The first-year Viking quarterback, Christian Ponder, was formally introduced to the National Football League Sunday in Chicago. This is a city that was once demolished by fire, later acquired notoriety as the hog butcher of the world and not so long ago was held hostage by racketeers packing machine guns
It is also a city of high energy and messy politics mixed with hard-headed linebackers and even harder-headed fans. The general axiom among visiting football players is that if you can play your first game in Chicago without needing intensive care or a career change, your chances of survival in the National football league are good.
Ponder emerged in apparent good health with nine pass completions in 17 tries for 99 yards, and one hairy run from scrimmage for 8 yards. The rest of the Vikings had less luck.
They played the game in disarray, without cohesion or any apparent sense of direction.
At the end it was 39-10 for the Bears. Whether this new debacle signals a change at quarterback for the Vikings is not significant right now. Ponder will be their quarterback into the future, whether Sunday against the Super Bowl champion and undefeated Green Bay Packers or soon thereafter. Donovan McNabb was brought into the organization to open the road to a playoff run, a scheme now in shreds. He wasn’t the goat Sunday. The dismal night in Chicago was an ugly measure of the Vikings’ spectacular decline from two years ago, when they were within five yards of reaching the Super Bowl.
It happens that fast in the NFL. And for the Vikings the horror show started early with Jay Cutler’s 46-yard touchdown pass to the other-wordly speedster, Devin Hester, racing past Husain Abdullah. A few minutes later the Bears Brian Urlacher led an end zone blitz of McNabb to make it 9-0, after which Cutler threw a bullet to Roy Williams through a nearly invisible Viking pass defense, and Marion Barber walked into the end zone with the next touchdown and a 16-0 halftime lead.
Bewildered and lost
The Vikings at this stage looked ill-prepared, bewildered and lost. After which it got worse.
The Vikings’ Jared Allen, the league’s sack leader but limited to one by an overhauled Chicago offensive line, acknowledged the obvious: “They whupped us in every stage of the game.”
His coach, Leslie Frazier, wasn’t denying it.
The team’s performance, and its five losses in six games, clearly has Frazier baffled. Its personnel is not all that different from the last months of a year ago, when it broke even in his six games as the Vikings’ interim coach and when its composite quarterbacking wasn’t much better than it has been under McNabb direction this year.
The coach was asked afterward whether he was considering a change.
Frazier has to be torn up, embarrassed, by his team’s grapplings in his first two months as a head coach after his years of patiently reaching for the top in his profession — running an NFL team, asserting his values, building its personality and shaping its strategies.
What he has on his hands right now is a football team with enough proven stars and veterans to seriously contend in the NFL. It isn’t contending and unless it wins all of its last 10 games, it can’t. Sunday night Frazier sounded subdued and dismayed, groping for explanations.
He and his staff, he said, would be sitting down to figure out the direction where the team needs to go. The road directions right now, with the season one third gone, are less informative than judgmental: Start thinking about next year.
Sooner or later, and probably sooner, Frazier will have to decide that Donovan McNabb is not going to take the Vikings to the Super Bowl or lift it out of the mess it’s in right now. Having signed off on the McNabb deal during the lockout, Frazier had to give the partnership reasonable time to establish itself. In the National Football League, reasonable time is usually measured by the wails and noise level in the blogosphere after the locals blow another one.
Strong arm, nimble mind
So what has Ponder to offer beside change?
If you were going to judge him on his performance last night in the second half of a game beyond rescue, you probably saw more than you will in most rookie quarterbacks. Ponder’s arm is strong and his mind is nimble. He clearly is not awed by the super-hyped environment of professional football and he seems to have an easy rapport in the way he works with teammates and in his eagerness to learn.
But now the pre-seasons assessments of the Vikings’ strengths are awkward to parse when they’re dug up after an early season of one victory in six games — tied for the worst in Viking history.
In Adrian Peterson they began with the best runner in professional football. Their Percy Harvin was breaking long touchdown runs as a receiver, a kick-returner or just plain any time he touched the ball. Chad Greenway, Kevin Williams, Jared Allen and E.J. Henderson could play defense with anybody in football and they would find receivers to replace Sidney Rice.
They haven’t. And their best defensive backs either got old or can’t cover the thoroughbred receivers.
So Sunday night in Chicago Adrian Peterson gained 39 yards in the place where he had once gained nearly 300. Jared Allen recorded one sack and Devin Hester, pro football’s all-time runback whippet, went 98 yards for his 16th touchdown from end to end, this one for 98 yards.
“Nobody,” one of the longtime Bear watchers said Sunday, “has ever given me one good reason why they keep kicking the ball to him.”
Maybe somebody will figure out a GPS to track Hester’s probable route. The Vikings do face him one more time this year. Either that or concede and put the ball in play on the 40-yard line. Duller but safer.