Last year, the Vikings got away with sub-par quarterback play by leaning on a stalwart defense and an unreal string of success from Adrian Peterson and finished with a respectable 10-6 record that included a coveted wild card playoff berth. Their lone postseason contest didn’t end pretty (a 24-10 loss to the Packers), but then again there was very little the team could do with Ponder sidelined by injury and the anemic Joe Webb in his place. Head coach Leslie Frazier decided to employ the age old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” strategy during the offseason rolled into the 2013 campaign with a roster that was structurally similar to the product of one year previous. On offense, long time Packers wideout Greg Jennings and first round rookie Cordarrelle Patterson were added to supplement Christian Ponder’s ball-catching arsenal, but the fact that it was Ponder’s arsenal to begin with was the real problem.
The Vikings thought that they could cover up their subpar quarterback play with a historically-prolific running back. They thought that the new firepower in the receiving corps would augment his development. They thought that a good offensive line and sound defense could provide an adequate safety blanket when their young signal-caller struggled.
Three weeks, five interceptions and zero wins later, Minnesota’s outlook had been downgraded from cautiously optimistic to shamefully dismal. Ponder couldn’t even escape the first month of the season as the starter for Vikes. You can make all the preparations in the world to delay a sinking ship, but unless you can engineer some structural fixes, it’s all for naught. Sometimes the best course of action is to cue the violins, send out the life rafts, and let a Titanic-like passer meet his tragic end. Then you get back to the grind and start constructing a better craft, one that hopefully avoids the pitfalls that sunk its predecessor.
To say that Josh Freeman was built from the ground up by the Purple and Gold would be a stretch; he hasn’t played a home game in the northern United States since, well, never. From his youth in Missouri to his collegiate career in Kansas to his five year professional career in Tampa Bay, Freeman likely spent little time contemplating the barren winters and Nordic charm of the Twin Cities, the place he now finds himself clawing tooth and nail for his NFL life. A sudden, ugly spat with Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano has left a borderline franchise quarterback with the kind of shaky league-wide reputation that made teams think twice about acquiring his services. Couple that with a 4 to 12 touchdown-to-interception ratio through his last 6 games dating back to last season and it’s easy to imagine Freeman’s first stop in the league also being his last.
But the resilient Missourian hooked on with another franchise, given second life despite his pockmarked past and early-season release. As luck would have it, he happened to land on a reasonably well-rounded squad whose most glaring deficiency is under center. Few 1-4 teams (yes, I glossed over Matt Cassel’s two starts, and for good reason) can possibly provide a better supporting cast for an inconsistent quarterback than the Vikings; their run game, pass blocking and run blocking all rank in the top ten in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Few 1-4 teams could have hoped to land a 25 year old quarterback with 60 starts and 13,000 yards under his belt at such a nominal price. The move has the potential to become one of the league’s better surprise marriages, as long as Freeman and Frazier can avoid the struggles that torpedoed the Bucs. Granted, that last statement might be easier said than done.
Freeman’s Monday night Viking debut was the antithesis of getting off on the right foot. He danced around the pocket like it was a bed of hot coals, an astonishing number of his throws sailed high and wide, and ruined scoring chances on two separate occasions with an ill-guided interception and a deep sack. Critics everywhere called out his merit, his ability as a starter, his place on a professional roster. Hell, even Jon Gruden was calling for Christian Ponder by the end of the first half. But as far as gambles go, Freeman finding his second wind is far from the league’s biggest longshot.
To expect mastery of a professional playbook in roughly two weeks is a case study in impatience and jaded perception. Plugging in a new quarterback isn’t a magical elixir for the Vikings, or most other teams. Peyton Manning can enter a demoralized locker room and charge it with Super Bowl vibes almost instantly- Freeman is just hoping not to clear out his locker again this season. What Freeman will provide an offense is prototypical size and a live arm. He’s not afraid to air it out when needed, having thrown for 7.1 yards per attempt in 2012, good for 9th among quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts. In a season in which he struggled mightily down the stretch, Freeman still tossed up a 4065/27 passing line. He finished top ten in both of those categories as well, mind you.
Integrate a few more deep passes into Minnesota’s playbook and Jennings might find purchase to regain his Pro Bowl form. That would force defenses to stop treating the tackling box like a game of Jenga and drop back into coverage, allowing more space for the one and only Purple Jesus to wreak his patented brand of rushing havoc. The defense won’t have to spend as much time backed up against their own side of the field, leading to an uptick in their impact in pass coverage and points allowed. None of that happens with check-down artists like Ponder or Cassel in the fold. Freeman isn’t necessarily an end-all-be-all solution. He’s not going to transcend an offense like Brett Favre or carve up the field like Daunte Culpepper. Rather, he represents a chance to salvage some remnant of success in an already forgotten season, and that’s all you can ask for when your team is mired in the cellar.
Time to see if one man’s trash can become a Vikings treasure.