It was barely three minutes into the Thursday Night Football game at the Mall of America Field, and the Minnesota Vikings — the 5-2 Vikings, nipping at the heels of the Chicago Bears in the NFC North, getting plenty of votes as the NFL’s biggest 2012 surprise — were already stinking it up. Their offense had a quick three-and-out to start the game, then got the ball back after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had their own three-and-out.
On second-and-five approaching midfield, Christian Ponder took the snap and looked to his left. He saw wide receiver Jerome Simpson, and maybe a bit of daylight. Ponder took his shot, lofting a throw deep down the sideline — and at that exact moment, Simpson spun on a dime and turned for the short, quick throw that never came.
For a moment, it was a bit stunning, the boos raining down on the home team so early in the game. What did these Vikings fans want from a team that went 3-13 last year, a team with an unproven coach, an unproven quarterback and a star running back who’d torn two knee ligaments 10 months before?
Playoff talk was humming through the North Star State halfway into the season. Wasn’t that enough reason for optimism, especially in a state that confronts even its eternal winters with a sunny disposition?
It turns out the fatalistic fans of this franchise (see: NFL-record four Super Bowl losses next to zero Super Bowl wins) were right. That moment of miscommunication between quarterback and receiver seemed to be the moment when they resigned themselves to the fact that, yes, something bad was about to happen.
Something bad did happen. The Vikings’ lost any of that early-season momentum in a 36-17 home-field butt-whooping at the hands of the Buccaneers.
It took the birth of what might be a new NFL star — the Buccaneers rookie running back Doug Martin rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 79 yards and another touchdown – and the continuing impressive play of Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman to let the 2012 Vikings reveal themselves, once and for all.
It turns out the Vikings are a nice surprise after a miserable 2011, but not some worst-to-first story that makes a GM’s career. A team that opened eyes in the NFL early in the season with an upset of the San Francisco 49ers, but a team that had an embarrassing seven three-and-outs against a Buccaneers pass defense that ranked 31st in the NFL going into the game. A team with some of the most dynamic players in the game — running back Adrian Peterson, do-it-all man Percy Harvin, sack king Jared Allen — but with a fatal flaw.
After the game, Peterson was asked if there was one thing that could turn this offense into a playoff-caliber team.
“Just being more balanced,” he responded.
Peterson was being too kind. He was speaking locker-room-ese after yet another Canton-caliber game (15 rushes for 123 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown gallop in the third quarter). So was head coach Leslie Frazier, who answered questions of the team’s struggles with this: “No particular weakness. There are going to be some games where you don’t play well.”
It is obvious, though, what the Vikings problem is.
Christian Ponder does not, at this point, look like a championship-caliber quarterback. A team that wins a championship without a championship-caliber quarterback is as rare as an autumn in Minneapolis without snow. (Thursday happened to be the Twin Cities’ first snowfall of the season.)
Instead of a championship-caliber quarterback, what Ponder looks like is … former Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson.
Minnesota fans may shiver at the thought. Not long ago, Jackson was considered the only thing holding the Vikings back. And sure enough, in 2009, the first season in a while with a championship-caliber quarterback at the helm, the Vikings were a Brett Favre interception away from a Super Bowl.
Yet Ponder, whose shoulders carry the future of this franchise, seems like a Jackson clone.
In his career with the Vikings, Jackson started 20 games. The Vikings went 10-10 in those games. Jackson completed just shy of 60 percent of his passes, for 24 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
In his first 18 starts with the Vikings, Christian Ponder has led his team to a 7-11 record. He has completed just shy of 60 percent of his passes, for 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
Even if this team had won Thursday and entered the mid-point of the season at an easy-schedule-inflated 6-2, it still would have been considered an uphill battle to make the playoffs. Its second-half schedule is brutal: two against Chicago, two against Green Bay, at Houston and next weekend at a resurgent Seattle.
Let’s be fair: It’s not as if Ponder played terribly on Thursday. Sure, he was awful in the first quarter, completing 1-of-6 passes for 4 yards (and that after a second half on Sunday where he completed 1-of07 for 4 yards). But he showed some promising flashes as the game wore on, including a beautiful pass over Harvin’s shoulder to the corner of the end zone in the second quarter for an 18-yard touchdown.
Maybe, with time, these flashes will become consistent brilliance.
But the fact remains: This was a winnable game against a beatable team. With the Vikings’ formidable second-half schedule staring them in the face, this was also a game they needed to win. It was a game where a great quarterback could have ridden Peterson and Harvin and picked the right moments to excel.
Standing at the postgame podium, Ponder congratulated himself at being better at getting the ball down the field. He said the three-and-outs were frustrating. He said he needed to look at the game film to see why the offense wasn’t clicking.
Then he said this: “It comes down to me. I have to play better. I think that’s obvious to everyone.”
What’s not as obvious is how long a franchise can be crippled by its inability to find a franchise quarterback.