Rodgers, Ponder mismatch over before it began
Sometimes analyzing NFL games isn't all that tough.
Sometimes you can disregard key matchups and nuance. Sometimes it's as simple as it was Thursday night at Lambeau Field: Aaron Rodgers was the Green Bay Packers' quarterback, and Christian Ponder was the Minnesota Vikings'.
The Packers won easily in a blowout that was even worse than 42-10 sounds.
That doesn't mean it always works out this way when a top quarterback matches up against a clear inferior, and in this case, a backup. Ponder in fact has a win over Rodgers, in the regular-season finale in 2012 at the Metrodome, when Adrian Peterson ran wild (199 yards) and the Vikings won 37-34 to get into the playoffs.
But more often than not, this big a mismatch decides the game before it starts, as it did Thursday night after it became known Vikings first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater wouldn't play because of an ankle injury sustained last week in a win over Atlanta. Rodgers, with a 60-31 record as a starter and 105.1 career rating coming into the game, against Ponder, 14-20-1 and 77.3.
So yes, Ponder made two huge mistakes, both interceptions that augmented the rout. Julius Peppers returned the first 49 yards for a touchdown in an impressive display of athleticism for a 287-pound, 34-year-old player. Inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore had the second and set up the Packers on a short field for their fourth touchdown.
At least on the first, Ponder suffered an element of bad luck, because his pass was directed off target when it skipped off defensive lineman Luther Robinson's forearm just after release. But you probably can question Ponder's decision to throw it with Robinson in his face in the first place. And Lattimore's interception was a forced throw.
But even without those big plays, there's no reason to think the Vikings were going to be competitive on this night. They did nothing on offense until late in the third quarter, when they finally took their first snap in Packers' territory.
Ponder ended the game with a 45.8 rating that got a boost in garbage time. Take out the two interceptions, which usually are rating killers, and he still would have had only a 64.8 rating. He just doesn't make many plays.
Rodgers, on the other hand, played a good game (138.7 rating) without doing anything extraordinary. He finally got the help of a strong running game — Eddie Lacy gained 105 yards — and that no doubt helped set up some of his throws. His 66-yard bomb to Jordy Nelson for the Packers' second touchdown came after Lacy's strong start. The play-action fake gave Nelson time to run a deep double move and Rodgers all day to throw. He was right on the money.
It still never ceases to amaze what a quarterback-centric game the NFL is. Switch Rodgers and Ponder, and the Vikings would have been the clear favorite to win this game.
And even if Bridgewater had played, the Vikings probably at minimum would have been competitive. He's a rookie, and this would have been his first road start in the NFL, so he very well might have made a glaring error or two to cost the game. But in his first start last week against Atlanta, he showed uncommon poise for a rookie by not making any risky throws. The only time he came close to an interception was when a pass sailed on him, not because he forced the throw.
It's especially interesting that physically, Ponder is the better prospect. He has the faster 40-yard dash (4.65 seconds at the 2011 scouting combine to Bridgewater's 4.78 seconds at his Pro Day last March). Ponder also has the better vertical jump (34 inches to Bridgewater's 30 inches), three-cone agility drill (6.85 seconds to Bridgewater's 7.17seconds) and short shuttle (4.09 seconds to Bridgewater's 4.20 seconds).
In fact, athletically, Ponder compares well with Rodgers, who in 2005 ran the 40 in 4.71 seconds, had a 34 ½-inch vertical, a 7.39-second three cone and 4.32-second short shuttle.
And though Ponder had elbow and shoulder surgeries in college, his arm strength is at least comparable with Bridgewater's and perhaps stronger. Neither is in Rodgers' league in that regard.
Yet Bridgewater at only age 21 and a few months into his NFL career already is a better quarterback than Ponder, who is in his fourth season. There are play-speed skills that physical testing can't measure, such as reading the field and making decisions. It's instructive to go back to what a scout told Press-Gazette Media about each going into his draft, and that those evaluations have carried over to the NFL.
"I thought (Ponder) threw the ball maybe the best guy at the ('11) combine, him and Ryan Mallett," the scout said before the '11 draft. "But then you watch the tape and you don't see that. He's quick to bail (from the pocket). He can hold the ball too long instead of getting it out. He's slow getting through reads, doesn't seem to see the field that well. He can kind of goose balls and aim 'em in there instead of just playing and throwing it and being aggressive. Kind of cautious. He has better ability than what I see on tape. I wanted to love him, but the tape doesn't warrant it."
And the same scout on Bridgewater three years later: "The best trait he has is his mind. He's a really sharp-minded quarterback. He understands the throws, understands protections, understands route combinations, understands reads. That's where you think he has a chance for success. But the talent level, no. He's not a first-round talent."
The Vikings at least can leave this blowout defeat thinking they might have a bright future because of Bridgewater. It might take two or even three years to know whether he's a real NFL quarterback. But if he is, the Vikings will be in business.
The Packers walk away knowing Rodgers is on track after a ho-hum start to the season that saw him give pedestrian performances in losses at Seattle (81.5 rating) and Detroit (88.8) in two of the first three weeks. In the past two games, wins over NFC North Division rivals Chicago and Minnesota, he's thrown seven touchdown passes, no interceptions and had a 147.0 rating.