Monday, October 15, 2012

For Vikings, Ponder Not The Answer

The Minnesota Vikings have been a fairly surprising team to this point in the season. Even after getting RGIII'd yesterday in the Nation's Capital, the Vikings are 4-2 and just half a game behind the Chicago Bears for first place in the NFC North.

The reason for the team's surprising start, other than a weak early schedule, can be attributed to the offense finally using Percy Harvin as much as possible, but a lot of local fans and NFL analysts have been giving a lot of credit to Christian Ponder. If you look at Ponder's traditional stats (completion percentage, TD:INT ratio, yards, QB rating) he's having a good season. He's posted a completion percentage just under 69% thus far, has thrown 8 TD and 4 INT, and he's on pace to throw for more than 3,500 yards. His QB rating is a very respectable 92.8.

However, those stats are extremely misleading. Stats are very useful, but only if you know what stats to look for. All stats are is a number representing a VERY SPECIFIC part of the football game. What helps Ponder's completion percentage? Is he throwing the ball downfield less than other quarterbacks? Some fans will INSIST they can determine these things over the course of the season by just watching the team play; these fans are wrong. They might have an idea that Ponder's arm strength isn't great; but looking at statistics and how he's performed will give a better idea on Ponder's arm than simply watching every game. Nothing is more correct than the stats; as long as we understand that each stat only tells a small part of the story. You need to combine the right statistical analysis to get a real picture of how a player is performing.

Air Yards Per Attempt, or AYPA, is a good statistic that measures the average distance a quarterback throws each pass. It's a better statistic to use than Yards Per Attempt, because Percy Harvin turning a 2 yard screen pass into a 70-yard touchdown would be a 2-yard pass on AYPA and a 70-yard pass according to YPA. Obviously, it's important to know that Percy caught the pass and did most of the work so we aren't overstating Ponder's throwing ability.

Ponder's AYPA is 5.4, which is right in the middle of the pack among starting quarterbacks. For comparison's sake, RGIII leads the league at 6.7 AYPA, while Blaine Gabbert is dead last at 3.5 AYPA. Arm strength plays a big part in this number, but so does the play-calling, so it's not a be all-end all for QB arm strength. Not even close.

While being in the middle of the pack is hardly a bad thing, especially when compared with Ponder's ability early in the season to not turn the ball over, it simply shows that the Vikings are generally throwing check-downs and screens. Even more proof of that exists in Ponder's deep ball %, which measures what percent of Ponder's throws have been more than 15 yards.

Ponder ranks 28th in this statistic, with just 15.7% of his throws being deep passes. Interestingly, RGIII is currently dead last at just 12.5%, although that shows how conservative Washington continues to be with their rookie. Jay Cutler leads the league at 30.8%. The Bears are throwing deep passes almost twice as often as the Vikings. Is it really possible I miss Mike Tice?

The Vikings offense has been one of the most conservative offenses in football, but thanks to the explosiveness of both Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, the team's 7th-grade level offense has been fairly successful. The issue is that once the Vikings begin to play better opponents, they'll have trouble moving the ball consistently. Even the Redskins defense was able to adjust after the first quarter and shut down a predictable and simple offense, at least until they started playing prevent with a 19-point lead.

Ponder's arm strength is seriously limiting the play-calling, although the Vikings specifically try to run a west coast system that plays to Ponder's strengths; short accurate throws and solid mobility. The issue that Ponder's arm strength creates is when the team is trailing by multiple scores in the fourth quarter. Ponder is unable to throw a ball between two defenders 15 yards down the field, and when teams are playing a soft zone to prevent long touchdowns with a big lead, it means the Vikings will almost always run out of time when trying to make a comeback. Six and seven yard passes are effective and important; no doubt. But when you need to score quickly, you need a quarterback that has the arm strength to fit the ball into tiny windows. Christian Ponder doesn't have that arm strength.

Ponder ranks 14th in the league in Success Rate, a stat that measures how often a player was involved in a play and it was deemed a successful play. Ponder's success rate is 49.6%, and while being slightly above average is a good thing, it should be higher. For someone with such a low deep ball %, more of Ponder's passes are going to be complete. On average, a 5-yard completion will be a successful play, unless it's 3rd down and 6 or longer. And because it's obviously easier to complete a 5-yard pass than a 20-yard pass, Ponder's success rate SHOULD be higher than a lot of quarterbacks. Of course, it could be worse. Blaine Gabbert is last in the league in AYPA, second to last in deep ball %, and dead last in Success Rate. Blaine Gabbert was taken three spots ahead of Christian Ponder, so it absolutely could have been worse.

But again, it's very difficult to win a Super Bowl without an elite quarterback. Ponder could develop into an elite game manager, which would put him at least in the argument for top 12 or so in the league. But he's not quite there yet, and I'm afraid if the Vikings decide to take the kiddy gloves off of the offense and start throwing the ball down field more, the results will be very poor.

Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave deserve credit for doing their best to game plan around Ponder's weaknesses and for accentuating his positives. But unfortunately, Frazier had some say in taking Ponder 12th overall, and his throwing numbers just don't suggest he'll be a star at any point in this league. If Ponder continues to play like he has as the Vikings schedule gets tougher, he's a solid NFL starter, no question, at least with the right play-calling. I would be shocked if he continues to play as well as he has, though, mainly because teams like Tennessee and Jacksonville are no longer on the team's schedule. But even if he does, the offensive game-planning is going to limit the team's ability to score points.

Despite having two dynamic offensive playmakers in AP and Percy, the Vikings have scored touchdowns on just 50% of their red-zone possessions, 18th in the league. For comparison, last season's 3-13 Vikings team converted almost 57% of their red-zone possessions into touchdowns. Obviously this team is 4-2 because they have a lot more red zone opportunities this year, but it's worrisome nonetheless. If they're converting just 50% into touchdowns when they've really only played one good defense (San Francisco) it doesn't bode well for the rest of the season.

That, again, is a sign of Ponder's lack of arm strength. Red zone touchdown passes generally have to be thrown into the end zone; screens and checkdowns get less and less yards as the field shortens up and the defenders have far less ground to cover. Ponder's arm strength doesn't allow him to fit the ball into tight windows consistently, or really at all. The Vikings have tried to counteract this by simply throwing jump balls to Kyle Rudolph; if Ponder can't fit a ball in a tight spot, just have him throw it high and let the receiver make a play.

In theory, it's a decent idea. In actuality, it's worked once or twice. Rudolph might have great hands, but he hasn't shown it yet. When he's wide open, he's very useful. He can jump high, and his 2-point conversion catch was very nice. He's good at catching a checkdown and turning it into a 12-yard gain. But he's shown all season that he has trouble catching balls in traffic, which was supposed to be one of his strengths. He's a physical specimen and he's taller than most linebackers and corners; if he could catch a ball while jumping in traffic he'd be a deadly red zone target. As it is now, he's a solid red zone player, because he's one of only three real options the team has. Hopefully his hands will improve over the course of the season and the Vikings will go into 2013 with an elite tight end, but to be honest, I don't see that happening.

Unless Ponder completely falls apart between now and the end of the season there's really no way the team will give up on him, which is too bad. If Ponder has a solid season, the team could potentially get good value for him in terms of draft picks. It shouldn't be too hard to sell a 24-year-old QB with a year and a half of experience coming off a a 93 QB rating season; there undoubtedly are general managers and whole organizations who would look only at Ponder's traditional stats and listen to their scouts. That's fine, and it bodes well for the Vikings to continue to baby Ponder and throw short passes, to try and keep his QB rating high. It will improve his value, make him look better, and at this point it's the best chance the Vikings have to win. But come next season, it'd be nice if the team had a quarterback that had the skill set to possibly develop into a top 3 QB in football. Unless Ponder breaks his arm and has a Rookie of the Year type healing, he's not likely to ever get into the conversation of elite quarterbacks, strictly because of his arm strength. Which means we'll continue to watch our Vikings not win the Super Bowl.



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