On the eve of the draft in April, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier sat in his dimly lit office and discussed how he would be comfortable going into the season with a rookie starting at quarterback. A federal judge had just issued a ruling invalidating the 45-day-old lockout, so Frazier believed that he would have enough time to get a young QB acclimated to a new system. With the 12th pick, Minnesota took Christian Ponder of Florida State.
But as quickly as the work stoppage ended, it was back: An appellate court ruled two days later on the second day of the draft that the owners had the right to shut their doors. As the lockout stretched into summer, keeping Ponder away from his new coaches, Frazier—who was convinced that the team had enough talent to make a run at the NFC Central title after a 6--10 season—changed tacks and floated the idea of bringing in a veteran. "Someone who can take charge and put a team on his back," Frazier said. The name at the top of his list was Donovan McNabb, the 13-year pro who was looking for yet another fresh start after being benched three times during the previous season, his first with the Redskins. The price was right: Minnesota got the six-time Pro Bowler for two sixth-round picks.
Frazier's plan has largely backfired. The Vikings lost their first three games—blowing halftime leads of 10, 17 and 20 points—and then were humbled by the winless Chiefs in their fourth. Though he was hardly the only Viking to struggle, McNabb bore much of the blame, with former Minnesota QB Fran Tarkenton adding his voice to the litany calling for Ponder to start. McNabb's numbers were acceptable (his passer rating through the first four weeks was 80.9), but he was remarkably inconsistent: Entering Sunday he had completed 67.9% of his throws for 418 yards and three TDs in the first half but had connected on only 49.1% for 262 yards and one score in the second. And he had failed to make the sorts of plays that would ignite a rally or settle his teammates in times of distress.
If fans at Mall of America Field weren't feeling distress early in the third quarter of Sunday's game, they were at least feeling uneasiness. Arizona had just converted a Michael Jenkins fumble into a touchdown to cut Minnesota's lead to 28--10. Fears of another second-half collapse intensified early in the ensuing drive when tight end Jim Kleinsasser was called for holding, setting up a crucial first-and-20 from the Vikings' 24-yard line.
"In our league, you're going to have ebbs and flows," Frazier would say after the game. "You have to be able to answer when things don't go your way. I saw that with Peyton Manning when I was an assistant with Indianapolis, and also with Jim McMahon when I was a player with Chicago. As good as our defense was with the Bears, there were times we needed a breather, and the offense would give us that. They would put together a drive that took time off the clock. Peyton had ice water in his veins. All of a sudden he would make a play to calm things down, and you'd see the wind go out of the other team's sails. You have to be able to do that."
For the first time since coming to Minnesota, McNabb did. He faked a handoff to Toby Gerhart, then lasered a pass to wideout Devin Aromashodu on a deep crossing route. Aromashodu carried the ball across the field and down the sideline for a 60-yard gain that set up Ryan Longwell's 26-yard field goal. Any momentum the Cardinals had built was gone, and Minnesota went on to win 34--10.
The play may have temporarily placated a restless fan base, but the boos McNabb heard throughout the afternoon showed how much work is left to be done. He completed just 10 of 21 throws for 169 yards, and on multiple occasions he one-hopped a receiver or delivered a pass into a different zip code from his target. Of course, McNabb did those same things during his 11 seasons with the Eagles, but back then he did something else: He won. Five times he took the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game.
This season, though, the division title Frazier dreamed of is already almost certainly out of reach, as the Vikings are already four games out of first place. Even a wild-card berth would probably require eight or nine wins in Minnesota's final 11 games. McNabb has been around the league long enough to know that a team out of playoff contention is unlikely to keep a prized draft pick on the bench behind a veteran on a one-year contract. A source close to McNabb says he could see the QB retiring after the season if he loses his starting job, though McNabb insists he has not thought about it. "It's too early for that," he says. "I see great things happening this year. We can really build off this win."
Can they? SI asked a scout, coach or player from every Vikings opponent this season for thoughts on why McNabb has struggled and whether he still has what it takes to lead a team. All but one said McNabb, who turns 35 next month, still has the ability to be effective. However, each acknowledged that a resurgence wouldn't be easy, for reasons including ...
• He's running a new offense. As much as people talk about Vikings coordinator Bill Musgrave installing a West Coast system, those who have game-planned for Minnesota contend that it's really a hybrid offense with a lower percentage of shotgun formations and checkdowns to the backs. Unlike a true West Coast offense, the Vikings' attack revolves around giving the ball to a back: Adrian Peterson, whom Frazier calls "our best player." So Minnesota uses more I-formations and play-action passes than McNabb is accustomed to, and opponents feel he is struggling to adjust to the increased time under center.
"It is just a different way for him to have to play," says one coach. "He just never was asked to be a run- and play-action QB. He is better in the gun, kind of Ben Roethlisbergering it. It's better to spread the field and give him options; let him use his legs to keep plays alive or pick out his receivers. It's too easy now to keep him in the pocket, and that's not his strong suit."
• He lacked an off-season to get familiar with his receivers. On several occasions on Sunday the timing between quarterback and receiver was noticeably off. After one incompletion McNabb motioned Aromashodu that he had expected him to come back for the ball instead of sitting in a spot after making his break. "I don't know that he's totally in sync with the offense," says one opposing coordinator. "He's definitely not where he needs to be. He's more of a pocket passer, and if he's not in sync with his receivers, it creates problems."
• His confidence has been shaken. McNabb, who needs only two more wins to become only the 12th quarterback to reach 100, chuckles at this suggestion, which has been made publicly by former Eagles teammate Hugh Douglas and privately by some members of the Vikings. "Once you start to second-guess yourself in this league, you're done," McNabb says. "Personally, I never second-guess myself. I don't lose confidence in myself."
Frazier hasn't lost confidence in McNabb either. "My hope is, by the time we get to December, all the naysayers will give Donovan his props, because he's one of the greatest quarterbacks to play this game," Frazier says. "How many guys can say they've achieved what he has in the National Football League?"
But if there's one thing McNabb has learned in his 13 NFL seasons, it's that a quarterback, even one as decorated as he is, can't survive long on reputation alone.
HERE COME THE HUSKIES
BIG MEN, BIG IMPACT
THE TALE AFTER TIGER
Photograph by TOM DAHLIN
SHOTGUN WEDDING The hastily arranged union of the Vikings and their QB hasn't worked, largely because McNabb is in a new system that often has him play under center.
TOM DAHLIN (VIKINGS)
A QUESTION TO ... Ponder has yet to take a snap in a regular-season game, but will Musgrave (center) find him a better fit than McNabb (right), who isn't under contract for next season?