Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

January, 7, 2013
1/07/13
10:00
AM ET
After the Minnesota Vikings' 24-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    As we've already discussed, quarterback Christian Ponder's late-season surge almost certainly cemented his status as the Vikings' 2013 starter. Given the poor crop of quarterback prospects in the draft and limited options in free agency, it would be an upset if coach Leslie Frazier doesn't commit to Ponder for 2013. The depth behind Ponder, however, is a different story. Backup Joe Webb deserves a partial pass given the unprecedented position he was put in Saturday night. As we've noted, never before had a quarterback made a postseason start without throwing a single pass during the regular season. Some rustiness was to be expected, and we've seen Webb have much sharper passing games in his career. It is also impossible to defend offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's decision to get away from the kind of read-option plays Webb seemed comfortable running. On the other hand, the job of a backup quarterback is to be effective in unexpected and often adverse situations. He must be relatively sharp with little practice. Webb, who has three years of experience in this role, was not. You have to think there is a way to incorporate his exceptional, if narrow, skill set into the offense, but he is probably miscast as a traditional No. 2 quarterback. Filling that job should be among the Vikings' offseason priorities.
  2. The Vikings claimed to be mulling three players with their No. 1 draft pick last spring: Left tackle Matt Kalil, cornerback Morris Claiborne and receiver Justin Blackmon. Kalil was the right choice. His Pro Bowl-quality season helped stabilize the Vikings' pass protection, and their sack per dropback rate fell from 8.8 percent in 2011 (No. 25 in the NFL) to 6.2 (No. 16). However, the Vikings still have needs at the positions Claiborne and Blackmon play. Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield's full season was a surprise, but he will be 36 when training camp begins. Chris Cook's third NFL season was interrupted by a broken wrist, but even when healthy he was inconsistent. Rookie Josh Robinson showed promise but faded late in the season. At receiver, the Vikings had no downfield threat to pair with Percy Harvin, a liability they recognized and didn't try to force. Their passing offense ranked No. 30 in the NFL in yards per dropback (5.34) and last in air yards (6.43).
  3. You could write a book on the meaning and implications of tailback Adrian Peterson's historic season. Some would suggest we saw a rebirth of the running game and a demonstration of how it can carry a team to the playoffs. I tend to look at it the other way. Peterson had one of the best seasons in league history for a running back and the Vikings still needed a victory in their last game to clinch the NFC's final wild-card spot. In this case, and with most 2,000-yard rushers in league history, the impact was capped. Of the five years in which a 2,000-yard rusher's team has made the playoffs, only one brought a postseason victory: Terrell Davis with the Denver Broncos in 1998. An imbalanced offense, whether it falls too far toward the running or passing game, is limiting.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
I don't understand the suggestion that Ponder should have "toughed out" his injury. From the best that I can tell, the decision wasn't based on pain tolerance. It was a matter of function. Ponder's bruised triceps was so tight he couldn't throw more than 15 yards. I saw his pregame warmup. Unless the whole thing was a conspiratorial ruse, Ponder could not have played anywhere close to effectively. If you think Ponder at 50 percent would have been better than Webb at 100 percent, you're missing the point. The quality of the backup, or lack thereof, shouldn't have bearing on the decision. They are two separate issues. Sunday's debacle at FedEx Field illustrates how short-sighted the tough guy mentality can be. Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III played with an injury that dramatically reduced his effectiveness. It hurt his team and played a big role in its season-ending loss.

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