The best thing that could have happened to Minnesota Vikings receiver Jerome Simpson took place last Sunday at the Metrodome, the final day of his three-game NFL suspension. The Vikings' offense scored 24 points against one of the league's best defenses, demonstrating for at least one week how a power running game and short-range, high-efficiency passing game can succeed in 2012.
Otherwise, could you imagine the anticipation of and pressure on Simpson's return this Sunday against the Detroit Lions? Simpson is the best of an otherwise middling group of downfield receivers, but he is not an All-Pro. He will make the Vikings a better offense, but to expect him to alter any fundamental dynamics would have been unrealistic and unfair.
The chart shows how rarely quarterback Christian Ponder has thrown the ball downfield in the Vikings' first three games. More than three-quarters of his passes have traveled less than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, and he has thrown only four passes (and completed one) that traveled more than 20 yards beyond. (The median number of such attempts for qualified NFL starters is 12.)
Ponder's average throw of 5.6 yards past the line of scrimmage is the NFL's lowest. Finally, Ponder is one of two qualified NFL starters who hasn't thrown a single pass longer than 31 yards. All figures from ESPN Stats & Information.
Simpson will provide a better target for deep throws than Ponder has had to this point, but I don't think anyone is expecting the Vikings to veer significantly from their current approach upon his return.
"We're going to use Jerome to get down field," Ponder told reporters. "Obviously he has the speed to do it. We'll try to do some things to get the ball down field. But again, we want to make big plays, but we're not going to force them."
The Lions allowed a pair of long touchdown passes last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, and overall their defense is giving up an average of 8.2 yards per attempt, tied for the eighth-most in the NFL. But with or without Simpson, the Vikings' offense is built around their running game and high-percentage passes to receiver Percy Harvin. It's hard to imagine that changing in a fundamental way.