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Updated: March 5th, 2013 11:17am
Pelissero: Vikings shouldn't waste any time moving on from Joe Webb

Pelissero: Vikings shouldn't waste any time moving on from Joe Webb

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

It was the Tuesday before the Minnesota Vikings' wild-card playoff game at Green Bay, and whispers of concern had begun to spread through the building.

Not so much about Christian Ponder's bruised triceps, which many believed would heal in time for him to attempt a repeat of his stellar performance against the Packers two days earlier.

The concern was about backup quarterback Joe Webb, whose awful showing in the first practice of a short week foreshadowed his abysmal play four days later in a 24-10 loss at Lambeau Field.

Coaches gave Webb the benefit of the doubt because it was his first time running the No. 1 offense all season and they'd included only five or six "Joe" plays in the game plan.

Players figured Ponder would at least give it a go and, even if he didn't, the Packers defense might be so susceptible to Webb's legs they'd still have a chance.

Webb did show signs of progress during the week and lit it up in pregame warm-ups, a couple hours after hopes of Ponder starting died with an abbreviated throwing session.

Once the game began, though, Webb was back to his Tuesday form, completing only 7 of 24 passes for 61 yards until the Packers had built a three-touchdown lead and called off the dogs.

"I wish we could have been whole for that ballgame," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said at last month's NFL scouting combine, shaking his head at the memory. "But you have to move on."

When free agency opens on March 12, there's a good chance the Vikings will move on from Webb, too.

For all the athletic talent Webb possesses and the playmaking ability he has shown in past relief appearances, the playoff game exposed a hole in the plan of having him as Ponder's No. 2.

Players must be interchangeable to a degree for precisely this kind of situation. If you have to lose, you at least want to lose trying to do what you do best.

Put another way, for all the criticism of coordinator Bill Musgrave's play-calling, imagine the outrage if the Vikings had abandoned the offense that helped Adrian Peterson win the MVP.

If Musgrave installed a Webb-specific game plan and Ponder ended up playing, it would have created the same sort of issue. Their strengths and the way they see the game are too different.

Musgrave could have called the same read-option plays over and over after some headless-chicken production on the opening series. He opted to let Webb try to execute elementary play-action throws and -- challenging situation or not -- the result was a resounding failure.

"That's part of the NFL," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "No one's ever going to have the team they built on Day 1. People have to deal with injuries. You're going to have to deal with adversities. You're going to have to have guys step up and come in and do well if a guy -- whether a quarterback or whatever position -- can't play that game because of an injury."

Would the results have been different if the Vikings had, say, Tyler Thigpen under center? Maybe not, but the offense's preparation as a whole might have raised fewer red flags -- not unlike the flags Webb raised with his preseason struggles in Musgrave's offense.

The similarities to Ponder's skillset are part of why the Vikings pursued Thigpen as a free agent in July 2011. They agreed to terms and had a contract drawn up before Frazier persuaded the organization's top decision-makers to trade for washed-up Donovan McNabb instead.

The investment in such a backup would be relatively modest. Thigpen, now 28, made $1.5 million last season in Buffalo. Bruce Gradkowski, 30, made $2 million in Cincinnati. Matt Moore, 28, made $3 million in Miami.

All three have played significant snaps in the league. So have Rex Grossman, Drew Stanton, Chase Daniel, David Carr, Derek Anderson and players such as Kansas City's Matt Cassel, who figures to be available following the Chiefs' trade for Alex Smith.

They've all seen enough to serve as the sounding board Ponder lacked last season after Sage Rosenfels' surprise release. And it's unlikely any of them -- except perhaps Cassel, 30 -- have illusions about beating out Ponder in a competition the Vikings have made clear will not exist.

"That would be the key," Frazier said. "If the guy comes in and has the mindset that 'I'm going to create a problem in the locker room' because he feels he should be the starter, that would not be a good fit. It needs to be a guy understands his role and could fit our team and be ready to go at a moment's notice."

Webb, 26, has done that before. His performance in an upset win at Philadelphia as a rookie under former coordinator Darrell Bevell in 2010, coupled with two impressive relief efforts in 2011, was the impetus for having him concentrate solely on quarterback in his third NFL season.

No player's career should be reduced to one performance, good or bad. But Webb's lone starting opportunity under Musgrave was so flawed from four days before kickoff it only makes sense for the Vikings to reexamine their philosophy at the position as he enters a contract year.

When the negotiating window opens at 11 p.m. Friday, the guess here is the Vikings will waste little time reaching out to Thigpen or Moore or Gradkowski or someone else and forging a backup plan that admits last year, they didn't have one at all.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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