Zulgad: Will Vikings offense improve? All eyes remain on Christian Ponder
Adrian Peterson's run to earning Most Valuable Player honors in the NFL last season left him only 9 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record and came less than a year after he suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee.
If the Minnesota Vikings running back was going to have a rebound season like that one, it really should have been in 2013. Instead, Peterson will be shooting for a repeat performance of the brilliance he displayed as he knifed through opposing defenses for 2,097 yards and helped the Vikings rebound from a 3-13 debacle to go 10-6 and earn a playoff berth.
In a league in which offenses have become focused on the passing game, Peterson will remain the central figure of his team's attack. But coach Leslie Frazier also knows that getting improved and more consistent play from quarterback Christian Ponder and a retooled receiving corps could help the Vikings take the next step in their progression.
"I think in order for our team to be its most successful we without question have to run our offense through Adrian," Frazier told Tom Pelissero and Jim Souhan during an appearance this week on "Sunday Morning SportsTalk" on 1500 ESPN.
"But we have to improve our passing game as people continue to load the box to stop Adrian. We've got to be able to take advantage of some of the mismatches we hope we'll have this season. With Greg Jennings, with Cordarrelle Patterson, with Joe Webb, Jarius Wright. Some of the one-on-one coverages we're going to get. If we can do that and Adrian continues to play the way he has, we can be an explosive offense."
Jennings, who spent his first seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers and battled injuries in 2012, signed a five-year, $45 million free-agent contract with the Vikings in March that included $17.8 million in guarantees. The Vikings also paid a steep price to obtain Patterson, sending four draft picks to New England in order to get back into the first round and take the dynamic wide receiver out of Tennessee with the 29th pick.
The Vikings lost an elite talent in March when they dealt unhappy slot receiver Percy Harvin to Seattle but overall this group should be improved. Jennings, if healthy, is a major upgrade on a guy like Michael Jenkins and Patterson is raw but appears to have the gifts to become the type of big-play, vertical threat the Vikings mostly have lacked in recent seasons.
"We have been really impressed with some of the things he's done," Frazier said of Patterson. "He catches the ball very, very well. We kind of had that idea when we scouted him prior to the draft. But his knowledge of the passing game is actually a little bit further along than we thought it would be. We feel like we'll be able to give him a little bit more than we thought we could and yet utilize his gifts.
"He's another guy who's best with the ball in his hands after the catch. We've got to devise some ways to make sure he gets his catches without having to figure out, 'What defense are they playing?' or 'Do I run this route? Do I convert to this?' Don't let him have to do a lot of thinking as a rookie, but just put him in situations where he'll have an opportunity to do what he does best and that's run after the catch."
Throw in that Jerome Simpson has to be better than he was last season (26 catches, 274 yards, no touchdowns) as he battled a back injury, along with the fact the Vikings should get more production from tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson, and it would appear the aerial attack should be improved.
However, there is one more key figure in this conversation: Ponder.
The 12th-overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Ponder is entering a season that could be considered make or break given the expectations put on young quarterbacks these days.
Ponder's critics will point to the fact that after having Joe Webb as his backup in 2012, the Vikings went out and signed veteran free agent Matt Cassel to a two-year, $7.4 million free-agent deal in March.
Webb never appeared to be a real option to replace Ponder - the fact Webb has been moved to wide receiver after a horrible start last January in the Vikings' playoff loss at Green Bay - is proof that the team was never completely sold on him as a real option to take over the job. Cassel will arrive at Mankato as a backup but could present a threat to take over if Ponder struggles.
Those who defend Ponder will make the point that general manager Rick Spielman is the quarterback's biggest backer, and that Ponder did show significant progress last December in leading the Vikings to four consecutive victories and a playoff berth. Ponder didn't start the first-round game at Lambeau Field because of a bruised triceps that left him unable to throw the ball.
Frazier, for his part, is doing everything he can to dial back the pressure on Ponder as the Vikings go through the early stages of Organized Team Activities at Winter Park.
"It's not so much what Christian needs to do," this season, Frazier said. "I think Christian is working extremely hard and he's going to have a good year. We just have to make sure around him that everybody is stepping up and doing their part.
"We fully expect him to build on what he did in the month of December with our football team. If that's the case, it's just a matter of everybody else chipping in and doing their thing. If so, we're going to have a very good football team."
The Vikings opened last December with a 23-14 loss in Green Bay. Ponder completed only 12 of 25 passes for 119 yards, throwing one touchdown and two key interceptions. The performance left some questioning whether Frazier should have lifted the struggling quarterback for Webb.
Ponder, who had gotten a bit lucky but hadn't thrown an interception in the Vikings' surprising 3-1 start, had 11 picks in an eight-game span after the loss at Lambeau.
"There were a lot of factors that went into some of the mistakes that were made during that period," Frazier said. "It wasn't only Christian. But the thing that helps me and helps our entire staff and organization was the way he bounced back from some of those tough games midway through the season. That's what we were all hoping for and that's what you want to build on.
"There are going to (be times) when you have some down games and how you respond to that probably determines if you're going to survive in this league. That's not only at the quarterback position but almost every position. But in particular there because everybody kind of focuses on the quarterback. His bounce back is what impressed me and that's what we need going forward."
Ponder's "bounce back" included four touchdown passes and only one interception in the final four games. In the final three victories of the regular season, Ponder posted quarterback ratings of 83.9 at St. Louis, 81.8 at Houston and 120.2 against Green Bay.
He threw for 234 yards and three scores in a 37-34 win against the Packers to close the regular season. Those final four wins also came with Harvin having landed himself on injured reserve.
"I think what we saw in the month of December was kind of like what we'd all like to see continue," Frazier said. "He did a great job of running our football team and displaying what you'd like to see in a championship caliber quarterback. He did a great job of not turning the ball over, making the clutch throws, getting us in and out of pass plays. Knowing when to scramble and knowing when to throw the ball away.
"He did an outstanding job for us and when you control the game the way he did, and with our running game and our defense continuing to step up and our special teams being so dominant, you get good quarterback play and you have a chance to have a very good football team."
Asked what he wanted to see from Ponder going forward, Frazier said: "You want to see any quarterback just continue to make good decisions with the football. That's one of the keys to having a successful team. Whether that would be late in downs or at the beginning of a down, being able to throw the ball where it has to be thrown and then throw it accurately to that spot.
"You want to see him consistently show that he can take care of the football and lead the team. He displayed that in periods a season ago so you know he's capable of it and now he'll have a chance to build on what he did at the end of last season."
Ponder is looking forward to the opportunity.
"There were a lot of things I improved on," he said of his progress from 2011 to 2012. "There are still a lot of things I can improve on for this year. I think just overall as a quarterback I progressed. I think I made better decisions. There were a couple of games that I made some poor ones, but you'd like to see a progression from each year and I expect even more progression this year."
Safe to say the Vikings and their fans are expecting the same.