I was as shocked as everyone else to discover Christian Ponder wouldn’t be playing at Lambeau. The stories circulating during the week about his injured elbow seemed like nothing more than injury report gamesmanship to keep the Packers guessing, and never did I actually think #7 wouldn’t take the field. Unfortunately the injury was very real and an overmatched Joe Webb was forced into the game, leading to an ugly end to an otherwise great season.
It’s hard to be too disappointed by the loss, after all, the Vikings were in rebuilding mode and hardly anyone expected them to win more than five games. Instead, we fans were treated to a roller coaster season in which the Vikings showed that they are a team on the rise.
Here are the final grades I would give to each position and how I think they can be upgraded going into next season:
QB-(C+): Christian Ponder started the season great, looked horrible in the middle, and finished strong enough to ensure his place as a started next season. While I’m not in love with him as much as Samantha Steele is, I can live with him going in as the #1 next season. But, and this is a huge but, the Vikings must have a competent back up on the roster. Whether it is Alex Smith, Matt Flynn, or Fran freaking Tarkenton, they absolutely must have a warm body capable of passing the ball should Ponder regress or bruise a different part of his delicate figure.
RB-(A+): Adrian Peterson had the best rushing season in NFL history, given how terrible the passing game was and the fact that he was coming off a brutal knee injury. Toby Gerhart will sign elsewhere in the offseason, so they will need to add a capable backup, but Peterson should have at least two more years of high level running in him, hopefully three or four.
WR-(D) Percy Harvin’s outstanding first half of the season is the only thing that saves this group from a rock bottom F grade, and even that bright spot is tarnished by his injury and subsequent erratic behavior. When Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher were injured, they were right there on the sidelines to support their teammates as they made playoff pushes. Where the hell was Harvin? There is no excuse for him not being there. I’d like to see the Vikings trade Harvin, sign a Greg Jennings or Dwayne Bowe, and then use a 1st or 2nd round pick on another receiver. Jarious Wright and Michael Jenkins can be serviceable as slot and possession receivers, respectively, but more talent is desperately needed. I only bring Jerome Simpson back if he accepts another super cheap one year contract.
TE-(C) Kyle Rudolph is an excellent tight end and deserves a B+ himself, but the utter failure that is John Carlson drags this group down. Unfortunately, I think the Vikings painted themselves into a corner with Carlson’s big contract ($9.1 million guaranteed? Really Spielman?), thus cutting him outright this offseason is unlikely. But they may be able to get him to restructure (so he won’t get cut next offseason), or, god forbid, he might somehow become more useful than a rubber crutch next season. Rhett Ellison also may be in line for more pass catching should Carlson continue to suck like a nuclear powered vacuum.
OL-(B) While pass protection was mediocre until the last four games, the run blocking by this line gets them the B grade. LT Matt Kalil is an All-Pro in the making, John Sullivan is solid at C, and LG Charlie Johnson is decent and relatively cheap, so I can live with him returning. But the Fusco/Schwartz trainwreck at RG needs to be upgraded badly. RT Phil Loadholt, while a good run blocker, struggles in pass protection and takes far too many boneheaded penalties. He is now a free agent and I don’t want to see him in purple unless the Vikes can somehow get him on the cheap. The chances of this are slim and this may be the position the Vikings need to address with their 1st round pick or free agency. I don’t think a team can ever go wrong by making the offensive line a top priority, so if they go OL with early picks, I won’t complain. (especially if they get a top WR in free agency.)
DL-(B) I like this group, with the exception of NT. Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, and Kevin Williams are all players in the good to great range and I will be happy to see them next season. Williams and Allen are both entering the final year of their respective contracts, so hopefully we will see the “contract year” boost in productivity. I could see the Vikes extending Allen’s contract next season (he’s got 3-4 years of prime football left in him), but not the older Williams, unless he is willing to play for less to stay. At NT, Fred Evans and Letroy Guion are not good; this spot sorely needs an upgrade.
LB-(C) Chad Greenway, who should be in the Pro Bowl, is the only high card in this crappy hand. Erin Henderson is not an NFL linebacker, and Jasper Brinkley isn’t much better, thus, after WR, I think this is the most critical position to address. The Vikings can get a quality LB in the third round, but if they can grab a stud in the 1st or 2nd, then they have to do it.
DB-(B) The reason I grade this group this high is the crazy improvement over last season. Harrison Smith is on his way to being a star, Chris Cook is a very solid cover corner, Josh Robinson is an improving speedster who can be excellent, and Antoine Winfield is the wily veteran who has already said he is returning next season. I could live with Jamarca Sanford returning at safety, but I wouldn’t be excited about it. The Vikes do need to add another CB and S to create more depth, but the core of this group is young and talented, which bodes well for the future.
ST-(A-) Chris Kluwe’s up and down season is what keeps this unit from getting a solid A. Blair Walsh is the league’s best kicker, the punt and kick coverage units were outstanding, and punt and kick return were both solid, with a TD for each. Of course not having Harvin would be a huge setback for KR, but Marcus Sherels has done a decent enough job where I’d be okay with him taking over PR and KR duties next season. Not many worries with these units.
Coaching-(B) They were far from perfect, but the fact is that the Vikings coaching staff turned a 3 win pile of dung into a 10 win playoff team in one year. Leslie Frazier doesn’t wow me, but at the same time I can’t find any real holes in his performance. He doesn’t challenge stupid plays, he doesn’t call idiotic timeouts, and he seems to be a guy players want to play for. He has earned a contract extension and should get one soon. Bill Musgrave had good moments and terrible moments, but it is hard to know which is due to Ponder’s uneven performances and which is due to Peterson’s dominance. As the Vikings add more WR talent and Ponder improves (hopefully), then we may get a better idea of the competence/creativity of Musgrave’s playcalling. Alan Williams did a fine job in his first year as DC, as the Vikings finished 7th in the NFC in scoring defense, a number that would be much higher if Ponder hadn’t been giving the ball away in the red zone so often. Overall, this staff deserves kudos, but the test will be to see if they can improve upon it next season.
Given what was expected of the Vikes, it was a great season. How good this team is next season rests primarily with Christian Ponder, but as was shown this season, the Vikings can be good even if he isn’t great. I was very encouraged by the way Ponder finished the year, and I think the Vikes can go into next season fairly confident that he can be a decent QB. Not great, but a guy that can win with talent around him. As long as they continue to add talent, (especially at WR, LB, and OL) then there is every reason to believe they will be even better next year.
I can’t wait.