With the score 31 to 14 in the third quarter and the Minnesota Vikings being measured for new embarrassment, this time by the lately toothless Detroit Lions, Joe Webb entered the game as the new Viking quarterback.
One of his first formal acts was to run 65 yards for a touchdown.
For Joe Webb, it didn’t seem all that strenuous. They haven’t found a position for him yet, and he may never be a starting quarterback. But when Joe Webb hauls the ball down and starts legging it, rushers somehow disappear. Tacklers fall all over themselves. He looks like a man moving through the middle of a pie fight and emerging without a smudge.
Vikes‘ fate hinged on final play
So in the final moments of the game, it didn’t seem all that miraculous to see Joe Webb bringing the Minnesota Vikings to the cusp of the Detroit goal line, three feet away, with a chance to win the game on the final play; all of that in a little more than 20 minutes of action.
The score read 34-28 in the last seconds, and Joe was rolling left, looking for a receiver for the touchdown that would have brought the Vikings their first victory in weeks and only their third in four months.
Before Webb could unload, the Lions’ DeAndre Levy tackled him around the neck in an assault that had all of appearance of an illegal grab of the face mask. No flags were thrown. The ball came loose, got batted around by pursuing players of both teams and was finally whistled down in midfield in the hands of Detroit’s Cliff Avril.
“Longest play ever,” Avril said later. The score stayed 34-28. A touchdown and an extra point would have won it for the Vikings despite a horrendous afternoon by the young starting quarterback, Christian Ponder.
It didn’t exactly end quietly. Before the teams had reached their locker rooms, the blogosphere was filled with post-mortems.
•”Where were the officials on the on the mugging of Joe Webb?”
•”How about Joe Webb as the starting quarterback Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, and [are you ready] Drew Brees?
It didn’t take long after the game for Coach Leslie Frazier to snuff out the predictable firestorm. “Christian will be the starting quarterback next Sunday,” he said. If healthy, he added later.
This was not merely an act of loyalty to his young quarterback, still ailing from the effects of his hip injury a week ago, and the architect of three interceptions and a fumble that handed the Lions their first touchdown. Add a dreadful passing rating of 60.7 for the game. In the National Football League, this is a depth of inefficiency so bad that if performed at sea it could be reached only by bathysphere.
Frazier sticking with Ponder
But Frazier knows that he can’t be changing quarterbacks every week. Ponder can play, throw well and make good decisions when healthy. Frazier also knows that the secondary has been a basket case for most of the season and at the core of the Vikings’ season-long debacles, now standing at two wins and eleven losses. The game ended with veteran corner back Cedric Griffin on the bench in the second half and probably an ex-Viking when the season ends. The Viking defense did get healthier in the second half after Mathew Stafford’s two touchdown passes in the first quarter.
But there was no discounting the level of young Ponder’s misery at Ford Field.
It began three minutes into the game when the Lions’ Cliff Avril hacked his throwing arn at the Vikings’ 10-yard line and linebacker Steve Tulloch recovered in the end zone. Ponder was intercepted a few minutes later, and Titus Young beat Griffin on a deep pass that went 57 yards for a 14-0 Lions lead. It grew to 21-0 on Stafford’s 12-yard throw to Brandon Pettigrew. Ponder and Visanathe Shiancoe teamed on a 7-yard pass to cut Detroit’s lead to 21-7 after one quarter. But Ponder — throwing awkwardly across his body several times while escaping the Lion rush — threw another interception to the Lions’Alphonso Smith, who ran 30 yards to score and expand the lead to 28-7.
No Adrian Peterson was there to take the pressure off the troubled quarterback. But the ever-present Percy Harvin became the receiver of choice and Toby Gerhart the grind-it-out runner. And they kept the Vikings within range at 28-14 on Ponder’s 6-yard throw to Harvin that brought the Vikings to within two touchdown before the grandfather of all pro football field goal kickers, the Lions’ Jason Hansen, made it 31-14 at the half.
But Ponder’s stresses got worse across the board to lead off the second half — his hip, his accuracy and his decisions with the ball. Webb entered in the third quarter and in virtually no time put the Lions defense in a squirrel cage.
Webb has not played enough pro football to be confident with his reads and his options, although he is a superb athlete whose first impulse is to run when he’s in doubt about the coverages. There’s nothing especially abnormal about that in today’s pro football. Michael Vick, Vince Young and Tim Tebow have experienced comparable passages.
But not many quarterbacks can run with Joe Webb’s legs, instincts and his raw joy at the liberation of the open field. He’s now in his second year of pro football and is still not sure whether his employers are serious about his quarterbacking. But they also don’t want to make him available to somebody and face years of regret.
With Webb, Vikes roar back against Lions
So he entered the ball game with a little more than 20 minutes to go and tried mightily to find a receiver early and couldn’t. As a reasonable alternative, he raced 65 yards into the end zone, virtually without resistance. So it was 31-21. And about now the Lions’ coaching staff was screaming at the team’s pass rushers: “Make him throw.” In other words: “Don’t let this guy beat us with his legs.”
He didn’t, but Webb threw enough to hit 12 of 23 passes for a modest distance of 84 yards. One of those was a short 2-yarder to Gerhart in the end zone that brought the Vikings to within 6 points at 34-28. And amazingly, with the run-first Joe Webb leading the offense and eventually gaining 109 yards on the ground, the game was up for grabs with three minutes to go. Part of it was the second-half arousal of the Viking defense, led by a remarkable three sacks by Jared Allen.
So, now the Vikings were on the attack. Eventually they would outgain the Lions by with 425 total yards to 280, led by Webb, Harvin and Gerhart. With 9 seconds left, they were a yard out. And Joe Webb was back and moving left, about to throw, or run. Who knows? That’s how it is with Joe. Levy grabbed him from behind, hit his face mask and the ball came loose. Players fought over and around it as it rolled downfield. They batted it and chased it; The Lions had it, and the game was over.
Nice warm-up for Drew Brees and the Saints, wouldn’t you say?