How quickly the Minnesota Vikings make the leap from cellar dwellar to top dog depends heavily on Christian Ponder's play.
The 49ers didn’t lose that game. The Vikings outplayed the 49ers from the opening drive.
Entering this game Minnesota was 1-1. Some people, like me, felt the franchise had no shot at the postseason in 2012.
Defeating the San Francisco 49ers doesn’t assure Minnesota a postseason spot nor does it even assure the Vikings are a playoff contender.
What it does assure is something my colleague Michael Schottey touched on prior to this season: Minnesota is a franchise on the rise.
The key to how quickly Minnesota rises rests in Christian Ponder’s hands.
Ponder, 24, was the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
Experts across the board scoffed at the selection. They said he was at best a second-round pick. The experts had their laugh. And after Sunday, Minnesota is having its laugh.
The former Florida State Seminole completed 21 of 35 passes for 198 yards with two touchdowns. He also rushed for one on a 23-yard scamper, the first of his NFL career.
Most important to Ponder’s performance Sunday and this season: He has yet to throw an interception. He boasts a 4:0 touchdown to interception ratio.
He’s thrown a few bad passes that defenders should have caught, but as is the case in life, the NFL doesn’t award points for “should haves” and Ponder’s record remains clean.
The secret to winning in the NFL in 21st century: find a quarterback who can sling the ball across the field with proficiency.
Minnesota wanted Ponder to be its man. And now it’s his time to shine.
On the season he’s thrown for 713 yards with four touchdowns while completing 78 percent of his passes (68 of 87).
A switch has gone off in Ponder’s head.
He’s a more intelligent and comfortable quarterback this season, although he gives up on the pocket too quickly.
Nonetheless, he’s still just a second-year pro. He’s progressing in a manner that Minnesota and its fans must be pleased with, but it’s still early. There’s no telling what type of player he will become.
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What may actually hinder Ponder’s progression and the advancement of the franchise is the receiving corps. Ponder has two legitimate options and a third getting back from suspension this week.
Percy Harvin, 24, would be a top option on any team in the NFL. He is the best versatile receiver in the NFL.
Harvin has caught 27 of 32 passes thrown to him for 277 yards this season. He has no touchdown receptions but he is Minnesota’s unquestioned No. 1 receiver and can burn the opposition in the flats or over the middle.
His combination of speed and physicality is unmatched and causes mismatches for all but a select few defensive backs. The more Ponder can get him the ball the better off the offense will be.
Kyle Rudolph, 22, is a second-year player who is on the path to tight end stardom.
He’s 6’6” and 258 pounds with 10 3/4-inch hands. His physical resume would be enough to make him a standout.
But add in his soft hands, above average speed (for a tight end) and his vertical leap (34-inches), and there’s something special about him.
He has 13 receptions for 138 yards and three touchdowns this season. As he continues to progress as a tight end, and with Ponder, his numbers will continue to improve, which should make him a top-12 tight end (statistically) by year’s end.
Minnesota gets its lone true deep-threat back in Week 4: Jerome Simpson. He was all the talk in the Twin Cities during the preseason and is in position to take his career to the next level. In Cincinnati he was never “the guy,” but in Minnesota he’ll be the guy from Day 1.
He caught 50 passes for 725 yards with four touchdowns last season, his first full season.
But beyond those three not much is working for the Minnesota receivers. Rudolph, Harvin and Simpson could prove to be a strong trio. But Minnesota lacks a legitimate fourth option.
The ground game
Then there’s Minnesota’s running game, which remains one of the best in the business.
Adrian Peterson, 27, is the league’s best running back (four of his first five years he rushed for at least 1,200 yards). Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.
Peterson combines with Toby Gerhart, 25, who is a more than capable backup and would start for most teams in the league, to form a top 1-2 punch.
Both players are under 28 years old. They will be in the primes of their careers for at least the next two to four years, which will give defenses something to think about as Ponder continues to progress.
The Green Bay Packers have proven that teams don’t need to run the football in today’s NFL to be considered the best, but if your offense boasts a ground game to go with an aerial assault, that makes it damn hard for the opposition to slow you down.
What makes matters better for Peterson, Gerhart and the entire Minnesota offense is that the unit’s offensive line is also progressing. It’s allowed five sacks in three games, which is phenomenal compared to the eight sacks Green Bay has allowed on Aaron Rodgers in two games.
Every member of the offensive line is under 29 years old, and given that this is–for the most part—a completely revamped offensive line (only two starters from 2011 returned at the same position in 2012), better things should be on the horizon as the unit gels.
Against the 49ers, Minnesota lucked out. And that luck made the defense look better than it is in its 2012 form.
The 49ers are a run-based team that uses the run to set up the pass.
Minnesota’s defense is built to shutdown that type of offense. The Vikings thrive at stuffing the run and struggles in the air.
The purple and gold rank 12th against the run this season (95.3 yards per game) and a deceptively good ninth against the pass (229.3 yards per game).
Rookie Andrew Luck, second-year pro Blaine Gabbert and Alex Smith are the three quarterbacks the defense has battled. Those three don’t cause the opposition to lose any sleep. And Minnesota made Gabbert look much better than he is while allowing Luck to make a stellar home debut.
But what Minnesota’s defense has shown thus far is that there are necessary pieces in place to succeed in the future.
The linebacking corps, which was a major question mark entering this season, has played phenomenally. Chad Greenway, 29, is on pace for best year of his career (33 tackles, 2.0 sacks) after making the 2012 Pro Bowl.
In two games Erin Henderson, 26, has proven his worth as the weak side starting linebacker (he missed Week 3 with concussion symptoms). And Jasper Brinkley, 27, has replaced E.J. Henderson’s productivity in the middle.
The secondary is still very susceptible to the big play and continues to be the kryptonite of the unit. But it is an improving unit whose members are gelling as this season progresses.
Chris Cook, 25, has the size (6’2”, 212 pounds) and skill set to become an elite cornerback. He went toe-to-toe with Calvin Johnson in Week 4 last season, holding the game’s best receiver to 108 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
Yes, those are stellar numbers from Johnson and typically wouldn’t warrant the term “holding,” but Johnson would have done more had any other defensive back been on him.
Harrison Smith, one of two first round picks by the Vikings in the 2012 draft, is an intelligent safety who puts himself in positions to succeed. Smith, 23, isn’t afraid to knock the opposition in the jaw at anytime. He’s a ball-hawk with 21 tackles on the season (7.0 per game).
Minnesota hasn’t had a safety of his caliber for some time.
Combine the improving back seven with a strong front four (Jared Allen, 30; Brian Robison, 29; Kevin Williams, 32; Letroy Guion, 25) and the defense has reasons to be optimistic after a disastrous 2011 campaign.
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Throughout this piece there are ages listed next to players. As a whole, I wanted to illuminate that most players making contributions this season are players Minnesota can and will build around for the next five years.
With the exception of Williams, Allen and Antoine Winfield, 35, no major contributors are over 30 years old. This is a young team that could be together for the foreseeable future.
Now, back to an earlier point, all of this should leave Vikings fans optimistic for the future. But it must be taken with a grain of salt.
The Vikings have pieces that can play at a very high level, as the Week 3 performance demonstrated. But don’t forget about Week 1. Or Week 2. The Vikings struggled to knock off the Jacksonville Jaguars and fell to the Indianapolis Colts.
This is a young team that will be inconsistent.
Vikings fans: get excited about the future. The rest of the NFL: You can’t mark Minnesota as a guaranteed “W” in 2012 and beware for the future.
The Minnesota Vikings are on the rise.