Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
This is going to be a relatively long post. You've been warned.
For fans of the Minnesota Vikings, the news that starting quarterback Christian Ponder was going to be inactive for Saturday's wild card playoff game against the Green Bay Packers was met with a lot of mixed feelings. Yes, Ponder has had moments in 2012 where he was awful, but he had really started to come around over the past few games as the Vikings made their unexpected push to the post-season. On the other hand, Ponder being out meant that the Vikings were going to start Joe Webb at quarterback. Webb's exploits have made him something of a folk hero among the Vikings' faithful, and the thought process was that he would show the Packers a look they hadn't seen over the course of this season.
And on the Vikings' first offensive series, that's exactly what happened. Between a mix of handoffs to Adrian Peterson and three option-style runs, the Vikings moved the ball down the field with relative ease. The Packers appeared to be off-balance. . .Webb was getting to the outside on some of his runs, and the threat of that opened up holes for Adrian Peterson in the middle of the defense. The first drive of the game went 53 yards in ten plays. . .the first eight of which were run plays. . .before Blair Walsh hit a 33-yard field goal to give the Vikings an early 3-0 lead. The three option plays they ran picked up 33 of those 53 yards.
The Vikings forced the Packers to go three-and-out on their first offensive possession. . .and then, a funny thing happened.
The Vikings abandoned the option looks that had worked so well on the opening drive and had Green Bay off-balance. In fact, according to ESPN.com NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert, after running three "read option" plays on the opening drive, the Vikings ran just three more of those plays the entire game. Why? Heck, I don't know why. But the Vikings wound up picking up just one first down on their next four drives combined, and after NFL Top 100 member John Kuhn™ found the end zone for the first of his two scores on the evening, the Vikings were staring at a 17-3 deficit.
Going into the locker room at halftime facing that same deficit, Webb had completed just 3-of-12 passes for 22 yards, and tossed in a couple of "what in the blue hell was that" sort of "throws" (if they could be called that) that were nearly intercepted, and one that got him flagged for intentional grounding. Webb's final numbers on the night were 11 completions in 30 attempts, 180 yards, one touchdown (a 50-yarder to Michael Jenkins) and one interception. Eight of those completions and nearly all of the yardage (along with the touchdown and the interception) came after the Vikings were down 24-3 and the Packers' focus shifted mainly to making sure nobody important got injured leading into their divisional playoff match-up next week with the San Francisco 49ers.
As I said in my initial post-game recap, I have nothing against Joe Webb on a personal level. He seems like a nice enough guy and he plays to the best of his ability and all that. But tonight's contest showed the difference between Webb and Ponder, and why it seems a bit ridiculous for the Vikings to keep Webb around as a backup quarterback.
With the way the game of college football is transitioning and trending, the "mobile" quarterback is quickly becoming all the rage at this level. But there's a subtle difference between a "mobile" quarterback and a "running" quarterback. Guys like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson. . .and yes, to a lesser extent, even Christian Ponder. . .are "mobile" quarterbacks. More often than not, when they run and move around, it's in an attempt to see if something is going to open up down the field and then take off with the football if nothing develops. All three of the guys I mentioned there are passers first and runners second.
On the other hand, guys like Joe Webb and Tim Tebow are "running" quarterbacks. And I don't want to use that term in a derogatory way or anything. . .I'm merely trying to illustrate the difference between the two types of quarterbacks. A "running" quarterback can be successful in the National Football League. . .however, it requires a complete shift in a team's offensive philosophy in order to make it work. For example, look back at Tim Tebow and the Broncos in 2011. Tebow took over the starting quarterback duties from Kyle Orton after Denver's sixth game of the 2011 season, at which time the Broncos were sitting at 2-4. In Tebow's first game as a starter, the Broncos tried to force the square peg (Tebow) into a round hole (a conventional NFL offense).
And the Broncos got curbstomped by the Detroit Lions to the tune of 45-10 to fall to 2-5 on the season.
So, the Broncos coaching staff, to their credit, said, "Hey, this isn't working. If this guy is going to be our starting quarterback, we're going to have to do something different." And so they became more of an option-look, run-heavy, only throw the ball when we absolutely have to offense, and it worked brilliantly for them as they won six straight games to get up to an 8-5 record. They sort of backed into the playoffs after three straight losses, won a playoff game, and lost to the eventual AFC Champion New England Patriots in a game where they got down early and their passing offense couldn't bring them back.
A "running quarterback" like Tebow or Webb can be successful in the National Football League if. . .and only if. . .their offensive coordinator is willing to swallow their pride/ego and go whole hog into an offensive system that is designed around their strengths. It also helps if such a system has time to be developed and installed over the course of a few weeks. Game 17? In the post-season? On the road? Yeah. . .I think we can all pretty much agree that's the wrong time to attempt to change the offensive philosophy of your football team.
But then, the Vikings really didn't attempt to change their offensive philosophy, either. Much like the Broncos did in Tebow's first game as their starter, they attempted to shove the square peg into the round hole. And much like Tebow's first start for the Broncos, it bombed in a major way. At this point in Joe Webb's career. . .and, mind you, he's just completed his third NFL season. . .he isn't a "drop back five steps, stand in the pocket, scan the field, and deliver the ball" quarterback. He's not, and anyone that wants to say that he is can find a replay of tonight's game, give it a watch, and come back and apologize. Because they're wrong. For all the grief that people want to give Tim Tebow. . .as it stands right now, Tebow and Joe Webb are pretty much the same player.
To illustrate the difference between the "running" quarterback and the "mobile" quarterback in that sense, take a look at a team that we'll be watching tomorrow afternoon on FOX, the Washington Redskins. Yes, Robert Griffin III has gotten onto the highlight reel a lot this season by running the football, including one highlight-reel run against this same Vikings team. But when RGIII got hurt and the Redskins had to turn to another quarterback, fellow rookie Kirk Cousins, the Redskins just continued winning and performing on offense. Now, Kirk Cousins isn't a "running" quarterback. . .honestly, I'm not even sure if Kirk Cousins is a "mobile" quarterback. But the essential portions of the Redskins offense are the same, and both RGIII and Cousins can execute them. With Cousins behind center, the Redskins simply removed the "option" stuff from the playbook, and things kept humming along.
With a "mobile" quarterback, stuff like the option can be a wrinkle that can keep defenses off-balance. With a "running" quarterback, stuff like the option has to become the focus, and six days is too short a time period to expect an NFL team to make that shift. So tonight, Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave asked Joe Webb to execute the offense the same way that they would have asked Christian Ponder to execute it. . .after going away from what was working on the opening series. . .and he couldn't do it.
Would the Vikings have been victorious on Saturday night with Christian Ponder at quarterback? I can't answer that question one way or another. . .I think they would have had a significantly better chance, but that's neither here nor there at this point. The one thing that tonight did tell us, in my opinion, is that the Minnesota Vikings need to take a totally different tack in their assessment of the team's back-up quarterback situation.
We all love what Joe Webb can do as a change-up type of option, and when he gets into the open field he can be very exciting. But, as a quarterback in the National Football League, there's going to come a point in time where you have to make a throw. It's just the nature of the beast. That's been the issue with Joe Webb all along, and this evening's game did nothing to assuage those doubts in the slightest. With Christian Ponder having shown a bit of a propensity for injury in his short NFL career, the Vikings need a guy that they can have confidence in to execute the offense in a manner similar to Ponder rather than a guy that would require a completely new offensive philosophy to have a chance at success.
I don't know if the Vikings feel that Joe Webb can still develop into that sort of player or if they're going to have to bring in someone new, but one would think that answering that question just moved up the Vikings' list of off-season priorities after Saturday night's game.