One of the biggest topics of discussion regarding the NFL these days is quarterbacks: Who’s the best? Who’s elite, who’s ‘second-tier’? Is this rookie ‘the answer’? Should the Jets give up on Mark Sanchez? And so on. Everybody is constantly evaluating their team’s quarterback, looking for clues and tallying all the mistakes. The media creates, exposes, and/or exacerbates coach and quarterback controversies, and teams seem to respond by pulling the plug very quickly. I want to preface this by saying that I probably (definitely) don’t know any more about who is good or bad or who has potential than the “average” football fan. Frankly, anybody who thinks they know whether Sam Bradford or Christian Ponder or Colt McCoy is the next Joe Montana or Tim Couch is just guessing. Still, I do feel comfortable making one assertion: the Vikings, by hiding their young quarterbacks, go about the process in about the worst fashion possible.
Every player who is drafted high has some kind of potential; they were good in college, have skills that scouts and coaches think will translate into successful NFL careers. Minnesota has seen three young quarterbacks in recent years: Tarvaris Jackson, Joe Webb, and Ponder. Jackson was a possible development project that the Vikings inexplicably traded up to draft in the second round; Webb is a development project who can play multiple positions; and Ponder is a more ‘conventional’ passing quarterback that the Vikings drafted a little too high.
Somebody out there probably knows how to properly handle young quarterbacks. I wouldn’t claim to know how. But I do know one thing: no quarterback can succeed if you try to hide him. Minnesota did it, arguably out of necessity, with Jackson. As the 2011 season came to a close, it appeared the Vikings were doing it with Ponder, too. By hiding the quarterback, I mean: not letting him throw the ball downfield; running on almost every first down snap; running on most second down snaps; and generally being conservative. I will certainly allow that there are times when teams have no choice but to hide their quarterback—anybody who saw the 2010 Panthers knows that Carolina would have been insane to ‘unleash’ Jimmy Clausen and let him toss the ball all over the field. I’ll even admit that it got to that point with Jackson; his confidence was shot, his coaches and teammates didn’t trust him, and, by all appearances, it was never going to work for him in Minnesota. It’s not really surprising that he has fared better in Seattle. Childress could not have sent a more mixed message: he kept naming Jackson the starter, then called every game as if the Vikings had been forced to pull a passerby off the street. “OK, Tarvaris, you are the man. We’re behind you every step and we believe it you! But, hey. Listen. Just don’t throw the ball, right? And no matter what defense you see in front of you, don’t call any audibles. Actually, just hand the ball off…Please don’t screw this up.” If nothing else, Pete Carroll has at least supported Jackson.
When Ponder finally got his turn this year, I was beyond relieved to see him dropping back and chucking the ball. We still played it a little safe, rolling him out a lot, throwing safe passes underneath to Percy Harvin, using play action. But at least we worked in some five- and seven-step drops, had Ponder throwing up the seam to Visanthe Shiancoe, ran some deep comebacks and digs with Michael Jenkins. Those first few games were inspiring; we finally saw a young quarterback in purple with something resembling potential. And, to nobody’s surprise, Ponder made some mistakes, some really ugly ones. Horrible reads, horrible throws, rookie mistakes, ball-security mistakes, all of it. No rookie quarterback avoids this. Hell, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers still throw a pass directly to a defender now and then.
Two problems seemed to emerge: Ponder seemed to lose any confidence/swagger that he had been projecting and Bill Musgrave started reining in the offense, going extremely conservative and safe. Admittedly, both are reasonable responses. For a young quarterback, suddenly giving up a bunch of defensive touchdowns would shake you. For an offensive coordinator who was already taking a lot of heat when veteran Donovan McNabb was on the field, it must have made sense to try to minimize the damage. Here’s where I get really frustrated. Quarterback is such a hard position to play and learning it requires a lot of in-game experience. Nobody knows how good Ponder could be, but one way to guarantee that we never find out is to keep running that play where Harvin sneaks behind the offensive line and Ponder throws a two-yard pass to him. What do you learn about Ponder when you basically tell the defense what plays you are and are not willing to run? A 5- or 10-yard out is a dangerous pass for young quarterbacks. It’s even more dangerous when cornerbacks know that the offense is only willing to run safe, short routes. Sure, nobody is forcing Ponder to throw inaccurate passes to receivers who are covered, but why are we calling the same plays over and over? If Ponder throws two pick-sixes on 5-yard out patterns, why call that play again? Ponder looked good throwing to Shiancoe in the seam early on, but we never saw it after Week 14 or so. Is that Ponder crawling into a shell, Musgrave pulling in the reins, or both?
This problem was exacerbated in Week 17. What more could a team with two young quarterbacks ask for? A completely meaningless game, at home, against another team that has nothing to play for. If you lose by 30, what can people say? If you try something new and it doesn’t work, are we all going to lament not getting that fourth win? If you want some contrast, go across the sideline. Chicago’s offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, was playing without his starting running back and was on the team’s third starting quarterback of the season. Sounds familiar, yes. Chicago didn’t need to win. In fact, after halftime the Bears found themselves on the verge of giving up the all-time sack record to Jared Allen, and doing it in style. No team wants to give up 4.5 sacks to one guy in a meaningless game. But guess what Martz did? He added some protection and kept throwing the ball! The Bears were ahead and their defense was easily stifling the Vikings offense. They could have pounded the ball and been content with winning the field position battle. But they kept throwing on first downs and Roy Williams shredded us on third downs. Musgrave was so inspired that he called one deep pass in the entire second half, one of those plays where you just drop straight back and chuck it, not because you are taking advantage of something in the defense, but because you haven’t tried it yet. It was pitiful. Then we went back to dump-offs and one-read plays. With nothing on the line and nothing to lose, Musgrave refused to open up the playbook. We know what we knew before: Christian Ponder gets hurt easily, Joe Webb is really hard to tackle but can only make one read before he takes off, and neither is very accurate. Can they look a safety off? Can they throw a deep comeback or hit a seam pattern? We might never know if the play calling stays like this.
I don’t care which quarterback becomes the starter. If Webb has a better offseason, go for him. Just don’t make him throw a bunch of two-yard wide receiver screens and then decide he’s not good enough. If it’s Ponder, let him play quarterback. If you are scared that the quarterback is going to lose the game, just forfeit. Snap it directly to Harvin and run it up the middle.