Vikings fans are in a malaise that only the oldest and hardiest are familiar with – the only time the Vikings were 2-9 through 11 games of any season was in the expansion debut season in 1961. Fifty years later, they’ve replicated the feat, but, while it’s surely raising the bar too high for realistic comparison, the 1961 Vikings were quarterbacked by a rookie named Francis Asbury Tarkenton, the son of preacher man from Georgia. The Vikings of 2011 have another rookie quarterback in Christian Ponder and he may have turned a significant career corner in the second half of Sunday’s game.
Tarkenton struggled out of the gate as a rookie, but went on to not only re-write every passing record for the Vikings in each game he played but, before he was done, he held every significant passing and rushing record quarterbacks could own. In the pass-happy NFL that has evolved over the past two decades, Tarkenton’s records have long since been replaced and his career totals become the benchmark for Hall of Fame consideration for the modern era of quarterbacks.
In Sunday’s 24-14 loss to Atlanta, the Vikings fell to 2-9 in what has been a painfully familiar fashion – decent play for considerable stretches until one gaffe makes the difference between winning and losing. Sunday was no exception, as key plays killed the Vikings in a game that was very much up for grabs in the fourth quarter. But, the second-half performance by Ponder was a glimmer of hope that the future is going to be markedly brighter than the present.
“As an offense, we didn’t really show up in the first half. We’ve got to do a better job of playing all four quarters,” Ponder said. “We’ve got to come out sharp from the very first snap and set the tone. We didn’t. The positive was we came out the second half and put ourselves back in the game and played well.”
It’s one thing for a young quarterback to play from ahead. Playing from behind is another story. For all of his talents, one of the major failings of Daunte Culpepper was that too often he turned a seven-point deficit into a 17-point deficit. Ponder has had his moments of struggle, but Sunday we saw a different side of the rookie QB, who, after Sunday, may not technically be a rookie anymore.
Trailing 17-0 three minutes into the third quarter, the Vikings needed to get something started offensively. Ponder responded. Opening a drive on his own 20-yard line, he led the Vikings on a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. He opened the drive with a check-down pass to Toby Gerhart, who was the third or fourth throwing option on the play. Two plays later, he fired a 14-yard dart to Visanthe Shiancoe for another first down, seeing a throwing window develop off the snap and going to the primary target.
He showed his agility on the next series, scrambling away from blitzes for gains of four and five yards that most quarterbacks would not have made. His ability to reach top speed quickly saved the drive and kept the chains moving.
Facing a second straight third-down conversion, Ponder ran away from a blitz to dump a pass to recently-elevated-from-the-practice-squad player Allen Reisner – arguably the fifth passing option on that particular play. It only went for five yards, but the quarterback’s improvisational skills kept the drive alive.
Perhaps the best play of the drive wasn’t the touchdown that capped it off, but the play that set it up. Ponder had a very thin window to press a 20-yard pass into a waiting Percy Harvin. Three starts ago, Ponder may not have had the courage to try a pass like that so deep in the red zone. He did and, while two Falcons converged on the ball as it arrived, he put it where it had to be and Harvin, as is his custom, made the catch. With the ball on the 1-yard line, Gerhart sopped up the gravy with the biscuit to close out the drive, but it was a drive that some may look back on later as a turning point in Ponder’s maturation as an NFL quarterback. It was a drive that could have died on at least three occasions, but Ponder kept alive with his arm and his legs.
The next time the Vikings got the ball, the drive went nowhere, but, thanks to a gift special-teams gaffe by Atlanta’s Dominique Franks, who was loitering around a live ball and got pushed into it by Ryan D’Imperio, who recovered it shortly thereafter, the Vikings had new life. After a Falcons challenged reversed a manageable fourth down situation, Ponder was faced with a fourth-and-13 from the Atlanta 39-yard line. A 56-yard field goal with Jared Allen doing the snapping wasn’t a viable option. What followed is best seen from coaches film.
Ponder took the snap and had approximately two seconds to determine that Harvin was going to be one-on-one with linebacker Curtis Lofton. Lofton is a very athletic linebacker, but, one-on-one with Harvin is effectively bringing a knife to a gun fight. He was toast.
“They like to do kind of a different thing in their coverage, where they drop their mike linebacker as a safety deep and bring their other two safeties as kind of hook players,” Ponder said. “I knew we had the matchup with Percy on their mike linebacker and I’d take that matchup every day. I’d take the matchup of Percy on anybody every day. I kind of underthrew him and he went back and made a great play.”
However, given the situation – fourth-and-13 –Harvin was a “hot” read only. Three other receivers ran 13½-yard routes in hopes of slipping the defender to give Ponder a viable first-down option. But the read required Ponder to commit to Harvin before any of his other options made the move on their routes. It was an all-or-nothing play that instinct rather than the voice in his helmet said was the better option. He delivered a pass in a window that was a thing of beauty.
Did Ponder lead the Vikings to victory? No. But, when his team was running on fumes, he made a half-dozen plays that may become signature items moving forward. He went from being the rookie to being The Man. His learning curve is accelerated.
In realistic terms, Ponder went off-script. Both of his critical passes to Harvin weren’t the safest – or maybe even the preferred – options, but he went on instinct instead of the conservative route and put two passes that, had either been intercepted, would be called “forced” and followed by “that’s what young quarterbacks do.” But those throws aren’t forced when the passer delivers. Ponder made his deliveries Sunday when it counted and he was improvising.
If Ponder had failed on either of those passes – arguably the two most critical of the game – he could shoulder his share of the blame. He didn’t. He hit them both perfectly, showcasing a growing repertoire of plays that are starting to stand out in the memory of Vikings fans. It’s not the Tommy Kramer “burst on the scene” type of debut, but it is something positive in a season relatively devoid of positives.
The Vikings fell to the depths of 2-9 Sunday. It didn’t break Tarkenton when it happened to him in 1961. It won’t break Ponder 50 years later. The good news? When Tarkenton’s Vikings fell to 2-9, he left Metropolitan Stadium at a time when some patrons in the parking lot had rifles in their vehicles (it was during deer season, after all) and alcohol hanging around with their breath. It goes to show you how long it’s been since the Vikings were in a similar position. If history has taught us anything, the foundation is being built for Ponder to be taking snaps for the foreseeable future. He may have proved Sunday – even in a losing effort – that he’s the man for the job. Going off-script is a good start.
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.