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November 13, 2013 at 10:52 AM

Five Questions, Five Answers: Minnesota Vikings

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Time once again for our Five Questions, Five Answers look at Seattle’s upcoming opponent.

This week, our guest is Mark Craig, who covers the Minnesota Vikings for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Seattle and Minnesota kick it off at 1:25 p.m. Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

Question 1: Minnesota was a playoff team in 2012 and now is 2-7 and all but out of it. What in a nutshell has gone wrong?

Answer: It’s been a combination of extremely weak quarterback play and atrocious pass defense. For instance, three of the four losses — Chicago, Cleveland and Dallas — have come in the final minute of games. The two-minute pass defense has melted down because of a back seven that’s been totally out of sync, which is a recipe for disaster in the Vikings’ zone-based scheme. However, in each of those losses, Christian Ponder (above in an Associated Press photo) has had opportunities to make a key throw in the four-minute offense to extend drives and run time off the clock. In each case, Ponder has been, as coaches have said, “just a hair off.” Most of his career to this point could be described as being perpetually “just a hair off.” The difference this year is Peterson isn’t covering up inconsistent quarterback play with consistent 50- to 80-yard touchdown runs.

Ponder’s broken rib against the Browns gave the Vikings the perfect out to start Matt Cassel when the team was 0-3. Cassel beat Pittsburgh and was decent, but proved the following week that he’s basically a career journeyman backup when he threw two ugly picks in a 25-point home upset loss to Carolina. That’s when things got really interesting. GM Rick Spielman had gone out and signed Josh Freeman on Oct. 6. When Cassel played poorly against Carolina, the Vikings turned to Freeman for the Monday nighter at the Giants. After just four practices with the first team, Freeman was woefully erratic, completed just 37.7 percent of his passes (20 of 53). Two days later, the Vikings announced that Freeman had suffered a concussion. That put Ponder back in as the starter, but he’s going week to week. After showing some good signs against a pathetic Cowboys defense, Ponder played his best game of the year in helping beat the Redskins on Thursday night.

But Ponder dislocated his left shoulder in a collision at the goal line against the Redskins. He left late in the third quarter and his status is up in the air for Seattle. In other words, the Vikings’ quarterback situation couldn’t possibly be more messed up than it is. But defensively, losing free safety Harrison Smith to turf toe in the Carolina game was a gigantic blow. With Antoine Winfield gone, Smith is head and shoulders above anyone else as the best defensive back on the team. The Vikings also have been without RCB Chris Cook and SS Jamarca Sanford the past two games. That’s three of four starters in the secondary out. And the lone starter still healthy is Winfield’s replacement, Josh Robinson, who has had a terrible season, particularly when he moves inside to the slot corner spot in the nickel. The offensive line also has been a major disappointment. Until this past game, the unit had started the same five in 25 consecutive games, but they had actually regressed as a unit. Two starters were out against the Redskins — left guard Charlie Johnson and right tackle Phil Loadholt — but the Vikings were able to win.

Q2: This could be the Seattle debut for Percy Harvin and it comes against his former team. What is the general feeling in Minnesota about his career there and his departure?

A: Percy was loved in Minnesota because of how hard he plays the game, how explosive he is and how unusual he is as a receiver in a running back’s body. Pound for pound, no one was tougher. Adrian Peterson called him “Mighty Mouse” and said he’s never played with anyone better than Percy. But off the field, Percy started to wear on people. He bickered with Brad Childress, who wasn’t a favorite among players, and Leslie Frazier, who is universally respected. Percy showed up at a mandatory mini-camp last year to announce that he wasn’t happy. Then he skipped the next day and requested a trade. Then, when he didn’t get the trade, he showed up at training camp and, naturally, blamed the media for blowing it out of proportion. Harvin’s high-maintenance personality was doing fine early in the year. He was a front-runner for MVP while Peterson rounded into form coming off ACL surgery. Things changed in Seattle last year. Harvin was injured in the game. He tried to come back and got further injured. Then he blew up on the sideline, yelling at Frazier. We never got the full story from either party, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Harvin was upset with a series of red zone plays in which Ponder and/or offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave didn’t get the job done the way Harvin wanted. That was Week 9. Harvin’s ankle injury wasn’t described as potentially season-ending, but that’s what it ended up being.

The Vikings finally put Harvin on injured reserve and he left the team and never came back. Then rumors started surfacing that Harvin would hold out if he didn’t get a contract extension, which the Vikings had been known to do with player heading into the final year of their contract. Ideally, fans — and the team — would have preferred to keep Harvin. But the drama that is Percy — from the uncertainty about the next migraine to the consistent unhappiness — wore some people out. When Vikings general manager Rick Spielman was able to get as much as he did from the Seahawks, people seemed satisfied that the Vikings did the right thing. Of course, it’s also helped that Percy hasn’t played a game yet. If he was on SportsCenter every week making huge plays for a 9-1 team, I’m sure people wouldn’t be as supportive of the trade.

Q3: Is Christian Ponder or Josh Freeman the team’s QB of the future, or will they have to look for someone else?

A: The quarterback situation will be fascinating to watch unfold. Ponder is the only quarterback under contract for next year, but it’s clear the Vikings are more than ready to move on without him. They can say whatever they want about Freeman being too good to pass up, but if the team thought Ponder was their QB of the future, they wouldn’t have looked twice at Freeman. Ponder is a great guy and liked in the locker room, but the Vikings would be wise to just move on. He shows glimpses here and there that he could be a decent quarterback, but the inconsistency is too, well, consistent to commit to him long-term. He doesn’t have the arm strength, accuracy or field vision to be a franchise quarterback. Freeman has the arm strength the Vikings covet to pair with Peterson, who consistently draws eight and nine men into the box. But Freeman is a free agent at the end of the year. He’s more likely to be the QB next year than Ponder. Cassel isn’t in the mix as a starter and would likely move on and look for a potential starting job elsewhere. If I had to guess, the Vikings will try to re-sign Freeman but will also draft a quarterback. And I think the rookie will end up being their starter next year.

Q4: Adrian Peterson’s yards per carry is down from 6.0 last year to 4.5 so far this season. Is he any different or is that a reflection on the team around him?

A: Peterson is still great, but what we’re getting a reminder of is just how off the charts last year’s 2,097-yard season was. He’s still on pace for 1,307 yards, so it’s not like he’s not playing well. But things aren’t as crisp as they were last year. The offensive line has allowed more immediate penetration, which has blown up a lot of plays and resulted in a lot of tackles for loss. And with the quarterbacks being unable to make defenses pay for overloading the run, things haven’t gotten any better.

Q5: Former Seahawk John Carlson had a big game last weekend for Minnesota but in general it seems his numbers aren’t what would have been expected when he signed. What’s the perception of what he has done there so far?

A; Honestly, until last week, John was one of the more invisible players on the team. If he wasn’t a Minnesota native, no one would have known his name. The Vikings had big plans for him when they overpaid for him in free agency (five years, $25 million). They were going to pair him with Kyle Rudolph and have an offense with two pass-catching tight ends. But Carlson suffered a knee injury early in training camp last year. He missed the entire preseason and the plan was scrapped. Carlson came back, but was banged up the entire year. A concussion kept him out of the Seattle game a year ago, and he finished with just eight catches for the entire year. Last Thursday, with Rudolph out because of a fractured left foot suffered four days earlier against the Cowboys, Carlson was moved to Rudolph’s “Y” tight end position and responded with one of the better pass-catching days of his career. Rudolph will be out another three to five weeks, so Carlson will get plenty of more opportunities beginning this week in Seattle.

 

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