JAY DAVIS: Two passes first game, so what?
I cannot believe all the hoopla that has surrounded the Vikings after third-year quarterback Christian Ponder played just one series and threw only two passes in the team’s first preseason game on Friday.
For the record, Ponder threw one completion and one interception. The pass that was picked off was a bit overthrown, but receiver Jerome Simpson did not do much of his job on the play.
After the turnover, Ponder and the entire starting offense came out of the game. The “entire” offense came out. That’s what the haters are missing. Football is the most overly dissected sport there is, so folks have to practice at not being blind with their eyes wide open.
Some folks seem to want to think that there is a quarterback battle, even a quarterback controversy, being played out this preseason. Sportswriters for the St. Paul Pioneer have conjectured that backup Matt Cassel saw as much action as he did because the Vikings want to be prepared to pull the plug on Ponder should he falter early in the season.
It is hard to figure out why there is so much doubt already for a young man who is just growing up as a starter. In case you all have forgotten, Ponder was ranked right with the best quarterbacks in the league last year until Percy Harvin got injured. Yes, he did struggle for a while after his only quality wide receiver went down, but then again, he was left with a top tight end in Kyle Rudolph and a bunch of third-rate receivers. Only a true egomaniac could have kept his confidence at its very best.
Ponder recovered to help the Vikings finish the season with an unlikely four-game winning streak that gave the team a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. Sure, some cat named Adrian Peterson had something to do with it to, but this is not about Purple Jesus.
Here is a little known stat. Ponder finished the league ranked seventh in third-and-long situations. Those are plays where the team is facing third down and seven yards or longer to go. They are must-pass situations. You know who finished ahead of him? Guys like Peyton Manning. You know who finished behind him? Guys like Eli Manning.
Okay, enough of the “you guys quit picking on Ponder” talk. Here is the reason Ponder played just one series and threw just two passes on Friday. The Vikings are the only team in the NFL in which the entire offense line is back intact. Phil Loadholt, Brandon Fusco, John Sullivan, Charlie Johnson and Matt Kalil are healthy and ready to rock. They did not need to be on the field. The guys who will back them up (and challenge them for jobs) needed to be on the field. A smart NFL coach does not put his quarterback on the field with the back-up players, and Leslie Frazier is a smart NFL coach.
Sure, there is a battle at wide receiver, but not really when you look at it. Greg Jennings, fresh from Green Bay, will start. Rookie Cordarell Patterson and Jerome Simpson will run deep. Jarius Wright will work the slot. That really leaves just the fifth receiver spot open for a battle and that is between Stephen Burton and former quarterback Joe Webb. Unless the Vikings decide they can sacrifice a player at another position, one of those two will have to be gone.
Personally, I’m cheering for Webb to make it as a long shot. He showed on Friday that he can catch and that he can put linebackers on their butts, but he’s only been a wide out for a few weeks.
The defense, they do have one by the way, is just about set, too. The defensive line is deep and talented. The backfield started showing a lot of progress last year. If first round draft choice Xavier Rhodes is big enough (6’1”, 215), quick enough and talented enough to defend some of the big wide outs in the NFC North, the backfield will take another step forward. The linebackers are always in flux it seems lately. We’ll see if Erin Henderson can make the jump to middle linebacker. With Chad Greenway holding down one side, the Vikings will find a player or two to play the other side.
We’ll see a lot more of Ponder and the starting teams over the next two weeks. I hope I am right when I say that the Vikings are just fine at quarterback. In fact, I think they will be a pretty good football team again this year. They might be better than they were last year. But we are a long way from seeing if that will translate into another postseason run.