This week, "Is This Real?" moves onto the rapidly expanding bandwagon of the 3-1 Minnesota Vikings, who are improbably tied for the division lead in the NFC North with the Bears. For a team whose biggest signing this offseason after a 3-13 season was backup tight end John Carlson, the Vikings have basically stood pat with their core of talent and emerged as an impressive team during the first quarter of the NFL season. But are they for real?
Well, the answer to that question starts by reexamining last year's team, one that was better than a lot of people realized. You know the stats that came up in the seemingly ill-fated 49ers preview I wrote before the season? The ones that San Francisco have ignored en route to an impressive 3-1 start of their own? Well, they sure seem to work for the Vikings. Last year, Minnesota was 3-13, but their point differential was that of a 5.5-win team, suggesting that the Vikings' record undersold their actual underlying level of performance by about 2.5 wins. That showed up in Minnesota's record in games decided by a touchdown or less; Minnesota was a dismal 2-9 in those games, including an 0-4 start that saw them blow double-digit halftime leads in each of their first three games. The last team that was so bad in those close games was the 1998 Panthers, who went 2-9 in those close games, 2-3 otherwise, and underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by 2.1 wins. The next year, Carolina went 8-8.
What really surprised me was what little faith Minnesota's fans had in its own team. Since part of my job is writing about teams in ways that aren't common, I'm used to seeing the occasional insult about how I'm a moron or how stats can't fully comprehend the greatness of Antonio Cromartie or the 2010 Denver Broncos. It happens. When I didn't include the Vikings in my list of the league's worst teams heading into the season and actually went ahead and predicted that they would finish with a gaudy 7-9 record, I actually got messages from Vikings fans who thought I was dumb for overestimating their team. That never happens. It speaks to just how beaten down this franchise has been since that narrow loss to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
Few teams have had it worse, that's for sure. Brett Favre went from conquering hero to disastrous sideshow in a year. Sidney Rice emerged as a star and then, just as quickly, got hurt again and left town. Adrian Peterson signed a big contract and tore up his knee. The entire market turned on Brad Childress in 2010, and during the following season, they followed it by scapegoating Donovan McNabb for the team's problems. And all that time, they've had the specter of a stadium debate hanging over the team's head, leaving the organization loath to spend money to make dramatic improvements. This sounds like a lot of fun, right?
Well, most of that is now in the past. The new stadium's been approved. Peterson has made a miraculous recovery from knee surgery and been both healthy and effective. Passing on Rice appears to be one of the best moves the team could have made, while Favre and McNabb are blog fodder. Their quarterback didn't inspire much confidence during his rookie season, but this year, Christian Ponder's dramatically changed his game, which is one of the three reasons why the Vikings have improved upon even that 5.5-win estimate of their level of play from a year ago.
You can take a look at Christian Ponder's season stats as easily as I can. Even if you don't put a lot of stock in statistics, you can probably agree that improving your completion percentage from 54.3 percent to 68.3 percent without throwing an interception all year represents significant improvement. What's noticeable, though, is how the Minnesota offense has changed this year, and how it has put Ponder in positions where he can succeed.
We all hear about making the game easier for a young quarterback by keeping him out of third-and-long. Most of the time, that's linked to an offensive strategy that's built around running the ball on first and second down with nine men in the box, and it usually results in third-and-long, anyway. This year, the Vikings have helped keep Ponder out of third-and-long, but they've done it by throwing the ball on first down, not running it. The Vikings are throwing the ball 12 percent more frequently on first down this year than they did a year ago in two-score situations (e.g., not blowouts), and it's helped create shorter third downs. Last year, the average third-down situation for the Vikings came up with a full 8.0 yards to go; this year, that figure is down to just 6.5 yards. And Ponder's been converting them at nearly a 40 percent clip, up from 35 percent last year.
Of course, throwing on first down doesn't mean anything if you don't execute, and Ponder's been phenomenal at that so far this season. His statistics on first down look like the work of a drastically different quarterback. No, really:
Ponder is far more efficient on first down, and it has shown in that small sample. Last year, he picked up 10 yards or more on 24.5 percent of his first down passes and five yards or more on 40.6 of them; this year, those figures are up to 33.3 percent and an even 50 percent, respectively. When you can get five yards through the air that frequently, it's actually smarter to throw on first down than it is to hand the ball off to Peterson. And then, once defenses start respecting your ability to throw on first down, you can start handing the ball to Peterson against softer fronts and get more out of him. Man, football is easy when you complete 70 percent of your passes!
More than anything, Ponder is avoiding the catastrophic mistakes with interceptions and sacks that ended drives for him last year. His sack rate last year was a dismal 9.3 percent, driven by his propensity for scrambling at the slightest bit of pressure and holding on to the ball for far too long. This year, that rate is down to 6.1 percent. If you saw him in the victory over the 49ers, you wouldn't have recognized Ponder; he stood in the pocket against a number of terrifying 49ers blitzes and showed incredible poise, making his throws on time. When he moved out of the pocket, he never panicked and made the correct decision on virtually every play, throwing the ball away when nobody was open and there was nothing to be had. It's been one of the biggest improvements made by any player over the course of this past offseason, and it should stick as Ponder grows older. He's also been aided by the arrival of left tackle Matt Kalil, who has been quietly impressive after being installed at the line's most difficult position from Day 1.
And, yes, there are those zero interceptions. Before I start screaming about regression and Ponder's 4.5 percent interception rate last year, there's certainly a precedent for guys producing huge drops in their interception rate during their second season in the pros. Josh Freeman is a perfect example, as he went from a staggering 6.2 percent interception rate as a rookie to a remarkable 1.3 percent clip during his sophomore campaign. Mark Sanchez's dip wasn't quite as extreme, but he followed a similar path. Obviously, Ponder's going to throw some interceptions before the year is up — the 49ers dropped at least two picks against him in Week 3, and the Lions might have had a couple if they had a cornerback of any consequence — but he's already gone a quarter of the season without throwing one. His interception rate may very well finish under 2 percent, which is a great way to get more out of your talent and finish more drives with points.
So while Ponder won't finish the year by completing 70 percent of his passes and avoiding interceptions altogether, we're likely seeing a quarterback who has raised the level of his game during his second season. His performance matches up with the stats; the frantic quality to his game from a year ago is gone, and Ponder's much better off for it. I never thought I'd say this, but I believe in Christian Ponder.
While Ponder's improvement has been the most noticeable change, the Vikings have enjoyed some lucky bounces that didn't go their way a year ago. In 2011, Minnesota's special teams ranked 27th in DVOA, notably finishing 31st in the "hidden" aspects of special teams performance that are out of their control. That includes things like field goal performance against the Vikings by the opposition and kickoff distance against them (after adjusting for the dome). This year, their hidden special teams performance against has been exactly league-average, and after dominating the scary-bad Lions special teams with both a kick return and a punt return for a touchdown last week, Minnesota's special teams rate out as the best in football. Of course, it's also safe to say that the Vikings won't score 14 points a week on special teams, as they did last week, nor will they block a kick every other week, as they've done so far this year. Minnesota's special teams might very well be good or even great, but nobody's special teams are this good.
And, of course, there's that great underlying hidden indicator that doesn't show up on tape: strength of schedule. While the Vikings just knocked off two playoff teams in consecutive weeks, their other two games were against the dregs of the AFC South, the Colts and Jaguars. This week, they finish up their tour of the friendly side of the league's worst division with a game against the Titans, and follow that with a trip to Washington.
From then on, the schedule gets tougher, but things get particularly dicey after their Week 11 bye. Minnesota will be on the road for four of their final six games, and the competition will be tough: The Vikings finish up with home-and-homes against the Bears and Packers, a trip to Houston, and a game in St. Louis. (Of course, the AFC South is so bad that they might get lucky and face a Texans team that's resting its starters in Week 16.) Some of Minnesota's performance this year undoubtedly comes down to a friendly strength of schedule, a factor that will be harder to come by later in the year.
What does it all add up to? To me, it's a Vikings team that will continue to exceed every expectation of their performance from before the season, but one that will struggle to be this good as the season goes along. Vikings fans might be eyeing the playoffs right now, but chances are that they finish within a game of .500 in a very respectable comeback season.