GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Even in the context of their long and winding playoff history, the Minnesota Vikings took a bizarre left turn Saturday. A dozen warmup throws shelved their starting quarterback, their coaches largely bypassed his backup's narrow skill set and no one could really explain why and how it all happened in the aftermath of a 24-10 wild-card playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.
At the top of that litany is quarterback Christian Ponder, whose game status never seemed in question until the Vikings listed him as questionable on their Friday injury report with what they termed an elbow injury. In fact, Ponder had a bruised triceps muscle that rendered him unable to throw with any velocity.
How could that be possible? Ponder didn't miss a snap after suffering the injury in last week's regular-season finale against the Packers. Ponder told reporters that he got through that game on "adrenaline" and that the injury had worsened by midweek. He threw only a few passes in practice last week. Did the Vikings do a masterful job of keeping the true injury secret? Or were they as surprised as everyone else that Ponder did not play?
"We were pretty optimistic the whole week that I would be ready to go," Ponder said. "The arm just never got to a point where it was good enough to be out there."
Reporters interviewing Ponder in the postgame locker room noted a large bruise running from the middle of his arm into his forearm. He described it as a "deep thigh bruise in my throwing arm" that caused only "a little bit of pain" but left him with limited flexibility.
"I couldn’t get the ball in the position to where I could throw it normally and lost a lot of power," he said. "It just wouldn’t have been wise to play."
Based on my Twitter feed during the game, I know many of you are questioning Ponder's toughness, and you're wondering why he didn't at least try to play. To me, there is a difference between playing with pain and playing with limited function. I saw Ponder's warm-up throws, which he said represented the top velocity he was capable of. If that's the case, there is no way he could have played effectively Saturday night.
Maybe a quarterback can play with an injury to his non-throwing arm or shoulder. But to his throwing arm? That would be more indicative of limited intelligence than toughness, at least to me.
Where the Vikings are more culpable, in my mind, is not adjusting their offense to take advantage of Joe Webb's open-field running ability. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave called three read-option plays on the Vikings' opening drive, netting 33 yards. But according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings ran only three more such plays for the rest of the game.
Instead, the Vikings had Webb throwing from the pocket -- which he was woefully unprepared to do after becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game without throwing a single regular-season pass. He completed only 11 of 30 passes, including just 3 of 12 that traveled more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Asked why the Vikings didn't stick with the read option, which seemed their one and only chance of moving the ball with Webb, coach Leslie Frazier said: "We mixed some of those read-options along the way. But at some point, you would like to complete some passes. Early on we did have them off-balance and had some opportunities in the passing game, but we just couldn't connect."
After watching film of this game, I'm guessing even Frazier won't consider that an acceptable answer. The Vikings weren't going to complete many passes with Webb. If nothing else, Saturday night made clear the Vikings will have to do a better job building depth at quarterback in 2013. It also rendered the team's decision to lock Webb into a traditional quarterback's role, rather than as a hybrid playmaker, a clear mistake.
The Vikings have a lot to be proud of, both individually and as a franchise, for their 2012 season. Saturday night, however, won't make the list.