Last week, ESPN ran an article that seemed as intent on regurgitating the Michael Vick dog-fighting issues as adding anything meaningful to the discussion on race in sports. More significant in the current climate, and a question facing the Minnesota Vikings, is the role of race in defining not a player's position on the field as much as the player's role within that position and how teams view their needs based on how they view their players.
Near the end of a disastrous 2010 season, the Minnesota Vikings lost starting quarterback Brett Favre to injury. Rather than relying on Tarvaris Jackson, a player the team knew it was not bringing back in 2011, the Vikings turned to rookie Joe Webb. Webb had his ups and downs in two starts at the end of last season--rallying the Vikings to an improbable victory at Philadelphia and falling to the Detroit Lions. Overall, however, he showed the type of promise that one would expect of a quarterback-in-training.
In the 2011 NFL college entry draft, however, the Vikings used their twelfth overall pick to select former Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. At the time, the Vikings made clear that Ponder was their quarterback of the future, immediately declaring him the front-runner for starting quarterback and going so far as to provide him with new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's playbook--a respect not accorded Webb.
When the Vikings picked up Donovan McNabb in free agency, the Vikings slid Ponder to second-string and suggested that Webb's future with the team would be in some hybrid role. Ponder, meanwhile, was considered sufficiently ready to slide into the starter's role as early as sometime during the 2011 season, despite, unlike Webb, having shown nothing yet at the pro level.
As the 2011 pre-season has progressed, however, McNabb has established himself as head and shoulders above both Ponder and Webb. In last night's narrow loss to the Dallas Cowboys, McNabb showed poise in the pocket and a rifle arm both on the run and in the pocket. Through three pre-season games, but particularly in last night's game in which starters from both teams played well into the second half, the still relatively young McNabb established himself not only as the best quarterback option on the Vikings' roster, but also as a legitimate starter for the foreseeable future.
McNabb's apparent resurgence in Minnesota, albeit limited to exhibition games, has left the Vikings with a far less critical but still significant question of whether Webb or Ponder merits the number two position. Based strictly on pre-season performance, there is little question but that Webb is the number two quarterback. That's no slight to Ponder, who, until last night, playing with the third-stringers against the third-stringers, had looked like he was making progress toward becoming a starter in the NFL. Rather, it is a testament to Webb's continuing improvement and overall ability.
Unfortunately for Webb, the lesson many have taken away from his play this pre-season is that he is ideally suited for some role in a "wild cat" offense.
We know, of course, that "wild cat" is a euphemism for finding a role other than starting quarterback for a black quarterback who can run and pass but still needs some polish in the pocket. Ponder, too, can run, though not as well as Webb, and can pass when outside the pocket, but nobody is even considering him as a wild-cat option. Nor would they. That's because Ponder is considered a starting quarterback in waiting. And, despite having many of the same assets as Webb--the ability to scramble, run, and pass out of the pocket--and deficiencies--weakness in the pocket, Ponder does not meet one of the requirements of the cliched wild-cat quarterback. He is not black.
While it is conceivable that the Vikings' fixation on Webb as a wild-cat option is predicated on the team's view that Webb needs to be involved in the offense and that team understands that, for this to happen, he must do so in a role other than starting quarterback as long as McNabb is in the fold. But that does not explain why the team began making such suggestions even at the end of last season, well before the team even envisioned bringing in McNabb, or why that suggestion continued to permeate after the Vikings drafted Ponder, a player less ready to start in the NFL than is Webb.
The irony is that the Vikings and many NFL commentators and analysts have all the information in the world to suggest that Webb is a legitimate NFL quarterback who can build on his current assets to establish himself as a long-term starter in the league. Not only did Webb show his abilities last season, but everyone now has evidence, in Michael Vick, that a strong-armed, blazing fast player can be a good pocket quarterback, as well; speed and pocket presence, in other words, are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The gnawing sense in the case of the Vikings' view of Webb, made all the more ironic by the fact that the Vikings have a black head coach and a black starting quarterback who once was known as much for his legs as for his arm, is that the Vikings have fallen back on the tired cliche that a speedy black quarterback is best suited to an esoteric offense. That logic, intentional or not, could cost the Vikings a quarterback, if not a player, who clearly has the skills necessary to be a very good NFL quarterback. Again, that's no knock against Ponder, who might also develop the necessary, though different skills. But it is an interesting question for the Vikings to consider as they handle what should be a good problem for the team and not one made of cliched views of players.
An objective assessment of current abilities would suggest that McNabb is the Vikings' best option at starting quarterback right now, that Webb ought to be involved in the Vikings' offense this season, and that Webb ought also to be the number two quarterback, rather than Ponder. The difference not only in how the team views this is monumental in terms of how the team treats Webb going forward. If Webb is groomed as the quarterback-in-waiting, he could become a very good starter. If he is treated as the "wild-cat option" only, however, he, unfortunately, will be relegated to a far less generous career. And the Vikings might be cheated out the young starting quarterback that they so greatly covet.
Up Next: Vikings Showing Promise.