Minnesota Vikings: Tony Romo

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have seen for far too long, and know far too well, what it's like not to have a franchise quarterback. They've had a quarterback start all 16 games just three times in the past 10 seasons -- or as many times as they've used three starting quarterbacks in a season -- and they're looking at starting over once again after shuttling through two first-round picks (Daunte Culpepper and Christian Ponder), a second-round pick (Tarvaris Jackson) and an expensive free-agent acquisition (Brett Favre), among others, during that time.

But as the Vikings prepare for the possibility of looking for another franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft, they're undoubtedly aware of how expensive it can be to get caught in the middle with one who only looks the part some of the time.
The Chicago Bears proved that again on Thursday when they announced a seven-year, $126 million extension for Jay Cutler. According to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter, the deal has more than $50 million in guaranteed money. The total amount of the deal is interesting, though, because while the salary structure is obviously different, it's known as the Contract of Death in baseball.

Why? That deal has typically gone to players (Vernon Wells, Barry Zito, Jayson Werth) who are good, but not good enough to get the megadeals averaging more than $20 million a year. Those players have tended to fall short of expectations on their contracts, either through injuries or ineffectiveness, and though they're not getting absolutely top-shelf money, they're getting enough that they're expected to perform like franchise players, rather than just very good ones.

Baseball, of course, guarantees every dollar, but as the average annual value of NFL contracts continues to climb, the deals are starting to look more like baseball contracts, and Cutler's AAV of $18 million matches what the Dallas Cowboys gave Tony Romo. His guaranteed money puts him in an elite group, as well -- only seven quarterbacks are currently playing on deals that include at least $50 million in guarantees. Four of those (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco) have Super Bowl rings, while two of the other three (Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford) were top draft picks before the NFL curtailed rookie spending.

Cutler, like Romo, has a history of wilting in big games, but his regular-season numbers have been even less impressive. He's only thrown for 4,000 yards once, has thrown at least 14 interceptions in a season five times and has never thrown more than 27 touchdown passes in a season. Flacco's put up plenty of pedestrian numbers, too, but he earned his deal after leading the Ravens to a championship last year. Cutler has only quarterbacked two postseason games, and before he got hurt in the 2011 NFC Championship Game at home against Green Bay, he had hit just 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards and an interception.

The deal the Bears gave him is an awful lot of money for a quarterback who remains an enigma at age 30, but after all the Bears gave up to get him, and all the time they'd invested in developing him, they might not have been able to risk starting over at the position. They're now essentially committed to Cutler for the rest of his prime, even if he has yet to reach an elite level, and he'll eat up a large chunk of their cap space during the deal. He'll have plenty of work to do to prove he's worth it.

On some level, the Vikings saw with Ponder what it's like to commit to a quarterback that's not providing commensurate returns, but their commitment to Ponder was a pittance compared to what the Bears have invested, and will continue to invest, in Cutler. They're spending premium dollars for a player who's yet to provide premium production, and they'll have spent a dozen years with Cutler by the time the deal runs out. If he only remains a quarterback who's just above average, the Bears will have wasted plenty of time.

The Cutler deal is an example of how high the stakes are at the quarterback position. The Vikings might not find a great QB in their next attempt, but if they make a Ponder-like mistake, their commitment is at least relatively short. It would be far worse for them to be where the Bears could find themselves at the end of Cutler's deal: having spent an astronomical amount of time and resources on a quarterback who never got past pretty good.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Based on whatever abilities I have to gauge the mood of a team by its atmosphere in a postgame locker room, the loss that jarred the Vikings the most this season was their 31-30 defeat in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears.

The Vikings were playing their second straight division game on the road, coming off a loss to the Detroit Lions in which they'd contained Calvin Johnson and forced a pair of turnovers. They still had a chance to put their season on the right path with a win in Chicago, and after Letroy Guion recovered Matt Forte's fumble at the Bears' 47 with 6:28 to go, it was easy for an optimist to map out what would happen next: The Vikings would ride to a game-sealing touchdown behind Adrian Peterson and a solid second half from Christian Ponder, head home with their first win in Chicago since 2007, claim a victory in a winnable home opener against the Cleveland Browns and head to London with hopes of a second straight playoff berth very much alive.

What happened instead, of course, is this: The Vikings drove to the Bears' 4, only came away with a field goal, kicked short to avoid Devin Hester, gave Jay Cutler 3:15 to move the Bears 66 yards, let Cutler pick away at their zone defense and gave up a 16-yard touchdown to Martellus Bennett with 10 seconds left, on a play where confusion reigned and frustration spilled into the visitor's locker room afterward.

Until that point, the Vikings had every reason to feel their season could be righted with a quick fix. As players tried to maintain a lid on their emotions afterward, it was tough to escape the ominous facts about what happens to 0-2 teams. What the Vikings couldn't have predicted at that point, though, was that they'd be faced with the same situation five times in their next nine games -- and only come away winners twice.

Minnesota has played more defensive snaps with a late lead than any team in the NFL this season, with worse results than any club in the league. When leading by seven or fewer points in the final three minutes of a game, the Vikings have allowed quarterbacks to go 30 of 47 for 365 yards and three touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Teams have run for another 36 yards and gained a total of 23 first downs. The Vikings' only sack, and only turnover, came when Everson Griffen took Ben Roethlisberger down and forced a fumble to end the Vikings' win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London. But since Cutler beat them, Cleveland's Brian Hoyer and Dallas' Tony Romo have done the same, and Green Bay's Matt Flynn drove the Packers to a game-tying field goal last Sunday.

"The results don't say we've learned a lot [from the first Bears game]," coach Leslie Frazier said. "We haven't produced in these situations as often as we need to, obviously. I think we did learn some things from that situation. We've just got to find a way to make some plays. We did in the Washington game and the Pittsburgh game but we haven't done it enough."

There's not much of a silver lining in blowing four last-minute leads this season, but Frazier tried to find one Friday by pointing out the Vikings' defense stiffened and held the Packers to a field goal in Sunday's tie. The Vikings have also taken to calling timeouts on two-minute drills in their last two games, both to give their offense another crack at scoring and to make sure their defense is set. Frazier blamed himself for not getting more involved in the defensive play-calling at the end of the Bears game, and linebacker Erin Henderson said defensive coordinator Alan Williams' call on the touchdown was something the Vikings hadn't practiced in last-minute situations leading up to the game.

"It does help to get our guys settled," Frazier said. "Each situation is different. And with all the new people we're playing now. Being in these situations for the first time you want to make sure that we know what we're doing and you can't worry about the other team. We just got to make sure we know what we're doing.''

The youth of the Vikings' secondary has rarely been more apparent this season than it was that Sunday in Chicago, and Frazier wanted to believe they'd be better on Sunday if the Vikings found themselves in the same situation. With so many injuries sapping the Vikings' cohesiveness in the defensive backfield, though, it's hard to know exactly what would happen.

Against Josh McCown -- who's 10 years removed from his own memorable last-minute moment against the Vikings -- now would be as good a time as any to turn it around.

"We'll get another opportunity -- maybe -- against Chicago," Frazier said. "And if we do I think there are some things we learned from that situation that should help us on Sunday."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The day after he criticized the Minnesota Vikings' defensive strategy on the final drive of a 27-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, defensive end Brian Robison stood by his comments, saying "I don't think I said anything out of line" when he vented about the team's decision to pull back its pass rush on the Cowboys' 90-yard march. Both Robison and defensive tackle Kevin Williams were critical of the approach on Sunday, and coach Leslie Frazier didn't exactly admonish either player for speaking his mind on Monday.

Robison
"You know, I respect their opinions and I know how competitive they are and how much they want to win," Frazier said Monday. "I like for them to talk to their coaches myself about whatever concerns they may have and try to get those worked out. But I do understand their frustration and I respect their opinions."

Both Robison and Williams were upset with the Vikings' decision to rush Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo with just three defenders after the Vikings had sacked him three times and pressured him on 36 percent of his dropbacks before the final drive, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Romo went 7-of-9 for 90 yards and a score on the final drive, completing six of his seven passes for 56 yards when he faced four or fewer pass-rushers. It's worth noting, though, that the Vikings rushed five defenders on the biggest play of the drive -- Romo's 32-yard completion to Dez Bryant -- though the receiver got free after safety Andrew Sendejo tried to jump Bryant's route and safety Mistral Raymond missed a tackle.

"That one we could have done something a little bit different," Frazier said. "We called a pressure. They blocked the pressure. They had some tells from an offensive standpoint that could have helped us there. That’s the one play that we might have done something a little different.”

All told, the Vikings dropped a defensive tackle into coverage on four of the final nine plays, which was more often than they brought any other kind of rush on the final drive. They rushed four linemen three times -- including on the game-winning touchdown -- and brought extra pressure twice, sending six defenders on Romo's incompletion to Terrance Williams and five on the completion to Bryant.

They only pressured Romo once on the drive, nearly reaching him with their six-man pressure. That fact might have helped Frazier make his point when he met with players on Monday afternoon that the call is only half of the equation.

"[It's] just being able to point out some of the things why it has to be reciprocal," Frazier said. "Not only what [offensive coordinator] Bill [Musgrave] or [defensive coordinator] Alan [Williams] calls but also our execution and making sure that we’re in sync with how to get that done. I think some of the things we’ll go through this afternoon will help us if we’re in those situations again to be much better."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Through one half at AT&T Stadium, the Vikings' major depth issues in the secondary haven't burned them yet. They've missed several chances at interceptions, and Robert Blanton replaced Mistral Raymond at safety after he missed a couple tackles early, but the Vikings have a 10-6 lead over the Dallas Cowboys primarily because they've found a way to approximate the formula they used last year: pressure from their front four, safe throws from Christian Ponder and a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson.

Ponder
Ponder
Peterson
Peterson
The reigning NFL MVP carried 14 times for 60 yards in the first half, as the Vikings ran 37 plays and held the ball for 16:37. Last week, they ran 43 plays and didn't hold the ball for 20 minutes the entire game.

Ponder went 14-for-21 for 117 yards in the first half, running for a 6-yard touchdown and extending another drive with a 16-yard run. The Vikings have put him in the shotgun once again, which has given him more time to make some reads and seems to have settled him down somewhat. The Vikings have used a two-back set for just nine plays, by my count, but if they can make that work to run the ball, and keep Ponder more settled than he appears to be when he's dropping back, it might work for the time being.

What we'll have to see in the second half is if the secondary can hold up. The Vikings got stopped on fourth down from the Cowboys' 16 in the second quarter and had another long drive stall at the Cowboys' 4. That could spell trouble for Minnesota if the Cowboys' defense stiffens up and the offensive line can protect Tony Romo. But for now, the Vikings are handling things.

One injury note: Right tackle Phil Loadholt is out with a concussion and was taken to the locker room after the Vikings' last touchdown drive. J'Marcus Webb, who came to the Vikings after the Bears cut him in August, will take Loadholt's spot. Considering how much the Vikings like to run to the right, that's a development worth watching.

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