EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Early in training camp, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said he and his coaches had been discussing how different the team’s offense looks from last year’s training camp to this year.
Frazier has said there is no comparison between this season and last, when the league was coming off of a lockout and Minnesota had a new offensive coordinator in Bill Musgrave. The Vikings are entering a second year with Musgrave at the controls, an offseason to prepare and no questions at quarterback, with Christian Ponder beginning his second season in the league. The relief could be seen on Frazier’s face as he answered a question about the offense’s competency.
“It’s a big deal,” Frazier said smiling. “That’s an understatement.”
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Through two preseason games, the changes are evident in the performance of the first-team offense. Though the starters have struggled to get into the end zone, they’ve ended each of their five offensive possessions in scoring territory. With Ponder at quarterback for five series, Minnesota has produced one touchdown and three field goals, the only missed opportunity coming last Friday when rookie kicker Blair Walsh missed a 49-yard kick.
The Vikings, operating without star running back Adrian Peterson, have also had some big plays. Ponder’s first pass of the preseason went for 52 yards to backup receiver Stephen Burton. Last Friday, three of Ponder’s 10 completions went for at least 21 yards as he hooked up with receivers Percy Harvin (21 yards), Jerome Simpson (33) and Michael Jenkins (35). In two games, Ponder has a 63.6 percent completion rate and 111.2 quarterback rating.
“In the three drives we had, we moved the ball pretty well and were definitely building our confidence,” Ponder said Monday about Friday’s game. “You can take everything with a grain of salt. This is preseason. We haven’t really schemed anybody. They haven’t schemed us. Obviously, we’d rather play a lot better than not playing well. But there’s still a lot of things on film that we’ve got to work on and adjust, and play better. It’s a good start. We’re playing well, but it’s not good enough yet.”
Last year, the offense looked out of sync from the very beginning of the season while working with Musgrave for the first time. With Peterson and backup Toby Gerhart running well, the Vikings finished fourth in the league in rushing, but they were 28th in passing and 19th in scoring.
So, Minnesota went about addressing needs in the offseason, overhauling the offensive line and bringing in two key targets for Ponder. The Vikings drafted Matt Kalil to the be franchise left tackle, moved last year’s left tackle Charlie Johnson to left guard and opened the right guard competition.
They also added Simpson and tight end John Carlson to second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph and Harvin. Minnesota entered training camp believing it could finally compete with the high-powered offenses in the NFC North, such as Green Bay and Detroit.
“I think this offense can be something special,” Gerhart said. “I think on the ground last year we did fairly well. I don’t remember where we ranked NFLwise, but we want to be No. 1. And adding Kalil a big guy like that protecting Ponder’s blind side and adding Jerome, a big play threat that’s really going to open up the defense is really going to help us out. I think the playmakers being comfortable in the system, I think this offense has a chance to be dynamic and put up some points.”
Vikings players have noted that having a season of experience in Musgrave’s system makes a big difference.
“Coach asks a question, me and guys in the room can stand up and speak the answer out,” Harvin said earlier in training camp. “Last year, people were studdering and guys didn’t know the answers. But this year, everything seems crisp. So, we’re just going to keep working and working and hopefully get a better result than last year.”
Musgrave believes he has versatility with all of the new pieces as well. There is a strong running game with Gerhart and Peterson, when he returns. Simpson provides a deep threat. Harvin is an all-around playmaker, and Rudolph and Carlson can work the middle of the field.
The offense still could take time to jell, though. Simpson has flashed his ability but is suspended for three games. Carlson still hasn’t returned since spraining a knee ligament July 31.
In the end, the offensive progress will come down to Ponder’s development. After working with Ponder all offseason, Musgrave calls the difference in his quarterback “night and day.”
In reality, it’s that way for the entire offense.
“It’s night and day of just knowing what we’re doing,” Johnson said. “Being able to step on the field Day 1 and know the plays that are being called. And to have an understanding of what to do, that helps, obviously. It’s to be determined on what type of results we’re going to have, but it’s been a little easier coming out to practice.”