If the result from Thursday night’s game looked and felt all too familiar, it should have. Not necessarily the score, but the way things went on offense.
It was a different offensive coordinator and head coach, but the Vikings made the same mistake they did with a quarterback who just wasn’t accomplish and comfortable enough in the passing game. Package all the criticism of Christian Ponder you want and how the Vikings shouldn’t have drafted him in the first round in 2011. They can’t undo that, and they had no choice but to start Ponder after the season-ending injury to Matt Cassel and short-term ankle injury to Teddy Bridgewater, but the use of Ponder Thursday night was confounding.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said Ponder didn’t look comfortable in the pocket. Ponder said he was comfortable with the game plan and ready to go. Both are familiar scenes for Vikings fans. Ponder rarely has looked comfortable in the pocket and his return to the post-game podium to try to make sense of another bad performance seemed like Groundhog’s Day.
It shouldn’t have taken much film – game film or from summer practices – to see what Ponder does best. It’s the same thing that Joe Webb does best. Use their athletic talents as part of the running game and the Vikings might have stood a chance to sustain some drives Thursday night at Lambeau, just like they did on Jan. 5, 2013.
The Vikings had the interesting experience of playing the Green Bay Packers on back-to-back weeks then. In the regular-season finale, Ponder had the best game of his career, throwing for 234 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
He finished the game with a deep triceps bruise and couldn’t lift his throwing arm much above his head during the week. When he came out for warmups at Lambeau Field to test the arm, it was apparent he couldn’t do much. Never blessed with a strong arm to start, the injury limited him to barely being able to throw 10 yards downfield.
That’s when the Vikings made the decision to go with Webb. For one drive, it looked like they were taking advantage of his strengths. They weren’t going to count to Webb’s limited ability to read defenses and throw the ball around the yard … or so it looked. On the first drive, Webb handed the ball off to Adrian Peterson six times for 31 yards. Webb also kept the ball twice for 22 yards. The Vikings drove 53 yards in 10 plays, give Webb the chance to throw only one third-and-7 pass inside the red zone – an incompletion – before settling for a 33-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead. It would be their only lead of the game.
Webb ran once more on the Vikings’ next drive, and it produced their only first down. But, for some unknown reason, then-offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave decided to move away from relying on Webb’s legs and put trust in his arm. Webb finished with seven rushes for 68 yards – a whopping 9.7-yard average, but with far too few opportunities. His opening drive to produce a field goal would be the only points the Vikings scored in a 24-10 loss until less than four minutes remained. He completed only 11 of 30 passes, was sacked three times, had that touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter and produced a paltry 54.9 passer rating.
After the 10-play drive to start the game, the Viking didn’t have a drive longer than six plays in the game besides an 11-play drive at the start of the second half that ended with a fumble.
Less than two years later, the new coaching staff must have learned nothing from that Lambeau letdown in the playoffs. They likely never watched it, but someone should have told them about that and how the old coaching staff might have at least made a game out of it if they played to Webb’s strengths for more than one drive – their only scoring drive of the first 56 minutes of the game.
Ponder has had more opportunities to show what he can do since then, but he’s never come close to the passing performance against Green Bay in the Metrodome that put the Vikings in the playoffs and gave Webb the playoff start. On Dec. 30, 2012, he completed 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 120.2 rating. Unfortunately for him, that’s as good as he has ever been. It was good enough to have general manager Rick Spielman and the coaching staff say Ponder would be the unquestioned starter for 2013. That lasted three games, as injury and ineffectiveness ended two starting stints for him.
What should have been learned since his Week 17 performance in 2012 is that he still doesn’t look comfortable in the pocket, that he might never get there, and that his greatest strength is his legs.
But against the Packers on Thursday night, Turner and the coaching staff still tried to make him a pocket passer. There was no read option, or even the look of it, that was so effective with Bridgewater, who isn’t the runner that Ponder is. There weren’t naked bootlegs to get Ponder out in space, where he is much more comfortable. Instead, they played to Ponder’s weakness – the pocket – and the results were too predictable.
Maybe the Vikings wouldn’t have won Thursday night anyway with a crew that was shorthanded on talent because of injuries and legal problems. Maybe they wouldn’t have won in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, either. But asking quarterbacks like Webb and Ponder, who are both better with their feet than their arm, is just asking for failure.
They asked for it, they got it.
Sunday slant: Game plan looked too familiar
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