Vikings' Biggest Obstacles in the Path to a Championship
The Minnesota Vikings have reached the halfway point of the 2012 season at 5-3, which is, quite honestly, ahead of most people's expectations heading into the year.
Yeah, try selling that to the fan base after Thursday night's disastrous performance at home against the Buccaneers. It was a winnable game that the purple tanked and lost 36-17.
The only problem with the Vikings surprising 5-2 start is that it raised those expectations when it really shouldn't have. Minnesota has two wins that nobody would have predicted two months ago, beating San Francisco at home and then winning in Detroit.
Those wins made it seem like the Vikings were not only a team on the verge, but a team perhaps ready to make a playoff push. That's just not reality right now.
Thursday night's game proved without a doubt that the Vikings are still a team with a lot of holes to fill. Let's take a look at the areas in which Minnesota needs to improve to be a championship contender.
Christian Ponder Has to Get Better
Christian Ponder is quickly becoming the most divisive figure in Minnesota.
It just comes with the territory of being an NFL quarterback not named Brady, Manning, Brees or Rodgers. (OK, we'll concede to Ryan and Griffin for now, but give it a minute.)
"He's not the answer at quarterback, and the Vikings are doomed to fail as long as he's the starter."
"How can you blame Ponder when he has nobody to throw to and never has any time to do anything?"
You can pick either side of the argument right now and have a lot of ammunition on your side. The numbers certainly aren't in Ponder's favor right now, but there's plenty of blame to go around when you start trying to explain those numbers.
Ponder put together a three-quarter stretch of football over the last two games where he completed two passes for 8 yards. Those are numbers for a third grader, not an NFL quarterback. So what's the deal? Is it growing pains? Bad personnel around him? A bad offensive scheme?
It's a little bit of all of those things.
Like any quarterback, Ponder has played a lot better when given time to set up and throw. Both Arizona and Tampa Bay put heavy rushes on him, and he hasn't reacted well at all.
Under the gun Ponder's consistency has vanished. He's making both poor decisions and poor throws, and it's killing any offensive momentum the Vikings are getting from superstars Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin.
Much has been made of Ponder's athleticism, and he's proved his legs can get him out of trouble. The problem right now is that he's throwing the ball so poorly on the run that it's negating any advantages his athletic ability might provide.
Everyone should be able to accept normal growing pains. Ponder knows he has to play better. What has to be fixed immediately however, are simple throws that can't be considered part of "learning the position." Ponder has missed open receivers three or four times in the last two weeks who were within 5 or 6 yards from him. That can't happen.
After starting the season protecting the ball very well, Ponder now has thrown seven interceptions, and the number could be as high as 10-12. That has to stop. For a team whose margin for error is tiny, Ponder simply has to keep his turnovers down.
Yes, of course, there are fingers to be pointed elsewhere. The offensive line must pass protect better. Adrian Peterson has to pick up his blocks quicker. The receivers have to get separation quicker. The offensive coordinator has to get more creative.
That's a lot of things that need fixing. Too bad for Ponder that all the fingers will first point to him. He's the quarterback. It comes with the territory.
Receivers Not Named Harvin Have to Step Up
Percy Harvin is the best slot receiver in football and in the argument for best player in the league right now, so we'll leave him out of this.
The rest of the receiving corps has to step it up. Jerome Simpson has only played in three games and hasn't really asserted himself yet, but he's shown enough in flashes that he can be a factor. He's a deep threat that can keep a secondary honest, but if he doesn't start making some plays, teams are going to close in the ranks on the Vikings offense.
Michael Jenkins has played better than expected, but he can't seem to get open until the other team is playing prevent defense, he's basically been a ghost for the first three quarters of games. Jenkins still has enough to be productive in three receiver sets, but he just doesn't have enough speed left to get much separation.
Kyle Rudolph needs to make his presence felt more. He's been good in the red zone but anemic everywhere else. He's on pace for 52 catches. That's not nearly enough. He needs to get himself open and catch the ball when it comes his way.
The Vikings have to try to get John Carlson involved. He's shown that he can be a good player in this league, and they're paying him a lot of money, so get him involved. That's on Carlson as much as anybody; he has to assert himself and quickly.
The Vikings might be at the point where they have to put rookie Jarius Wright on the field to see what they have. They should know by now that they don't have much with Devin Aromashodu or Stephen Burton, so they don't have much to lose by seeing what Wright has to offer.
Whether it's scheme, talent level or perhaps both, the Vikings receivers need to play a lot better for this team to contend.
The Offensive Line Has to Pass Protect
Christian Ponder is getting the lion's share of the blame for the Vikings' passing woes, and he probably deserves it. But for the love of Ron Yary, give the kid two seconds to set up.
Matt Kalil has played very well for a rookie at left tackle, and he's only going to keep getting better. John Sullivan has also played very well.
The other three have been spotty at best. Phil Loadholt is better than he was last year, but he's far better run blocking than in pass protection. Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco both started out the year playing decently, but both have regressed as the year has moved on. Neither one of them are pass blocking at all at this point.
The Vikings have had success rotating players on the defensive front; they might think about doing that on offense as well.
Too many times Ponder is getting chased the moment he clears from under center. For a guy who really has to survey the whole field to find somebody open, it's pretty imperative that the line give him a little bit of time. At this point he has no time and nobody getting open, a pretty brutal combination.
We'll learn more about the Vikings offensive line as the year moves on. At the rate they are playing now, the Vikings might have to think about drafting another offensive lineman high next year or at least picking somebody up in free agency.
Depth All over the Field
Imagine if Percy Harvin got hurt?
The Minnesota Vikings have depth at running back and defensive end, and that's about it.
Oddly, considering last season, the secondary had some nice depth until Thursday when Chris Cook broke his wrist. Without Cook, rookie Josh Robinson becomes a starter and A.J. Jefferson and one of Brandon Burton, Robert Blanton, or Marcus Sherels will have to become part of the rotation.
The Vikings have been lucky so far in 2012 when it comes to injuries. Cook is the first serious injury they've had to deal with at the halfway point. More will come; that's just the nature of the game.
The Vikings are still pretty thin in several spots, especially at receiver and offensive line.
That's part of a rebuild. And no matter what anyone over at Winter Park says, this team is rebuilding. We're just a half season removed from 3-13 and considering that, things look pretty good.
Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Josh Robinson and Blair Walsh. Jerome Simpson has potential. There has to be some life left in John Carlson. Chris Cook was having a solid, if understated year. Brian Robison is busting out. Everson Griffen is showing flashes of brilliance.
5-3 at the halfway point is better than anybody expected. The second half of the season looks to be much tougher than the first half was.
Will the Vikings contend for the NFC North title? Probably not. That's OK. It's a rebuild.