Joe Webb (Bob Levey/Getty)
The Vikings have bent over backwards to support Christian Ponder through a rough stretch, but at what point does winning now become more important than trying to develop Ponder? An in-game switch to Joe Webb doesn’t have to mean the end to developing Ponder.
One of the stranger scenes this week at Winter Park happened Thursday as a crowd of reporters gathered around Joe Webb to toss out questions. While Christian Ponder has been at the center of criticism for the Vikings recent skid – losing five of their last seven games after a 4-1 start – Webb has been the forgotten man in the Vikings offense.
For the entirety of the 2012 season, Webb has been on the field a grand total of three plays. In the Week 5 blowout win against Tennessee, Webb came in with two minutes to play and it was thought the Titans would throw in the towel down by three scores. Webb took a knee and Tennessee called a time out. Webb then handed the ball off to Matt Asiata twice and the Vikings punted to Tennessee and the Minnesota defense closed out the final 1:31 of the game.
Other than that, Webb hasn’t seen the field all season. All the talk of the Blazer package has never materialized. The closest the Vikings have come to incorporating that collection of plays has been a couple of direct snaps to Percy Harvin earlier in the season. For better or worse, the Vikings offense has risen and fallen with Ponder.
There is a mindset that pulling a starting quarterback during a game can wreck a young quarterback’s confidence. The reality is that it happens a lot. If a starting quarterback struggles, the backup can often provide a spark to an offense because he has nothing to lose and can play with more abandon than a starter concerned about losing his job.
Last year, the Vikings’ win over Washington was directly attributable to Webb’s pass/run skill set coming into play. On the first drive of the second half, Ponder and Adrian Peterson were both injured in the span of three plays and Webb came off the bench to lead the Vikings to a 33-26 win. As Ponder has struggled this season, there have been more than a couple of moments when he could have and should have been replaced by Webb. Neither the Bears nor Packers were able to stop the Vikings’ running game and Webb could have brought a different dimension to the Vikings offense had he been given a shot, although admittedly, after Green Bay scored on an 11-minute drive in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s game, there wasn’t much of a point in pulling Ponder.
Pulling a starting quarterback isn’t a death-knell. Had it happened earlier in the season, all that was needed was head coach Leslie Frazier silencing talk of a quarterback controversy by saying immediately after the game that Ponder was still the team’s starting quarterback and that he felt a change was needed to provide some momentum for the offense. It would be as simple as that. End of story.
Ponder has been at the center of many of the Vikings woes on offense over the past two months. At times, he has appeared to regress and force plays that aren’t there – often locking in on tight end Kyle Rudolph. If confidence is the rationale for keeping Ponder on the field and Webb on the bench, it hasn’t worked as hoped or planned.
With the Vikings’ 2012 season on the line Sunday against Chicago, if Ponder struggles again in the first half, the Vikings should have a short leash on him. It’s clear the organization believes Ponder is the future of the offense at the quarterback position – it made that point crystal clear when it released veteran Sage Rosenfels in order to keep project QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson at the final cut-downs in September. But, at what point does the team look at Webb as potentially providing an offensive spark?
Webb has proven himself to be a gamer – not only did he help lead the Vikings to a win at Washington last year, in 2010 he got the call in a road win against Philadelphia that has sent the Eagles franchise into a tailspin ever since. Webb may not be the long-term answer, but he could be a short-term fix. The Vikings need an infusion of talent and playmaking ability at the quarterback position. If Ponder isn’t providing it, Webb might give the team the momentary spark it needs if the Vikings fall behind to the Bears Sunday and Ponder is once again struggling.
The Vikings have made sure Ponder hasn’t needed to look over his shoulder. They got rid of the veteran on the roster and have limited Webb to just three plays at “garbage time.” The hope is that Ponder will rectify his recent passing woes and lead the Vikings on a late-season playoff run. However, if he continues to be more a part of the problem than a part of the cure, it might be time for the Vikings to make a temporary, in-game switch to Webb. It wouldn’t be an indictment of Ponder and his future as the starter, it would merely be a chance to provide a momentary spark for an offense that has become one-dimensional and searching for big plays from its running game, not it’s passing game.
If Ponder plays lights-out Sunday, Webb will remain the invisible man on the Vikings bench. But with the playoffs hanging in the balance, don’t be stunned of the Vikings have a short leash with Ponder and have Webb ready to go in and see what he can get done. At this point, when you have everything to lose, you also have nothing to lose by making a switch. Webb has proved he can get the job done before. The only question is will the Vikings give him the chance to prove he can do it again?
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.