Minnesota Vikings: 4 Burning Questions Team Must Answer in Week 4
Last season, the Minnesota Vikings surprised a lot of the NFL world by coming out of the gate 5-2. The team finished the season 10-6, and many fans thought that it was the beginning of a dominant run in Minnesota.
What a difference a year makes. Expectations were higher for the 2013 version of the Vikings. Fans wanted the team to build off of last year's success, and felt that general manager Rick Spielman and his staff had made some savvy roster moves. Many fans thought that the Vikings were primed to challenge the Green Bay Packers for dominance in the NFC North.
Thus far, none of those dreams has become a reality. The Vikings have stumbled out of the gate 0-3, and things are looking pretty grim. Both the offense and defense have struggled, and the team's lack of depth in several areas, most obviously the defensive backfield, has kept the squad winless.
Why have things started out so poorly? After Sunday's stunning loss to a depleted Cleveland Browns squad, there are more questions than answers. Click on to read four burning questions the Vikings must answer in Week 4.
*all statistics courtesy of Pro-Football Reference.com unless otherwise noted
Time to Pull the Plug on Ponder?
Coming into the season, one of the biggest questions for the Vikings was whether Christian Ponder would be the team's quarterback of the future.
So far, the answer to that question appears to be a resounding "No."
After three weeks, Ponder is the 30th-rated quarterback in the NFL. He's committed seven turnovers (five interceptions and two fumbles) and has produced four touchdowns (two running, two passing). As a point of reference, Ponder's current rating of 65.9 is roughly half that of league-leader, Peyton Manning.
While numbers don't always tell the whole story, Ponder's statistics seem to be a result of many factors that are easy for fans to spot.
Ponder has displayed poor pocket presence. At times, he seems to have almost no idea what he wants to do when he drops back. He struggles to set his feet, and he has actually been more effective while throwing on the move than while standing in the pocket.
Ponder also appears to lock on to his first read and to throw to that primary receiver regardless of what the coverage dictates. This was particularly evident in Week 2, when Ponder's inability to check down caused him to force a pass to the sidelines. That ball was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Chicago's Tim Jennings.
Last Sunday's game against Cleveland highlighted Ponder's poor decision-making. Trailing by four points with 47 seconds left in the game, Ponder dropped back to pass. When his outside receivers failed to break open, Ponder flipped the ball into the middle of the field. This resulted in a four-yard gain and allowed the clock to continue running.
In that situation, there were a number of things that Ponder could have done. Almost any of them would have been preferable to what he actually did. He could have thrown the ball out of bounds to stop the clock. He could have run for as much yardage as possible, angling for the sideline as he went (Cleveland had seven players about 35 yards downfield at the time). If nothing else, he could have thrown the ball to the sideline where only his receiver could catch it. Instead, he made the worst decision possible.
While a lot of observers put the blame for the loss mostly on Ponder's shoulders, at least one player isn't so sure. According to Bruce Brothers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Ponder still MVP Adrian Peterson squarely in his corner. Peterson chastised the fans for their displeasure with the young quarterback.
While Peterson still believes in Ponder, Tom Powers of the Pioneer Press says that Vikings fans aren't as forgiving.
"Ponder, never first in the hearts of the Vikings faithful, has become the poster child for the team's lousy start. To paraphrase an old joke about Howard Cosell: There's no middle ground with regard to how people feel about Christian Ponder. Half of them hate him like poison. The other half just hates him regular."
It seems that Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is starting to feel the heat. The team announced on Wednesday that Ponder injured his ribs during the Cleveland game, and will be limited in practice for the remainder of the week. According to the team's timeline, Ponder was injured before he rushed for two scores in the game, and was able to finish.
This is only speculation, but if Peyton Manning had the same type of injury as Ponder does, it's most likely that he would be on the field Sunday. Look for the Vikings to use Ponder's ailment as a reason to give Matt Cassel a chance.
The Vikings don't need Ponder to win games for them. They just need him to stop losing them.
Are Frazier and Company Overmatched?
In each of their three games this season, the Vikings have been slow to start (with the exception of Cordarrelle Patterson's touchdown return of the opening kickoff against Chicago). The team has improved in the second half each week, but it hasn't been able to dig out of its first-half hole.
That late-game improvement hasn't carried over to the start of the next game. The team seems to come out flat each week. It shouldn't take an NFL team 30 minutes to get into a contest.
That all goes back to coaching. Making halftime adjustments is admirable. However, if the team were properly prepared in the first place, fewer adjustments might be needed.
One of the most glaring signs of coaching inadequacy on Sunday came when the Browns TWICE fooled the Vikings with two fakes that took place within five minutes of each other during the second quarter.
The first fake came out of a punting formation. Defensive back Josh Aubrey took a direct snap and rumbled 34 yards for a first down. The Browns eventually kicked a field goal to cap off the drive and take a 17-14 lead. (Aubrey's run made him Cleveland's leading rusher on the day.)
While it might be somewhat understandable to fall for one trick play, the Vikings were duped again on the Browns' very next possession.
This time, punter Spencer Lanning, in to hold for a field-goal attempt, popped up and threw an 11-yard touchdown strike to tight end Jordan Cameron. That score put Cleveland up 24-14.
Cameron jogged slowly onto the field to start the play, and stayed split out wide. Shouldn't someone on the Vikings staff have noticed that a receiver was split wide in a field-goal formation? If a Minnesota coach had called time out, the Browns likely would have called off the fake and kicked a field goal in that situation. That would have left the Vikings in a better situation at the end of the game.
There were other questionable coaching decisions.
Leslie Frazier attempted to challenge an official's ruling that Cleveland muffed a punt, and the Vikings weren't allowed to advance the ball. Since all turnovers are automatically reviewed, there was no reason to issue the challenge. It's also curious that Frazier apparently didn't know that you couldn't advance a muffed punt to begin with, a rule that's been on the books for decades.
For challenging a play that automatically comes under review, the Vikings were (incorrectly) penalized 15 yards on the play. (In fairness, the team should have only been charged a time out for the violation.)
In another instance, Ponder dropped back to pass in the end zone, and threw the ball just past the outstretched fingertips of a wide-open Joe Webb in the end zone. Granted, the pass wasn't a good one, but an established NFL wide receiver would most likely have caught the ball. Webb, a converted quarterback never came close. It's tough to understand why Webb, and not Cordarrelle Patterson or a full-fledged receiver wasn't the target on the play.
Frazier and his staff are to be lauded for the professionalism and harmony they bring to the organization. However, they need to do a much better job of creating and executing game plans on a weekly basis.
What's the Deal with Chris Cook?
The saga of Vikings cornerback Chris Cook is somewhat similar to that of Christian Ponder. Cook was drafted out of Virginia in the second round of the 2010 draft. Like Ponder, the team seems married to the idea that Cook can be a standout player at his position, despite what seems to be a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
One of the biggest problems with Cook is durability. He's got good size for a cornerback, standing 6'2" and weighing 212 pounds. But for all of that size, Cook is frequently injured. He's never played an entire season in his NFL career. His high watermark for games played is 10 in 2012. It seems unthinkable that the team would invest so much hope in a player who typically misses more games than he plays. Cook has appeared in only 22 of a possible 51 games in his career prior to this season.
Even when he's on the field, Cook doesn't make big plays. He has yet to intercept a pass in the NFL. Nor has he forced or recovered a fumble. Even taking into account his numerous absences, Cook has played in over a season's worth of NFL games without creating a turnover.
He's also accumulated just 84 tackles and one sack over the course of 25 total games. That's fewer than four tackles per game. Even for a cornerback, that's not much.
Many fans became disenchanted with Cook when he was involved in some off-field controversy in 2011. He was ultimately acquitted of domestic-assault charges. But off-field headaches aside, Cook hasn't given the team or its fans any reason to expect stellar play.
Even Cook seems to realize that he has a lot to prove as he finishes out the last year of his rookie contract. In an interview with ESPN 1500's Judd Zulgad, Cook said that its paramount for him to prove that he can be a dependable presence in the Vikings secondary:
It's frustrating but I'm blessed to still be able to do what I love to do and I can't look back on my past. You have to move forward at some point...I feel like this is an important year. I just have to go out there and stay on the field. That's the biggest thing for me is just to show that I can stay on the field more than 10 games, 11-12 games. Show that I can finish out a season and finish it out healthy.
The injury bug bit Cook again on Sunday. He suffered a groin injury in the first quarter against Cleveland, and his absence was felt. Browns third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer torched the depleted Vikings secondary for 325 yards and three touchdowns.
Cook missed Wednesday's practice, as Minnesota began preparations for this Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in London.
At some point, the Vikings need to realize that Cook simply isn't dependable. Instead of cutting veteran cornerbacks like Antoine Winfield (admittedly an injury risk himself), they should be trying to fortify a woefully thin secondary.
It's becoming clear that, like Ponder, Cook simply isn't the answer for this squad.
Time to Make Some Trades?
It may seem like heresy to some, but maybe it's time for the Vikings to start thinking more about the future than the current season.
Since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams in 1990, only three NFL teams have managed to make the postseason after starting 0-3. Minnesota hasn't done anything to indicate that the Vikings will be the fourth.
There is a young talent base on the team. Players like Harrison Smith, Matt Kalil, Cordarrelle Patterson, Sharif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes have, to varying degrees, shown potential to be longtime stars in the league. The team also has relatively young players like Everson Griffen, John Sullivan and Kyle Rudolph making big-time contributions.
Maybe its time to see what some of the current Minnesota veterans could bring on the trade market.
Jared Allen would be a big get for a contending team that needs a pass-rusher. The same could be said for defensive end Brian Robison. Both are free agents after this year, and it might behoove the Vikings to get something for them now instead of hoping that they'll be able to retain them as free agents (or, in Allen's case, simply letting him move on).
It might even be time to ponder the unthinkable. Adrian Peterson is in the prime of his career, but he's a running back. The shelf life for ball-carriers in the NFL is very short, and there's no telling how long AP will continue to perform at an otherworldly level.
Since it appears evident that the Vikings won't be contending for a Super Bowl anytime soon, it might be best for both the squad and Peterson to take a look at his market value. A team on the brink of a championship, like the Denver Broncos might be a great fit for Peterson. He'd give them a dynamic running game and still wouldn't be the only viable weapon in the arsenal.
Trading Peterson could net the Vikings a bevy of picks, and prolong his career. Right now, he's facing eight and nine-man fronts on virtually every play. He's taking a tremendous pounding, and even Peterson can't last forever in that type of situation.
Perhaps it's time to close the book on 2013, and try to load up on future picks to strengthen future squads.
Remember the Herschel Walker trade? Dallas went from doormats to three-time champs by jettisoning a great running back in the prime of his career. It sure would be nice to be on the other end of a deal like that.
Would the Vikings Be Better off Tanking the Rest of the Season?
As an extension of the previous slide, it might be a good idea for the Vikings to turn 2012 into an extended training camp instead of trying to win the NFC North.
There's a precedent for this approach in NFL history. The Indianapolis Colts, suddenly without quarterback Peyton Manning in 2011, decided to play out the string. They managed two wins and "earned" the top pick in the 2012 draft. That pick turned into Andrew Luck, who led the Colts into the playoffs as a rookie and has the team off to a 2-1 start this year.
It's becoming increasingly clear that Christian Ponder isn't the long-term answer at quarterback. In the modern NFL, good quarterback play is a requirement if a team wants to win a championship. Next year's quarterback class is being touted as one of the deepest in recent history with Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Tajh Boyd of Clemson, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M amongst the likely first-round talent.
In order to snare one of these top-flight signal-callers, the Vikings will likely need to draft in the top 10. While there's every indication that they might land there even while trying to win, the team could ensure a top pick by "getting a good look at our young guys" for the rest of this season.
While it might seem treasonous to say it, fans of the Vikings should probably root for the team to lose every week. Swallowing a bitter pill this year may let Minnesota become a dominant force in years to come.
Have some questions of your own? Something here get under your skin? Speak your mind in the comments section below.
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