NFL preseason proves next to nothing
MINNEAPOLIS – Following sports is a practice built on impatience. No one wants the necessary buildup. No one wants to wonder. We want consensus, and we want it now. We want to know who will be a star and who's lost his edge, and we want to base those assessments on just a handful of games and a few fleeting moments.
Impatience is cured in the NFL's regular season, sometimes too fast as teams become quickly polarized into haves and have-nots. But impatience has no place in preseason football. Preseason football is where consensus goes to die, and that was never clearer than on Friday night in the Metrodome, when the Vikings sputtered to a 12-10 loss to the Chargers.
An offense that had a week ago been on point was sloppy. A team that had seemed capable of miracles – Audie Cole, anyone? – appeared doomed to amateur foibles. A defense that had been shaky looked masterful, but it did so against a severely shorthanded offense.
And so, though it might be terribly hard to believe, after approximately 10 whole hours together in games, these 2012 Vikings remain a mysterious beast.
Going into Friday's game, it was too easy to imagine another high-flying offensive game for Christian Ponder and company. In the Vikings' preseason debut in San Francisco, despite a 17-6 loss, Ponder looked good while his defense struggled. Both of his offensive drives ended in field goals that evening, and last week against Buffalo, the trend continued. Then, the 36-14 score showed it, and Ponder could only complain about that first drive in which his team didn't score.
So based off that, how could the Vikings offense have been so terrible against the Chargers? How could it have finished with four turnovers in the game and just 102 yards in the first half? How, we ask like it's some kind of universe-defying aberration, when really the question is so easy to answer. Here's how: Ponder is 24 years old. He's the outright starter at the beginning of an NFL season for the first time ever. His team is young. His star running back isn't playing. He's competing against combinations and lineups he'll never see in the regular season.
This is evaluation in the micro. Player X is good at this, but he struggles with that. Player Y has improved in this, but he's regressed with that. The score has so little bearing in the preseason, and it's the only time when individual standout performances might matter more than a win or a loss. It's a time for lessons and for experimenting, for keeping a team healthy above all else and no matter the score.
But the score, let's discuss that for a second. The fans who remained glued to their blue plastic Metrodome chairs on Friday might have noticed that the Vikings came pretty close to winning this catastrophe. In fact, they would have if not for a last-second Chargers field goal. Those faithful fans watched as third-string quarterback Sage Rosenfels drove the ball down the field in the game's final minutes, as he threw a pass to Matt Asiata for a touchdown. They watched as the scoreboard told them that Rosenfels had outplayed Ponder, and for those minutes where the Vikings held a lead, they cheered as if all the game's earlier problems were naught.
But in the preseason, a touchdown pass can't gloss over mistakes like it can in the regular season. There's no way to obscure the fact that even this third game, this supposed dress rehearsal, devolved into a botched reading of a script that's so much in flux. The Chargers never put up any resistance, as quarterback Philip Rivers sat due to injuries to key offensive linemen Jared Gaither, Nick Hardwick and Tyronne Green. Seventeen Chargers rested on Friday, and yet Ponder posted his worst performance yet against that depleted squad.
"It just shows that we got a lot to work on," Ponder said. "We wish we would have performed like we did in the first two weeks. We know we have that capability to do so. We've just got to get better."
Ponder faulted a lack of rhythm, an inability to get in step with his line and to harness his game as he has in recent weeks. The faults were easy to see, in the sacks and the incomplete passes, and in that, the Vikings can take comfort. The preseason can be a diagnosis, and Ponder's problems were clear to even the least informed viewer. And, best of all, he now has the last two week as a benchmark. He knows how well he can play, and he has to believe he can do it again.
So far, the Vikings' roles are falling into place, but there's no way to asses the character of a team under these circumstances, with Adrian Peterson on the bench, against the most hodgepodge of units and in front of replacement referees who haven't yet learned not to blow their whistles directly into their microphones. Even this late in the preseason, even when the team must have wanted more of an idea of where it stood, the Chargers and their cadre of reserves prohibited such assessment.
As much as the Vikings hoped they could, sustaining last week's performance was a long shot, and the preseason is the time when teams can learn from mistakes. That's how just minutes after losing, Jared Allen could take the podium and joke. That's how he could smile about the game and laud the defense's altogether laudable performance with barely a mention that it didn't result in a win. Allen is a veteran. He couldn't have been surprised by this, and he knows that one game in August won't determine his team's fate.
"We would obviously like to come out and beat a team 45-9 or whatever it is," Allen said. "That didn't happen. We'll have some tough games, and I think we'll persevere. I'd rather have a game with four turnovers and hold them to field goals in the preseason, get it out of the way and see how guys are going to react."
Last week, the Vikings wanted nothing more than to put stock in one performance. This week, the mantra will be back to reality, that one game does not a season make. The Vikings lost, but without just the tiny angle of a kick, it would have been so easy to gloss this over, to mask the struggles with a winning score.
There's no doubt that players care about this loss, but they care for different reasons. They know this is more than a loss, but they must be wondering about the abstract, about how this might translate and what it might hint at.
But in two weeks, wondering will cease. There will be no more hinting when reality arrives on Sept. 9, and there's still no telling which incarnation of the Vikings will take the field. Only then can consensus begin to form, and for now, impatience persists.
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