Donovan McNabb loses another starting job as Vikings go with Christian Ponder


Former Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb is benched again as the Minnesota Vikings turn to first-round draft pick Christian Ponder. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)
October 18, 2011

Quarterback Donovan McNabb hoped for a prosperous new beginning with the Minnesota Vikings this season following the trade that ended his stay with the Washington Redskins after one disappointing year.

Instead, McNabb has lost his starting job again, only six games into the Vikings’ season. Coach Leslie Frazier sat down McNabb in favor of prized rookie Christian Ponder in the late stages of last Sunday night’s lopsided loss at Chicago, which dropped the Vikings’ record to 1-5. Frazier has decided to turn to Ponder as the starter for this weekend’s game against the Green Bay Packers.

McNabb’s benching means that a quarterback drama now exists for each of the teams involved in the late-July deal that sent him from Washington to the Twin Cities. While Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan chooses this week between McNabb’s successor, Rex Grossman, and backup John Beck, Frazier is moving to his franchise’s quarterback of the future, the 12th overall selection in April’s NFL draft out of Florida State, instead of giving McNabb another chance to right the Vikings.

“I made the comment a few weeks ago, I thought the change was coming unless Donovan changed what he was doing,” former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, now an analyst for the league-owned NFL Network, said Tuesday before the news of Frazier’s decision. “He hasn’t, and it is.”

An NFL source confirmed several reports Tuesday, the first by the NFL Network, that the Vikings had decided to start Ponder.

The Eagles reached five NFC title games in McNabb’s 11 seasons in Philadelphia, but traded him to the Redskins, an NFC East rival, before last season. The Redskins benched McNabb in favor of Grossman with three games remaining. Now McNabb, who turns 35 in November, faces an uncertain future as an NFL starter.

“What we saw in Philadelphia was a very unique athlete,” Theismann said. “But he has always had times when he struggled with his accuracy. The thing that distinguished Donovan was his ability to extend plays, and he had a great presence as a leader with that Philadelphia club. He conducted himself in the classiest possible manner with all that came his way, and he continues to do that. But that’s Donovan the man. What we’re talking about now is Donovan the quarterback.”

McNabb is the NFL’s 19th-rated passer, which puts him 13 spots ahead of Grossman. He has thrown only two interceptions this season, seven fewer than Grossman, and he has completed 60.3 percent of his passes, to Grossman’s 55.8 percent. But while Grossman helped the Redskins to some early-season wins, little has gone right for the Vikings.

They squandered leads of 17-7, 17-0 and 20-0 in three of their defeats. That wasn’t the problem Sunday night in Chicago, where the Bears grabbed the early lead and never looked back in a 39-10 rout. Ponder completed 9 of 17 passes for 99 yards in relief of McNabb, who connected on 19 of 24 throws for 177 yards.

“There really wasn’t anything that you could point to and say that’s something we can build on,” Frazier said at a news conference Monday. “It was just a tough night all the way around.”

Frazier said Monday that he and his assistants would discuss the quarterback situation later that day and Tuesday. “We’re going to talk about a lot of things, but the primary point will be what’s best for our team going forward as we prepare for our next opponent,” Frazier said.

The Vikings, with star tailback Adrian Peterson, are ranked third in the league in rushing offense but are 31st in passing and 23rd in total offense. McNabb had to learn the Vikings’ offense quickly after arriving at training camp after the NFL lockout and worked with a wide receiver corps that lost standout Sidney Rice to the Seattle Seahawks in free agency.

Ponder was the last of the four quarterbacks to be chosen in the first dozen picks of the draft. The Vikings took him after Cam Newton went first overall to the Carolina Panthers, Jake Locker went eighth to the Tennessee Titans and Blaine Gabbert went 10th to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Newton and Gabbert already are starters.

Frazier said Monday that he hadn’t given up on this season, nor would the Vikings base their quarterback decision on what was best for next season and beyond. He said he wanted to be sure when he went to Ponder as the starter that the young quarterback was ready so the Vikings wouldn’t have to make repeated changes. But Frazier said he also saw promising signs in Ponder’s play Sunday night.

“For a guy who gets limited reps in practice it seems like he had a good grasp, like we thought he would, of our offense,” Frazier said. “He moved the team when he was in there. He made some good throws. There were some throws he’d like to have back. But considering the number of snaps he’s had in game situations, I thought he did a pretty good job of moving the team.”

McNabb, for his part, had said he expected to keep the starting job. “I still expect to be in there next week,” McNabb said at his postgame news conference Sunday.

McNabb, who has thrown for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns in six games this season, also said after Sunday’s game: “We’re all upset. But the thing you can’t do is you can’t harp on the situation. You watch the film. You communicate with each other, make sure you’re back on the same page and you look forward to possibly changing things the next week.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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