Christian Ponder (Andy King/Getty)
This weekend of playoff games showed the importance of being able to keep up with potent offenses, and that means having a quarterback that can keep pace. Can Christian Ponder be that guy? We might not know until the end of 2013.
It may be time to officially kill the mantra that “defense wins championships.” If this weekend’s playoff games taught us anything, it’s that the NFL is becoming more an offensive pinball game than the frozen tundra playoff games of generations past.
It can still be argued that the teams with the best defenses in the league can maintain success over a series of seasons. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago and the New York Giants have been able to enjoy sustained success on the strength of a solid defense, but it is becoming more and more clear that the NFL game is being changed and offense is now the unquestioned king.
In the divisional round of the playoffs, the most defensive-minded game was Atlanta’s 30-28 win over Seattle. Those two teams combined to score a mere 58 points. New England and Houston scored 69 points. Baltimore and Denver combined to score 73 points. Green Bay and San Francisco scored 76. If defense wins championships, it doesn’t win divisional playoff games, where the eight teams averaged 34.5 points over the weekend.
The process of the transfer of defenses winning championships to offenses setting the tone goes back almost 40 years. Jerry Burns and Fran Tarkenton were running a West Coast Offense in Minnesota in the mid-1970s before Bill Walsh gave it a cool name. The 1998 Vikings didn’t have a great defense, but didn’t need one up until the Atlanta game in the NFC Championship. The 1999 Rams won a Super Bowl with the Greatest Show on Turf, not a shut-down defense.
Changes in the rules to protect players and take away defensive liberties have marginalized defenses to a large extent – by design.
In the first round of the playoffs, where tired teams didn’t have a week to rest up and prepare for their next opponent, no team scored more than 24 points. Teams averaged 17 points a game, not 34.5. Whether divisional round weekend of the 2012 season was an anomaly or not, it sent a clear message to a league based on replication what is required to succeed in the NFL, especially in the postseason – a quarterback who can get the job done one way or another.
The eight teams that played had a couple of veteran gunslingers (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady), a couple of pinpoint passers who can extend plays (Aaron Rodgers and Matt Schaub), a couple of cannon-armed QBs from run-first teams (Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco) and a couple of wide-eyed young scramblers (Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson).
In one weekend, you can pretty much sum up what every NFL team is looking to as their options at quarterback. There are the veteran gunslingers who have been around for a long time – add Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers, Michael Vick and Carson Palmer to that list with Manning and Brady. They may be an endangered species, but their numbers remain strong.
You have some dart throwers in Andy Dalton, Sam Bradford and Matt Cassel, but none of them inspire confidence in being able to make a legitimate Super Bowl run.
There are the young guns with the cannon arms like Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck and Josh Freeman. When you have a QB with a significant gun, anything can happen, so there is reason for optimism.
The growing trend is to go with the mobile quarterback capable of making big plays with his legs or his arm. Two years ago, the only quarterback who fit that description was Vick. Kaepernick and Wilson could have just as easily been meeting next Sunday due to the performances they put in over the weekend. Both made huge plays with their legs against defenses ill-equipped to stop them. They are joined by Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III as the new QB faces of the NFC and a trend that is only likely going to grow as long as those guys succeed and stay healthy.
So where do the Vikings sit on that list? Is Ponder among those other young NFC quarterbacks that can make plays with his legs and force defenses to remain honest? Is he going to be a dart-thrower like Dalton and Bradford? Is his problem as a quarterback in a pass-happy league that he simply doesn’t have enough receiving weapons around him? That could be the burning question of early 2013 as the Vikings move forward. He has a pair of dynamic receivers under contract (Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph) and may be just one playmaking wide receiver away from having the needed weaponry to elevate to the next level of quarterbacks.
The formula for success in the NFL, whether with the new breed of young quarterbacks that are spreading throughout the league – a third of the league is heading into 2013 with players with one or two years of NFL experience as their likely starting quarterbacks – or the veteran guys with their battle scars, the key is committing to one guy and staying with him. Veterans only become veterans because a franchise stuck with him – for better or worse.
The Vikings did everything they could to make Ponder comfortable in knowing that his job was never in jeopardy. They got rid of the only veteran QB on the roster (Sage Rosenfels) and made it clear that Joe Webb was his backup, which is why Webb never threw a meaningful pass until the playoffs – and made a strong case that he isn’t a viable in-house option to complete for the starting job.
The Vikings have to decide over the course of the next year whether Ponder can be the player they envisioned when they drafted him in 2011. He earned the right to be Option A in 2013 with his performance in December, leading his team to a 4-0 record and into the playoffs.
At a time when a lot of teams have already locked down their quarterback plans for 2013, the Vikings are one of the few teams that, in the mind of outside observers anyway, still have questions at that position. This offseason may be the most critical of Ponder’s career. If he succeeds in 2013, the starting job is likely his for as long as he remains a Viking. If he fails, the experiment may have the plug pulled, much like it was with Tarvaris Jackson when it became clear the team was winning in spite of him, not because of him.
In his first full season as the starting quarterback, Ponder won enough games to get his team into the playoffs. There aren’t too many complaints coming from Vikings Nation on that count. But can he be like one of those eight quarterbacks who played over the weekend in the wild scoring frenzy that took place? If he can, the Vikings made the right decision. If he can’t, the team may have to begin the process of how to land a successor. If ever there was an official changing of the guard when it comes to the style of play that wins in the NFL, the landscape in 2013 shows that having a playmaking quarterback appears to be a must. Is Ponder that guy? Check back in December. We’ll have a lot more answers than we have now.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.