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Updated: September 23rd, 2013 6:01pm
Zulgad: Christian Ponder only part of problem with disappointing Vikings

Zulgad: Christian Ponder only part of problem with disappointing Vikings

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

Much of the anger over the Minnesota Vikings' 0-3 start has been directed at Christian Ponder.

This comes as no surprise.

It's always easy to point at the quarterback when times are tough and, in Ponder's case, he has never been seen by fans as the solution to this franchise's issues at that position, despite the fact he was taken with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft.

Those who feel Ponder isn't the answer are right. He is now 12-17 in 29 career starts - Joe Webb deserves credit for the 2011 win in Washington - and simply seems to lack the accuracy and confidence to be relied upon for the long term.

The Vikings are going to need to make a change at quarterback and a loss to the 0-3 Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday could mean a bye week switch to backup Matt Cassel.

But before we get too carried away with thinking that replacing Ponder is the solution, keep one thing in mind: To blame Ponder is to miss the fact that this organization has widespread problems that begin with offseason decisions made by the front office, extend to a coaching staff that has taken a significant step back and include every phase of the product we are seeing on the field each Sunday.

This is the scary part when it comes to the 2013 Vikings. If it was as simple as plugging in a new quarterback and then picking up where the 2012 Vikings left off, that would be one thing.

But after losing at Detroit and Chicago to open the season and then suffering a humiliating defeat to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday in their home opener, the Vikings appear to be far closer to the 3-13 product of 2011 than the club that rebounded with a 10-6 record and qualified for the playoffs a season ago.

What's most difficult is attempting to assess blame for what has gone wrong. There literally has been no element of this franchise that has performed up to expectations.

The issues start with the offseason decision by general manager Rick Spielman to release veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield in a salary-cap move that was made in part so free agent right tackle Phil Loadholt could be retained.

The Vikings wanted to re-sign Winfield at a cheaper price and ultimately offered him more guaranteed money than the Seattle Seahawks. But Winfield was upset enough that he bolted for the Seahawks and retired after it became clear he wasn't going to make their roster this summer.

If the Vikings were intent on staying competitive, letting go of Winfield and assuming he would just come back was a huge gamble. It didn't take a genius to see the Vikings' secondary had issues, even with the addition of first-round cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and now they are paying the price for going with Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and Rhodes at such key spots.

Cook had never played in all 16 regular-season games in his first three NFL seasons and a groin injury suffered Sunday forced him out in the first quarter. It appears likely he won't be able to play against the Steelers.

This could mean the starting corners will be Marcus Sherels and Robinson. Sherels can contribute on special teams and played pretty well against the Browns, but asking him to start an NFL game in the base defense is asking too much.

Frazier, whose team must spend the week in London because it is the host for this game, has far more to worry about than who will start in the secondary.

One of the big reasons Frazier had the interim tag removed from his title following 2010 was because he did such a good job in the crisis management department that season after Brad Childress was fired in November.

What became clear early in Frazier's first full year as a head coach was that some of his in-game decision making was questionable. But Frazier was given the benefit of the doubt - as he should have been - and mistakes made in 2011 were cleaned up last season.

That's what makes it so interesting, and surprising, that Frazier and his coaching staff have struggled along with the rest of the team in the first three games.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's play-calling and use of personnel leave many puzzled on a weekly basis. Coordinator Alan Williams, who received praise for the job he did in his first season, has a defense that isn't getting the four-man rush it needs from its veteran line and is near the bottom of the NFL in total defense (29th) and scoring defense (30th).

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer can't feel any better after Bears kickoff return man Devin Hester averaged nearly 50 yards on five kickoff returns in Week 2.

On Sunday, the Browns got a first down on a fake punt, leading to a field goal, and a touchdown on a fake field goal on a play in which nobody seemed to notice that Cleveland tight end Jordan Cameron was lined up uncovered.

This, of course, also comes back on Frazier.

Why did nobody see Cameron and call a time out? Why did nobody call a time out a week ago in Chicago when Cook was frantically waving his arms to get some help in coverage just before Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw the winning touchdown? Why did Frazier attempt to challenge a muffed punt on Sunday, a call that can't be challenged.

Frazier's decision drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty from referee Bill Leavy. That was the wrong call. The punishment should have been to charge the Vikings with a timeout. But if Frazier doesn't throw the red flag, this isn't an issue.

And we aren't even getting into the fact that positions of strength from last season, such as the offensive line, have experienced significant drop-offs this year that are alarming to watch.

Name one position group on the Vikings that you feel has been solid and it will be one more than I can find.

So if you want to blame Ponder for the Vikings' troubles, go ahead. He is definitely part of the problem and not the answer. But remember that with nearly a quarter of the season gone, there is plenty of blame to go around for what ails these Vikings. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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