Friday, October 26, 2012

Coming Off The Ledge: When 5-3 feels like 3-5

To read Pacifist Viking's take on the 36-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, click here.

The Vikings performance Thursday night brought back the worst memories of some of Brad Childress' Viking teams – poor quarterback play, wide receivers that can't get open, pass protection issues, questionable offensive play calling and a defense that is repeatedly gashed (in the Chilly era, it was always the pass defense that failed miserably. Against the Bucs Thursday, it was the run defense).

The Vikings needed to win this game badly. With a second half schedule that is full of playoff-caliber teams, every win in the easy part of their schedule is precious if they want to secure a playoff spot. They also needed Christian Ponder to show he really is getting better after a brutal game against Arizona. And they needed to get back to the solid tackling that had made the defense such a surprisingly stout unit early in the season. They failed on all accounts. This loss was so bad on so many levels, it feels like the Vikings season is lost.

Hold on, here. Did I just write about the Vikings making the playoffs? Wasn't this team 3-13 last year? Weren't they picked to be one of the league's worst by just about everybody who follows the NFL prior to the season? Didn't all of us Viking fans agree 2012 was a rebuilding year and that any wins they got would be gravy? That we'd be happy with the little victories? Measuring success in terms of the progress and improvement of so many of the team's young players? And now I'm whining about a team that's 5-3 midway through the season? I need to get a grip. 

Predicting wins and losses based on what your opponent's did the previous season is usually a fool's errand. But when I looked at the Vikings first half schedule, I thought seven of the eight games were winnable. I also thought they wouldn't win them all, and they didn't. But they did go 4-3 in those games (I never consider a road game against Detroit unwinnable, by the way) and they won the only game I didn't think they had much of a chance to – against the 49ers. Overall, 5-3 is about as good of a start as I could have hoped for the 2012 Minnesota Vikings.

But the bar has been raised, and I can't stop thinking that a playoff berth would be nice after watching two seasons of lousy Vikings football. As has been pointed out a lot, the second half schedule is very tough – four games in total against the Bears and Packers, plus road games against Seattle, St. Louis and Houston which will be very difficult. However, just as the Vikings lost games we probably felt they should have won (against the Colts in week two, and Washington in week six), there will be games the Vikings win in the second half that we won't expect them to. Will that be enough to make them a playoff team? I don't know.

The beating the Vikings took at the hands of Tampa Bay Thursday night – and it was a beating – is soul crushing because our hopes have been raised by a surprising 5-2 start. However, this is still a young team. It looks like it's going in the right direction. And it's given us more smiles, thrills and good vibes in eight games than we experienced the previous two seasons combined. The team has set itself up so the games in November and December will mean something. That's more than many of us expected from this Vikings team.

Observations and opinions from the first half of 2012

What the Vikings must figure out in the next eight games: It's not the defense's recent tackling woes – while worrisome, that's correctable and the Vikings have shown they can tackle well. It's not the lack of a receiving threat besides Percy Harvin (we knew the Vikings had no real answer to this weakness in 2012 and were going to have to make do with what they had. And no, I don't think they're trading for Dwayne Bowe). What really needs to be corrected is quarterback Christian Ponder's head.

Ponder looks like a mess right now. He's getting rid of the ball too quickly, like he's expecting bad things to happen before they actually do. And the inaccuracy we've been seeing on some of those basic throws - like the screens to Harvin or the dumpoffs to running backs and tight ends - are the telltale signs of a player who is seeing ghosts. So is his habit of drifting to his left or right in the pocket as soon as he smells some pressure. Like the Vikings tackling woes the past couple of games, this stuff is correctable. However, if Ponder doesn't believe it's correctable or his head is too messed up with doubt and worry, he's not going to be able to focus on the fundamental things that's he's been horrible at.I believe Ponder's got the arm strength, athletic ability, and work ethic to be a successful NFL quarterback. The mental side of the game is what is holding him back.

The 2012 free agent class blows: During the offseason, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman signed a handful of low-risk/high reward free agents. Through eight games that class has looked more like a low-risk/no reward group. Tight end John Carlson doesn't look like he can play at all. Cornerback Zack Bowman was cut before the season started. And while you can say injuries have prevented guard Geoff Schwartz and wide receiver Jerome Simpson (perhaps throw Carlson in here, too) from making an impact, I care about results, and the results have been meager. At this point fullback Jerome Felton is the only free agent signing who has performed up to expectations.

The 2012 draft class doesn't blow: As bad as Spielman's free agent signings have been, his draft picks have been the opposite. The Vikings are getting consistently good play from left tackle Matt Kalil, safety Harrison Smith, cornerback Josh Robinson and kicker Blair Walsh.Tight end Rhett Ellison has been a pleasant surprise. Audie Cole and Robert Blanton have contributed on special teams when they've been asked to. With the black hole that is the Vikings WR unit, it sucks that Greg Child's patella tendons exploded during training camp and that Jarius Wright apparently isn't good enough to wear a Vikings uniform on Sundays. But I don't think Childs and Wright were going to greatly elevate the Vikes passing game this season anyway.

Biggest surprise: I'd say safety Jamarca Sanford. He's always been a good special teamer, but the extensive look I got of him as a starting NFL safety in 2011 suggested "career backup" was going to be stamped on his CV. I think most Vikings fans would agree he's played pretty well. That's partly because he's got better players around him this year than last year (Benny Sapp! Cedric Griffin! Woof!). But Sanford can hit and he knows the system. He's an improved player. Not a star player, but the Vikings don't need a star at strong safety.

Biggest Disappointment: For now, that's easy - John Carlson. But if Christian Ponder keeps playing like he has the past two games, I'll have a new candidate by December.

5 comments:

  1. Hard to disagree with any of this. Safe to say the Vikings will be playing from behind a fair amount this second half, so they'll need Ponder, Musgrave, and co. to really get their acts together. Weird things happen on the NFL, particularly in division games, but these sorts of offensives outputs won 't work if they're not scoring defensive /special teams touchdowns, or playing qbs with a little more teeth than John skelton or the artist formerly known as Matt Hasselbeck.

    FWIW, Football outsiders has pegged the Vikings to have the second toughest strength of schedule for the second half (compared to the second easiest in the first half) .

    One more thing, while I thought the decision to draft Ponder was bad from the get go, I 'm not sure they look to replace him if he can show some competence and win a few games the rest of the way. I just don 't think it's that type pf Qb draft class this year. I would hope they would sign some legit candidate though (someone like a Colt McCoy) to provide a serious option in case Ponder can't shake the yips. I 'm also discouraged that Ponder and the team talk about figuring things out but don 't sen to demonstrate they're doing so. (One blatent example, 4 days after throwing a horrible pick and giving the Cards the ball in field goal position right before half, they almost did the EXACT same thing Thursday: Tampa got their hands on a duck right before half on bad field position, they just didn't hang on to it).

    Of course, if this continues and they finish on a 6-8 game losing streak, all bets are off. I also believe they'll be done paying Childress at that point.
    Something to consider should this era revert to being 2011 ugly.

    -jianfu

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    1. jianfu:

      I'm not off the Ponder train at this point. Got stick this year out and see if he runs with it - or runs away from it. But I'm a lot more concerned about Ponder than I was four games ago.

      I don't get much time to watch college football, so I have no feelings on the QB class coming out this year. I did watch Barkley a bit in USC's loss against Stanford. He didn't play all that well and didn't look like he had an overly strong arm, either. Apparently there's some QB at KState who is ripping it up this year? Klein's his name or something?

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    2. From what I understand, the three qbs who might get first round grades include Barkley, West Virginia's Geno Smith, and Arkansas's Tyler Wilson. Smith can put up arcade level numbers and throws a beautiful deep ball, but he 's also shown an inanity to put out fires when things aren't going well. There are also concerns about his system (he plays for a Mike Leach disciple) .

      Wilson's a bit of a gun slinger (not necessarily a pejorative term in my book, I like playmaker qbs and will accept some risk for reward.) He produces in the SEC and has a strong arm and solid athleticism. He also missed the Alabama game with a concussion and then threw his entire team under the bus after they were crushed...so yeah. I still think he 's intruiging, though. Stylistically, he 's definitely closed to the Favre /Cutler type than a, say, Matt Ryan. (And at the very least, the Vikings must have liked something about the Arkansas passing offends as they drafted two of their receivers) .

      But at any rate, this isn't a Luck /RGIII type bumper crop. I don 't expect they 'll draft a Qb early, barring a huge second half skid bad enough ghat people who may be tied to Ponder are let go. Buy as I said, I 'd like to see them bring in a McCoy type to compete.

      -jianfu

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    3. I'm not really interested in them bringing in a McCoy-type to compete with Ponder if it comes to that. Might as well see what Webb or MBT can do with the snaps if you're going to acquire another backup type with "potential". Webb's flawed but he's done some good things when called upon and Bethel-Thompson has a hell of an arm.

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    4. Jianfu, I only know what "pejorative" means thanks to the Simpsons. A chanting angry mob labels Homer "great", and the clarifies:

      " 'Great', meaning large or immense
      We use it in the pejorative sense"

      I thought Ponder looked improved in the first half on Thursday over the previous three games. I saw him step into the pocket and have a few well-placed throws slip through receivers' hands. It's too bad those weren't caught or he could've gotten some nice confidence going. I know all QBs have drops, but the timing of those could be very unfortunate for his career.

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