For a team with four losses in five tries and a third different starting quarterback just over the horizon, there is little difficultly in throwing the majority of blame at the game's most important position.
And to be sure, partial responsibility for the Minnesota Vikings' 1-4 start should land at the feet of quarterbacks Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. Neither has been consistently good enough in 2013.
However, the problems in Minnesota run much deeper than just the quarterback position, making the likely insertion of Josh Freeman as the new starter—a move that could happen as soon as this coming week—nothing more than a Band-Aid fix for a team bleeding out of several wounds.
Through five games, the Vikings are making a strong case for possessing the NFL's worst defense. Quarterbacks of all shapes and sizes are having their way with a secondary that is young and struggling.
Also, a top-heavy rookie class hasn't brought instant impact, and a coaching staff that seemingly made all the right moves last season is failing in 2013.
The Vikings will calmly claim that even at 1-4, the season is still salvageable. Just a year ago, Minnesota's 6-6 start looked like the end, but the Vikings rallied with four wins to sneak into the NFC playoffs as a Wild Card.
"We're 1-4 at this point," head coach Leslie Frazier said, via the team's official site. "There's a lot of football left to be played...but our season is by no means a lost season. We just have to get better, and in a hurry."
There is 11 games left. Technically, the Vikings are only two games back in the loss column in the NFC North. But the division is looking as good this year as any in the recent past, and Minnesota doesn't have the cushion of a 4-2 start like it did in 2012. To even get back to 6-6, the Vikings need to win five of their next seven games.
Impossible? Well, no. But the next seven games include road games at Dallas, Green Bay and Seattle, and home games with Green Bay and Chicago. Finding five wins over that stretch is difficult to do, regardless of who is playing quarterback.
|Week 7||at New York Giants*||0-6|
|Week 8||Green Bay Packers||3-2|
|Week 9||at Dallas Cowboys||3-3|
|Week 10||Washington Redskins||1-4|
|Week 11||at Seattle Seahawks||5-1|
|Week 12||at Green Bay Packers||3-2|
|Week 13||Chicago Bears||4-2|
On Monday Night
At some point in the very near future, Freeman is going to be anointed as Minnesota's third starting quarterback of this season. He was signed last Sunday to a one-year deal worth $2 million, and both Cassel's regression as a passer against the Carolina Panthers and Frazier's decision to keep Ponder on the bench signal an obvious clearing for Freeman to start, possibly this week against the winless New York Giants.
But starting Freeman will do little to reverse the Vikings' fortunes if the other problems with this team continue on.
Minnesota's defense currently ranks 30th in points (31.6) and 31st in yards (418.0). All five opponents this season have scored at least 27 points, with four tallying 31 or more. And Sunday was actually the first time the Vikings held an opponent under 400 yards, although Carolina did score 35 points without much difficulty.
"It's embarrassing," defensive end Jared Allen said, via Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. "This is one of the worst home losses I've ever had. If I've had worse, I don't remember."
Takeaways had been this unit's saving grace through four games, as Minnesota was ranked in the top five with 12 turnovers forced at the quarter pole. But Sunday saw the Vikings fail to get a takeaway against a Panthers offense that had four a week earlier.
|Passing TD Allowed||13||32nd|
|Passer Rating Agaisnt||95.7||23rd|
|Third Down %||49.3||31st|
|First Downs Allowed||126||31st|
Source: Pro Football Reference
Minnesota's third-down defense was also especially poor. The Panthers converted on seven of 12 chances (58.2 percent), thanks largely to quarterback Cam Newton. Carolina's electric signal-caller completed all five of his third-down passes for 129 yards and a touchdown, and he also ran for 22 yards and another score. Overall, he accounted for five of the Panthers' seven third-down conversions.
The Vikings are certainly no strangers to quarterbacks running wild against them in 2013.
Newton amassed 272 total yards and four touchdowns Sunday. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 36 passes for 383 yards. Matthew Stafford cleared 300 yards in the opener, and Jay Cutler came close with 292 a week later.
Even Brian Hoyer, who was making his second career NFL start for the Cleveland Browns in Week 3, threw for more than 300 yards and three scores against the Vikings.
It then comes as no surprise that Minnesota is allowing 308 passing yards per game this season, good for 29th in the NFL. Opposing quarterbacks also have a 95.7 passer rating against the Vikings, which is 23rd.
The stats only confirm what is so obvious to see week after week: Minnesota is a bad defense with one of the game's poorest secondaries.
Cornerbacks Josh Robinson, Chris Cook and Xavier Rhodes have been badly overmatched. The three are allowing over a 100.0 passer rating between them this season, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Harrison Smith, an emerging safety, can only cover up so many of the mistakes, especially when fellow safety Jamarca Sanford is another liability in the passing game.
Even a pass rush that was the backbone of so many good Vikings defenses has started to erode. Minnesota has just nine sacks in five games.
“Defensively, we are struggling right now, and it’s embarrassing because we have some talent on this team,” Allen said, via Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
The Vikings seemingly added three big pieces to that talent level this past April, but the impact made from rookies Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson has been minimal.
Floyd is sixth along the Minnesota defensive line in total snaps, and he's typically only used during pass-rush situations. He has just three tackles and 1.5 sacks this season.
Rhodes has played the most among the three rookies, and there's been flashes of him as the tall, physical corner the Vikings envisioned when they took the Florida State product in the first round. But he's also struggled at times, and Minnesota has been reluctant to expand his responsibilities within the defense.
Patterson is the biggest mystery of the trio. He's been electric as a kick returner, and nearly every time he touches the football, you can see the game-changing abilities in the open field. But through five games, Patterson has just eight catches on 11 targets. Joe Webb played more offensive snaps Sunday.
What is the biggest problem facing the Vikings right now?
Maybe the Vikings are playing it safe with three young players. Or maybe some blame belongs on the doorstep of a coaching staff that is failing across the board.
Frazier, a defensive-minded coach, hasn't been able to help defensive coordinator Alan Williams solve the problems on his side of the football. On offense, Bill Musgrave has run a vanilla offense, and his failure to develop Ponder into the answer at quarterback has set the franchise on a crash course with a high pick at the position next spring.
Even the special teams have been a mess at times, most notably in Chicago (249 kick return yards from Devin Hester) and against Cleveland (allowed successful fake field goal, punt).
And what about losing by 25 points at home, in the game directly following a bye? Good coaching staffs make adjustments and get their teams prepared with an extra week. The Vikings came out flat and were stomped by a so-so Carolina team. That's a direct reflection on Frazier and his staff.
"I didn't see our team coming in and playing as poorly as we did," Frazier said. "[We] just struggled in so many areas."
Few will argue against Minnesota having obvious problems at the quarterback position. Ponder was so inconsistent in his three starts that he's now tied to the bench, and Cassel threw two picks and looked like the same quarterback he was in Kansas City during Sunday's loss. Freeman, signed just over a week ago, is now a good bet to start in Week 7.
But the problems in Minnesota are more wide-ranging than just the quarterback position.
The Vikings have to get better in a lot of areas to turn around what looks like a lost season. Unfortunately, many are deep wounds without an easy fix.