You've no doubt heard the news: The Minnesota Vikings have benched starting quarterback Donovan McNabb in favor of rookie Christian Ponder, an inevitable move that has been brewing all season. ESPN's Chris Mortensen has confirmed a story originally reported by Jason La Canfora of NFL.com.
Ponder made his NFL debut in the fourth quarter of Sunday night's blowout loss to the Chicago Bears and will make his first start this Sunday at the Metrodome against the Green Bay Packers. Some thoughts on the decision, in advance of speaking with the affected parties, presumably during the Vikings' regular media availability on Wednesday:
It has always been a matter of when, not if, this move would occur. These days, it's rare for a highly drafted quarterback to stand on the sideline for his entire rookie season. Rookies Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Andy Dalton are already starting for their respective teams. The Tennessee Titans have left Jake Locker on the bench mostly because Matt Hasselbeck is having a career renaissance as their starter.
McNabb's performance wasn't awful, but it fell well short of the Hasselbeck paradigm to maintain the starting job under this scenario. The Vikings' offense has drifted through the first six games with little discernible identity. Elite play from McNabb could have helped, but I think even the Vikings knew he was no longer an elite player when they acquired him in July. In reality, as we discussed at the time, he is a good backup who can provide credible spot starts and insurance behind a rookie starter. It just took the Vikings six games to get to that point.
The debate about acquiring McNabb, rather than starting Ponder right away, largely will prove irrelevant. How much better off would the Vikings be if Ponder had started from Week 1? Would they be 2-4 instead of 1-5? Maybe 3-3? In the intensely competitive NFC North, it's moot. They weren't likely to be in the division race at this point regardless. Did Ponder's development get set back by missing out on six starts? In the grand scheme of things, I doubt it. The only negative the Vikings would have avoided is the local ugliness generated by the inevitability of this transition. Fans, and possibly Vikings teammates as well, never embraced McNabb because he was so obviously a short-timer.
In his preseason appearances, as well as Sunday night, Ponder proved more mobile than advertised and quite accurate while throwing on the run. The Vikings would be foolish not to capitalize on those attributes against the Packers, who will no doubt throw disguised coverages and various alignments at him. It would make sense to get Ponder out of the pocket and maximize the time he has to make decisions.
In our SportsNation chat earlier Tuesday, a number of you questioned whether it's smart to start Ponder against the Super Bowl champions. After the way things have gone with this offense, I think it would have sent an alarming message about Ponder if the Vikings weren't willing to play him this week. And, quite frankly, the Packers' pass defense has been arguably the least impressive segment of their team this season.
In the short term, the biggest boost Ponder can give the Vikings is the extra fire that typically comes along with rookie quarterbacks. McNabb was a calm and steadying influence, but let's just say he didn't appear to be taking these losses too hard. The Vikings could use an injection of competitiveness from the most important player on the field.
I'll have more on Wednesday, I'm sure.