Opinion Corner: Still hope left for VikingsAs we sit here at the halfway mark of the Vikings’ season, I need everyone to please take a deep breath. Don’t make any rash decisions. Take your Vikings gear out of your incinerator, your garbage can, and/or your pile of clothes to take to Goodwill.
By: Casey Johnson For The Sun, The Jamestown Sun
As we sit here at the halfway mark of the Vikings’ season, I need everyone to please take a deep breath.
Don’t make any rash decisions. Take your Vikings gear out of your incinerator, your garbage can, and/or your pile of clothes to take to Goodwill. Although the Vikings got creamed by Tampa Bay on Thursday night and although Minnesota sports pundits are all but calling this the beginning of the end for the Vikings’ playoff hopes, I am here to offer reassurance. Yes, the Bucs slapped the Vikings around more than pizza dough at an authentic Italian restaurant. But there is good news.
There are still eight games left to be played!
The Vikings went 5-3 through their first eight games of the season, and now, they have eight more games to go. If they can achieve a similar 5-3 record over their next 8 games, they will almost surely make the playoffs.
So why the long faces Vikings fans?
Is it because the Vikings have a difficult schedule from here on out? A Vikings fan might begrudgingly say, “We had to win those easy games because, in our next eight games, we’re facing opponents with a combined 38-22 record,” (at least, a very informed fan might say that). And to be fair, it is true that the remainder of the Vikings’ schedule is far more challenging than it was over the first half of the year.
However, to that logic, I have two points to make. First of all, there is not one NFL team that doesn’t have a chance against another opponent, meaning that, on any given Sunday, (thanks Jamie Foxx) any team is capable of beating any other team. So, although I was disappointed while sitting at Mall of America Field watching the Vikings get trampled on like a field at WeFest by the 2-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I was not all that surprised. It was, most assuredly, a frustrating outcome, but it doesn’t mean that the Vikings’ playoff hopes are dead.
Secondly, a team cannot make the playoffs solely by beating outmatched opponents. A team that wants to make the playoffs, and achieve success while there, must, at some point, beat good teams. Despite their difficult remaining schedule, if the Vikings can’t pull out five more victories, they don’t deserve to make the playoffs anyways.
Minnesota will certainly be challenged in the second half of its season, but if the Vikings can grind out victories against some worthy foes and manage to make the playoffs, then they will truly be tried and tested and might, subsequently, be a team that can make some postseason noise.
In order for the Vikings to get to the playoffs, they will have to shore up several things that have come to light over the last few games.
The elephant on the field, so to speak, is the play of Minnesota’s second-year quarterback Christian Ponder.
I think that, by now, it’s fair to say that his last four performances are more indicative of where he is in his maturation and development process as an NFL quarterback than his first four games were. It seems that opposing defenses have been able to figure out what Ponder was doing successfully in those first four games and that they are now exposing his weaknesses.
It also appears that Ponder has started to play with less decisiveness and lower confidence over the last month. Things that he had started to show signs of doing well, like making plays on the run, as he did against San Francisco, have become areas of extreme inconsistency. His interceptions against Arizona are prime examples of head-scratching decision-making and accuracy issues that he still deals with when facing pressure.
Of course, quarterbacks struggle more when there is pressure, as opposed to when there is not, but Ponder needs to start playing with far greater poise and confidence in those types of situations. Against Tampa Bay, he played with severe tentativeness derived from, what appeared to be, a lack of confidence and a fear of making mistakes.
I am under the strong opinion that Ponder would be able to regain some of his confidence if offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave made things easier for him. I can certainly understand a need for diversity in play-calling, but I feel that the diversity should stem from necessity and not from outthinking oneself, as Musgrave seems to do.
Just three weeks ago, Musgrave publicly stated that he should have had Percy Harvin on the field and more involved in the Vikings’ three early red zone trips against Washington, where the Vikings ended up only getting field goals. On Thursday, once again, Musgrave appeared to be trying to get too creative with his play calling. On the Vikings’ first three possessions, which all resulted in three-and-outs, Adrian Peterson carried the ball just three times, and each was for at least four yards.
When you have the most talented running back in the NFL, you have to give him the ball as much as possible, and you have to give him the ball until someone stops him. Ponder has not been playing very well, and the best thing that the Vikings could do to help ease his anxiety is establish a run game early in games. Peterson has been playing tremendously, and for the season, he is averaging 5.1 yards per carry. So who cares if you think the defense knows a run is coming? The Vikes are 3-0 in games when Adrian carries the ball 20-plus times and 2-3 when he doesn’t.
And when the Vikings aren’t running the ball with Adrian, they should be figuring out ways to get the ball into Harvin’s hands. Musgrave should be calling bubble screens until the cows come home.
Musgrave chastised himself for not having Percy on the field enough in the red zone against Washington, and yet, there was a sequence against Tampa Bay where Harvin, although uninjured, sat for two straight plays as the Vikings neared the Tampa 20-yard line. And can you guess what happened when he came back into the game on third down? He caught a touchdown pass!
I understand that I’m not an offensive coordinator in the NFL and that, if I had all of the right answers, I probably wouldn’t be sitting at home eating chicken wings and wearing sweatpants during Vikings games. Nevertheless, it just seems so blatantly obvious that you should try to get the ball into your two best players’ hands as much as humanly possible, especially when those two players are, quite possibly, the two best players in the league at their respective positions.
Over the last three weeks, the Vikings have also not consistently taken care of the little things that got them a 4-1 record. Most notably, they have lost the turnover battle 8-3 over their last three games, and they’ve surrendered an average of 156 rushing yards per game over that same span. Discouragingly, in the last three weeks, the Vikings have not been able to match their mentally sound and physically punishing performances from early in the season.
It deserves reiterating, though, that the Vikings are still 5-3. Sure, they may have beaten some lousy teams, but you have to win those games too. Now the schedule gets more difficult, and you have to win some of those games, as well.
After some preseason pessimism, being in a position to be legitimately discussing playoff hopes is an exciting proposition at the halfway mark in the season. Every team has things that they need to work on, and if Minnesota can get back to playing smart, mistake-free, physical football and find ways to get Adrian and Percy the ball as much as possible, the next eight weeks should be as exciting as the first eight.
Casey Johnson is a contributor to the Opinion Corner