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Updated: January 6th, 2013 2:54pm
Zulgad: Vikings tipped hand about plan by having to start Joe Webb

Zulgad: Vikings tipped hand about plan by having to start Joe Webb

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The working theory from this end was that no matter what members of the Minnesota Vikings organization might have told you entering this season, they never realistically thought the 2012 edition of the franchise was a playoff team.

Not coming off a 3-13 finish in 2011. Not with a roster that general manager Rick Spielman decided to overhaul and make far younger. Not with second-year quarterback Christian Ponder still having so many questions surrounding him.

This appeared to be a classic rebuilding process.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Vikings spending a year in rebuilding mode.

They got off to a 4-1 start and then after falling to 6-6 in early December, they rebounded to win four in a row and qualified for the postseason by beating the Green Bay Packers in a must-win game on Dec. 30 at the Metrodome.

That set up a rematch with the Packers on Saturday night in a wild card meeting at Lambeau Field.

It was at that point we finally got a definitive answer about what the Vikings' brain trust had thought their realistic chances were of making a serious playoff push.

Turns out the original working theory was 100 percent accurate.

How do we know this? Simple.

If the Vikings had considered themselves to be a contender, there is no way that Joe Webb would have been the team's backup quarterback.

Even when Ponder was at his worst this season - and it got bad at times - coach Leslie Frazier stood 100 percent behind his starting quarterback and never opened the door for Webb to be the starter. It's safe to say that some of that was the product of the Vikings wanting to keep Ponder's confidence up as they attempt to find out if the 12th-overall pick in the 2011 draft can be their starter for years to come.

But the other reason is because Webb in no way, shape or form is prepared to be a starting quarterback in the Vikings' offense.

Webb proved this in his team's 24-10 playoff loss on Saturday.

Playing in place of the injured Ponder, Webb completed only 11 of 30 passes for 180 yards with a meaningless late touchdown and an interception. Several of his 19 incompletions sailed high above the heads of the intended target. Others were nothing more than bounce passes.

But let's be fair.

Placing blame for all of this on Webb would be missing the point.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's play calling destined Webb to fail from the second series on. The Packers' elected to defer after winning the opening toss and Webb came out and ran a productive 53-yard, 10-play drive that featured six runs by Adrian Peterson, two runs by Webb and an incompletion by the quarterback on third-and-7 from the Green Bay 15-yard line.

Blair Walsh came on to kick a 33-yard field goal and the Vikings had what turned out to be their only lead of the evening. That was in part because they allowed Webb to run three read option plays, enabling him to go to a strength. The Vikings would run fewer than five read-option plays the rest of the game.

Instead, Musgrave did exactly what he did to Webb in the preseason. He decided a quarterback with great athletic ability should attempt to play the position like any other quarterback. It made no sense and doomed Webb to a miserable night.

It also showed that if Spielman and Co. really believed they were sitting on a playoff team that they would have had a veteran quarterback in place to serve as Ponder's backup. You want to tell me that Sage Rosenfels couldn't have done a better job of running the Vikings' chosen offensive scheme on Saturday than Webb did?

Of course, Rosenfels would have been better.

The only problem was that Rosenfels was jettisoned during the final cuts in late August, despite the fact he was guaranteed $500,000 for 2012 as part of the two-year contract he signed after last season.

The word is Frazier felt Ponder wasn't really in need of a mentor and it would be better to go with Webb and the unproven but intriguing McLeod Bethel-Thompson.

That line of thinking makes sense if you don't see yourself as a playoff team. The problem was the Vikings were a playoff team but because of their quarterback situation they didn't look like one once they got there.

The important thing now is what the Vikings will do going forward.

While there already are many who don't think Ponder is the answer, he isn't going anywhere. Odds are Ponder will be the starter when the Vikings open the 2013 regular season, although some legitimate training camp competition (Alex Smith, perhaps?) would not be a bad idea.

No matter who is on the roster, the Vikings' success in 2012 means the feeling surrounding this team will be far different come next summer when players report to Mankato.

The Vikings surprised nearly everyone by making the playoffs this year. Next season, the expectation will be that they take another step forward and that means contending for the NFC North title and giving themselves a chance to experience success in January.

Ponder was able to start all 16 games this season but injuries are nothing new for him and if he does get hurt in 2013, or just flat-out struggles again, the answer can't be to turn to Webb.

That became obvious on Saturday night.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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