At 2-10 this season, the Minnesota Vikings need to learn as much as they can about the future.
There is little to take from season-only occurrences. Most everything discovered must come with an eye toward next season.
So, despite Sunday's 35-32 loss to the Denver Broncos, the important discoveries are about the future. What might the Vikings have learned on Sunday?
1. Christian Ponder can handle an increased load, for the most part.
Ponder said Minnesota entered Sunday's game with a plan to put the ball in the air more against Denver. Without Adrian Peterson for the second straight game and the offense's next best weapon being Percy Harvin, it was likely a good strategy. In the past two games without the four-time Pro Bowl back Peterson, the coaches have been willing to put the game in Ponder's hands and it's paid off, mostly.
After a career-best 103.1 quarterback rating last week, Ponder set team rookie records for completions (29), attempts (47) and yards (381) against the Broncos. Most of those records came after Ponder had a red zone fumble and interception returned for a touchdown in the first quarter, displaying unique bounce-back ability for a rookie quarterback. It was going smoothly and Ponder had the Vikings in position to win Sunday until a bad interception with 1:33 left in the game set up the loss. If he can learn from those types of mistakes, now is the perfect time for Ponder to go through the usual growing pains.
2. Harvin and Ponder are developing a rapport.
It's no coincidence that Harvin's two biggest games of the season have also come with Peterson on the sideline. Harvin had season-highs with eight catches and 95 yards receiving last week with a touchdown and topped the performance on Sunday. He had another eight catches, this time for 156 yards and two touchdowns. He turned two short passes into 52- and 48-yard touchdowns. As Ponder has developed in his six starts, he's shown a good connection with Harvin, who's had 28 catches over the past four weeks.
Harvin is a big-play threat and along with Peterson, one of the two most talented offensive players for Minnesota. If Harvin and Ponder can be on the same page it bodes well for the future and for Ponder's continued development. Of course, it will be on the coaches to get the best out of Ponder, Harvin and Peterson when they are all on the field together.
3. There might just be receiving depth behind Harvin.
When Harvin missed practice on Friday, the Vikings top wide receivers were Devin Aromashodu, Greg Camarillo and Stephen Burton, who had combined for 13 catches the entire season. At least for one game, Aromashodu showed he might be able to give Ponder another target on the outside to go with Harvin and Michael Jenkins, who is on injured reserve. Aromashodu was targeted 15 times on Sunday and caught six passes for 90 yards. Burton even came through his first career catches, hauling in two passes for 38 yards, including a key third-down catch.
And the tight ends can't be forgotten in the receiving scenario. Rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph made a highlight touchdown catch, snagging a ball with his big hands high above a Denver defender and holding it up in the air. Rudolph and Ponder became friends early this season and the two could start showing that connection on the field. Rudolph has touchdowns in each of his last two games after missing last week with a quadriceps contusion. With veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe headed toward free agency, Minnesota can look to Rudolph to be a receiving threat at tight end for the future.
4. Minnesota is still in position for a prime draft pick.
While many Vikings' fans might have enjoyed beating Denver and celebrating for at least one week, it's probably still best for the team's long-term prospects to lose. Ponder and Harvin would have been celebrated for leading the team to its third win, beating the streaking Broncos and Tim Tebow and getting Minnesota closer to avoiding the infamy of having the worst record in team history.
Instead, at 2-10, the Vikings are still tied with the St. Louis Rams for the league's second-worst record. Winless Indianapolis is in line for the top pick, but Minnesota is in line for a top-three pick, an important selection for a talent-starved roster.
5. The Vikings might want to enter next season without relying on Cedric Griffin as a starter.
Minnesota was excited entering this season finally having cornerbacks Antoine Winfield, Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook together, with Asher Allen being the fourth cornerback with starting experience from last year. Winfield played only five games while dealing with injuries. Cook appeared to be coming on after being a second-round pick in 2010 and losing most of his rookie season to injury, but has missed the past six games while dealing with legal issues. With Winfield and Cook missing, Allen had become the most reliable cover cornerback, but he missed Sunday with a shoulder injury and is best suited in a backup role.
Griffin was returning after another knee injury this season and his speed appears to have been sapped after two knee surgeries. Griffin has struggled in pass coverage at times this season. Due to either poor coverage or miscommunication in the secondary, Griffin was beaten by Broncos' receiver Demaryius Thomas at least twice, one a 21-yard touchdown and another a 42-yard catch. The Vikings certainly need more in the secondary heading into next season. Minnesota can't guess on returns to health for cornerbacks again.