Despite what the uber-haters think, Christian Ponder did make some progress in his three games this season. The most obvious improvement came throwing the deep ball. A quarterback known for his “popgun” arm started showing signs that he could move the ball down the field in chunks when called upon, a fact the Vikings’ PR wonks were only too happy to underline at every possible opportunity.
Unfortunately, Ponder’s improvement in stretching the field did not translate into a lot of defensive adjusting. Defenses still did not respect Ponder’s ability to go deep and still kept flooding the box with defenders to stop Adrian Peterson. Defenses clearly saw the improvement in Ponder’s deep ball as a reflection of better receiver play and not necessarily proof that Ponder had suddenly become a quarterback who could hurt them at any time with a deep throw.
Unpredictability is what matters. A good deep QB must be willing and able to air it out at any time, keeping the defense on their heels. Ponder getting somewhat better at delivering deep didn’t translate into that unpredictable, could-get-us-at-any-time factor this offense needs. People like to say Ponder is a good WCO quarterback but the Vikings aren’t trying to run a strict WCO, they are trying to take advantage of Adrian Peterson, which means you must have a legit deep ball threat at all times, on any down, in any situation.
The Vikings may now have the receivers necessary to stretch the field. Jerome Simpson has shown that he can get downfield and we believe Cordarrelle Patterson can do it too. And Kyle Rudolph if given the chance could be a deeper threat on seam and sideline routes. But you must have a QB who scares defenses enough with his ability to make those throws that they begin leaving two safeties over the top, allowing you to get out of your predictable, plodding offensive pattern and run AD in passing situations.
Rightly or wrongly, the Vikings believe Josh Freeman is a guy who can get the ball deep more consistently and accurately than Christian Ponder, and bring that tendency-breaking factor into the fold. Look at the overall accuracy numbers and you don’t see much to choose from. Freeman’s completion percentage last year was 54.8, while Ponder’s was 62.1. Of course Ponder benefited in the early season from a ton of short, high-percentage passes to Percy Harvin. The important number if you want to measure this is yards-per-completion. This gives a true measure of whether a QB can stretch the field.
Last year, Ponder’s yards-per-completion was 9.8, which ain’t good. This year it improved to 11.7, proof that the Vikings had better receivers and that Bill Musgrave was a little more willing to let Ponder air it out. But even Ponder’s better YPC number pales next to Freeman’s stats. Last year Freeman’s YPC was 13.3, far better than Ponder’s 9.8. And even this year with Freeman struggling in that toxic Tampa Bay environment, completing passes at only a 45.7% clip? His YPC is still the same as last year: 13.3. Even with improvement, Ponder could not match Freeman’s deep ball threat.
So it’s pretty obvious what the Vikings see in Freeman. They see a guy who may not be the most accurate passer in the world, but has a proven ability to make plays downfield if he has the receivers to make it happen. We’ve heard it over and over: the Vikes need to make teams pay when they flood the box to stop Adrian Peterson. At least on paper, Freeman would seem to give them a much better chance than Ponder to punish defensive coordinators who make it all about stopping Peterson.
Ponder got better, but he didn’t get enough better, and he didn’t get there fast enough.