, but Ponder doesn't throw it soon enough or accurately enough. The throw forces Rudolph to come back for the ball and he ends up only getting 3 yards instead of the first down.
7. (3/2 C12): Ponder is pressured quickly on this play when Carlson is only able to block one of the two pass rushers coming at him. Ponder doesn't have much of a chance. Unfortunately, Simpson is in the end zone asking for the ball as Ponder goes down.
This series was just an example of what must drive Musgrave crazy. The plays were there, but even when completed, they sub-optimized the result. Hoyer's stats (30/54, 321 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs QBR 31.4 Passer rating 68.5) weren't much different from Ponder's (25/42, 228 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT QBR 57.9 Passer rating 65.9) but he was the better quarterback in terms of his throwing accuracy. In fact, the difference between Hoyer's and Ponder's throws into the end zone ended up being the difference in the game. Hoyer made great throws to the corner of the end zone that resulted in 2 TDs. Ponder overthrew a wide open Webb in the corner of the end zone. His throw lacked the arc of Hoyer's and went off of Webb's finger tips. Argh.
Summary: The good news is that I think the Vikings problems are fixable. I think getting better quarterback play, even just average quarterback play - for example a QB who sometimes goes through his progressions and can throw a ball accurately - would have made this a 2-1 team quite easily. That doesn't mean that the rest of the team doesn't have its problems, but it's easier to make a change at one position than play whack-a-mole with the other 21. The bad news is that we're not going to fix the QB problem this year unless he fixes it himself. After 29 games, I don't see much chance of that happening in the next 13.
Anyway, it won't come as a surprise to most of you, but I don't buy the fact that the defense and offensive line are the reasons we are losing these games. I think Ponder is the biggest reason this team is 0-3. Sorry.