Consider the irony of the Vikings’ dismal 23-7 loss to the New York Giants Monday night in East Rutherford N.J., where Minnesota ignored a chance to escape the first-day embarrassment that was Josh Freeman’s debut as the team’s designated savior.
In the National Football League this year, it’s not easy to lose to the New York Giants. In fact, it was uncharted territory until the Vikings arrived on the scene. They brought with them Josh Freeman, a bright and notably self-involved quarterback with a powerful arm and a substantial hunger for recognition.
This was his first swipe as a Viking. Bringing him in made sense to a lot of people.
What wasn’t quite as sensible in this newest Viking melodrama was the haste of his new employers to rush him into battle four days after he picked up their play book. It wasn’t so much desperation. Almost anybody can beat the Giants, who this year set new norms in collective misery. Apart from Eli Manning, basically the Giants are packing it in. So with just three days’ exposure to the Viking offense, and with the approval of armies of triumphant bloggers, the Vikings unleashed Josh on the wobbly Giants.
Two months from now, the Vikings with Josh Freeman could probably beat the Giants. Until Monday night, everybody else did.
Which meant that Christian Ponder drew the black spot and is now formally deposed as the Viking quarterback. For at least one game, call that a pity. Ponder might actually have saved the Vikings.
By the third quarter, rushing Josh Freeman into battle didn’t seem all that thrilling an idea. Freeman’s problem was not so much mechanics, his mentality or his arm. He comes with a howitzer. In the end, it actually wasn’t fair or very smart to put him out there after a few days’ acquaintance with his new team and its systems, although the Viking brain trust on the field felt obliged to do it.
The season was deteriorating. Management was glowering and worried about the ticket-buying public rebelling from paying a ransom to guarantee a seat and the privilege of spending thousands of dollars for tickets to watch a losing football team in a new stadium the public itself built.
The Viking millionaires looked for Freeman to bail them out of the predicament. Josh came with open arms but with practically no clue to the offense. He’s ambitious to recover his reputation after washing out with Tampa Bay. He may eventually work out. God knows everything else has been tried. But it would have been easier Monday night if he knew the names of the people he was throwing to, or where they lined up or when they cut left or right if the safety had them in sight.
So while Josh struggled through it, in the last quarter while there was still a chance, the deposed Christian Ponder, who just 10 months ago had helped take the Vikings into playoffs, stood there on the sideline with his knowledge and his empty helmet.
There were moments in the second half when the Giants were ready to go into their weekly fold, despite Manning trying to keep them afloat. One professional drive by the Vikings that found open receivers and hit on enough throws could have done it. It would have removed the shackles the Giants wrapped around Adrian Peterson and would have persuaded the Giants that this was one more fold-up they could add to their previous six straight losses to open the season.
The Giants are that bad. Still are, despite Manning’s forlorn attempts to turn them around.
Ponder might have been able to do it. He knew the receivers, the cuts they make, where they want the ball. He knows, for Pete’s sake, their names.
When it was over, Leslie Frazier, the coach, could hardly blame Freeman or his microscopic efficiency rating of 40, which on a quarterback’s report card equates with F minus. Whether Frazier signed on to the original decision to bring in Freeman, the coach’s situation in midseason is precarious enough now for him to go along.
When it was over, Frazier struggled to find any redeeming value out of the mess the Vikings created. It happened in front of a national television audience that long before the game was finished started shifting to the assault of the zombies on TV reruns — which might have looked more credible than what fans were watching from the NFL.
Frazier must have blanched, almost as much as Adrian Peterson himself, to see the great running back’s numbers for the night: 28 yards rushing in 13 carries for an average of 2.2 yards each time.
The Giants clearly were not terrified by Freeman’s potential. They seemed to have little to worry about from the receivers the Vikings were sending out. Most of them can catch, but not when the throw sails into the next time zone.
Freeman clearly is better than that, or at least he was earlier in his pro career. But once he began flinging his mortar shots around the stadium, often missing open receivers by yards over their heads, the Giants were comfortable packing most of the defense with enough beef to keep Adrian Peterson in the ballpark. He never did break out. The Giants’ front line and linebackers came at him all night with everything but the Manhattan Ferry, and his total of 28 yards was one of the slimmest of his career.
Enter Jared Allen, the only Viking who appeared to be having a semblance of quality play as well as pure fun. He finally got his sack of the night, grappling with a Giant heavyweight with one arm while reaching out with the other to haul in the quarterback.
It was only 10-7 for the Giants at halftime after the Vikings’ Marcus Sherels launched one of his now-familiar end-to-end punt returns, this one for 86 yards and a brief early Viking lead before Manning hit Rueben Randle on a 24-yard pass, giving New York a 10-7 lead into the third quarter.
It hurt that that the Vikings’ long-distance field goal kicker, Blair Walsh, was nursing an injury that pretty much took him out of the game as a three-point threat. So it was six or none on each Viking possession. It didn’t help when Sherels later fumbled and put the Giants in easy range of another score. Peyton Hillis, the Giants’ running back was a pale copy of the great Giants running backs that helped carry them to two Super Bowl victories, but he was good enough when the Giants needed to keep possession.
And Josh Brown finished the scoring with field goals of 23 and 36 yards in the second half.
For the Vikings, there wasn’t much redemption in any of this. Peterson, the premier running back of his generation, was frustrated and disconsolate at the finish. The Giants had lost all six games to start the season, but at the finish, the Vikings were posing no credible threat. It meant their record now stands at one victory — in England over the Pittsburgh Steelers — five losses and a game coming up Sunday night against Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers, who now lead the NFC North with 4 victories and 2 defeats.
The Vikings stand last, behind Chicago and Detroit as well as Green Bay.
The football fan could derive scant satisfaction from that dismal three-hour scene. There was Giants coach Tom Coughlin, a good man and winner of two Super Bowl titles, hanging on to try to salvage some dignity out of what almost surely will be his last season. And across the field was Leslie Frazier, a principled man, looking out on a scene he didn’t really create but one for which he’s eventually going to take the fall.
And they call this the richest and most successful sports enterprise in American history. That it is. TV’s ultimate triumph over reality.