Minnesota Vikings, Christian Ponder coming back to Earth

One of Bill Parcells' most enduring statements is, "You are what your record says you are." But that quote is often taken out of context, as Parcells was referring to a team's record at the completion of a season, not during a season. This is a very important distinction.

Parcells was commenting on teams that would end up 9-7, look at their seven losses and claim that if certain plays were made in certain games, they would have been a playoff team. Parcells hates that logic. He believes that the NFL season is not defined until after Thanksgiving. In his mind, that final stretch ultimately defines a team.

In every NFL season, there are teams that start fast ... before fading fast. Some limp into the playoffs before exiting in the opening round. And some miss the postseason altogether. Could this be the 2012 Minnesota Vikings?

The Vikings (5-3) are a feel-good story, as they already have two more wins this season than during the entire 2011 campaign. And at times, they have looked like a potential playoff team. But after watching them play over the past three weeks -- particularly, after taking in Thursday night's embarrassing, 36-17 home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- they do not have the look of a team that can sustain its success, especially given the brutal remaining schedule. In essence, the Vikings are not what their current record claims they are.

First and foremost, the Vikings are in fact an improved team from a year ago. No doubt about it. But they still are at least a year away -- another good draft away -- from being a solid playoff team with legitimate potential to do damage in January.

The key for the Vikings does not lie in the resurgent legs of running back Adrian Peterson, but rather in the right arm of second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. Ponder began the season playing very well: throwing accurate passes, protecting the football and making plays. But lately, he has been extremely erratic and Minnesota has lost two of three. And a deeper look at Ponder's production reveals some disturbing numbers.

Ponder has been the king of short tosses this year, completing almost 90 percent of his passes thrown behind the line and almost 65 percent on passes thrown less than 10 yards. But when the Vikings ask Ponder to make plays down the field with his arm, his accuracy and production plummet. Ponder has not even attempted a pass over 30 yards in the air all season -- even Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has attempted nine such passes -- and he is only 1-for-10 on passes thrown between 11-20 yards. When defenses take away the short throws and challenge Ponder to drive the ball down the field, the Vikings quarterback fails to deliver.

As Minnesota enters the second half of the season, the schedule toughens up considerably, with two divisional games apiece against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, as well as road dates with the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans. Ponder must improve his play for the Vikings to get back on track.

The good news for Minnesota: If Ponder does play well down the stretch, the Vikings have a quarterback to build around. But if he continues to play poorly, they might have to reconsider future options. Either way, the next eight games will define the Vikings. And by season's end, we will know who they really are.

Ten thoughts around the NFL

1) The Carolina Panthers are without a general manager at the worse time of the season, just days before next Tuesday's trade deadline. And the 1-5 Panthers are a team that could cut significant payroll and potentially add valuable assets in the form of draft picks. Whoever takes over the team must attempt to move one -- if not two -- of the high-priced running backs, as it is hard to have that much money tied into one position. If a team called the Panthers to check on the availability of running back DeAngelo Williams, I imagine Carolina would be more than willing to listen to an offer -- any offer. With the trade deadline pushed back to after Week 8, teams without legitimate playoff hopes can start thinking about next year. But next year cannot start for the Panthers without adding a new GM.

2) Speaking of Carolina, after talking to sources inside the Panthers building, it appears head coach Ron Rivera must rapidly turn this season around to save his job for 2013. I'm told owner Jerry Richardson wanted former GM Marty Hurney to make some moves, and when Hurney was reluctant, it cost him his own job. Hurney saved a few people with his actions, but if the Panthers don't start winning, there will be no one left to save the coaching staff.

3) The Bucs had a nice win last night. Greg Schiano certainly is making his mark on this franchise. In fact, most of the team is hard to identify, as Schiano has methodically altered the roster since arriving in Tampa. With the trade deadline approaching, I wonder if the Bucs would trade former starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who is making almost $4 million guaranteed. Trueblood took a pay cut down from $5 million, as he is no longer the starter, but $4 million is significant salary for a backup tackle. And some teams might view Trueblood as an upgrade.

4) Robert Griffin III has been sensational all season. And his production is even more astonishing when you consider what he's working with. Remember all those moves the Washington Redskins made during the offseason to give him a better supporting cast at wide receiver? They haven't really worked out as the franchise hoped. Pierre Garcon has been injured, logging just eight catches, while Josh Morgan only has 18 grabs. Seven games into the season, the two wideouts have combined for one touchdown. Now that tight end (and leading receiver) Fred Davis is done for the season, the receiving corps faces added pressure to contribute.

5) The New York Jets made a smart move last week, taking Bart Scott off the field and replacing him with third-round pick Demario Davis. Davis is faster, more athletic and just an overall better player than Scott right now. Therefore, even when Scott gets healthy, he won't be back in the lineup. The Jets had the slowest group of 'backers in the league before Davis came on the field. With him, they have an athletic player who can run and make plays.

6) Wonder why the Chicago Bears have been so good this year? The defense has only allowed seven points in the first quarter all season and six in the third, allowing the offense to consistently play with a lead. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs have only scored six points in the first quarter while allowing 51, forcing them to always play catch-up. Starting fast does not only apply to the offense, as the Bears prove.

7) The Pittsburgh Steelers are getting old on defense and have lost some great players in recent years. The hardest one for them to replace has been defensive end Aaron Smith. Smith was a great run defender, but he also could push the pocket back, allowing the outside rushers to make plays. With Smith out of the picture, opponents can run the ball on the Steelers (averaging 4.1 yards per carry this season) and quarterbacks can step up into the pocket and make throws. Pittsburgh can't solve all of its defensive problems this year; it will take an offseason and some new talent, especially along the defensive front.

8) Greg Jennings' injury obviously hurts the Green Bay Packers, but now Randall Cobb will get more chances, more touches and will be able to pick up the slack. Cobb will emerge as the next star receiver in Green Bay.

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9) Philip Rivers needs to turn around the San Diego Chargers' season, starting with this week's trip to Cleveland. Rivers' average per attempt has dipped below 8.0 over the last two years, while his interception percentage has skyrocketed. He already has thrown nine picks this year, on pace to duplicate last season's jarring total of 20. For Rivers to be successful, he has to make throws down the field -- he's only 2-for-10 on passes thrown beyond 30 yards this season -- and must protect the ball.

10) Everyone keeps expecting the Philadelphia Eagles, and particularly Michael Vick, to stop turning the ball over. But as Philly's starting quarterback, Vick has fumbled 30 times in 31 games (losing 12), while also throwing 28 interceptions. Vick's turnovers are not a this year problem, they're a career problem -- and will continue to happen.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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