SEATTLE -- Donovan McNabb spent over a decade in Philadelphia, and one disastrous season in the nation's capital, before he finally found a place he can seem to call home — with the Minnesota Vikings. After two years of dances with Brett Favre, and having previously abandoned the concept of developing a young quarterback in favor of the veteran quick fix, the Vikings have now hit on a new and better formula — bring in the shorter-term veteran in McNabb and have him help develop the future field general over time.
McNabb, the six-time Pro Bowler, is now working with people who have gone out of their way to make him feel comfortable. It's a long way from the impatient fans and diva receivers of Philadelphia who undercut him in different ways on and off the field, and the Washington head coach in Mike Shanahan who benched him for Rex Grossman (of all people) because of McNabb's alleged cardiovascular conditioning.
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For McNabb, it's a new (and better) ballgame. Traded by the Redskins to the Vikings for a 2012 sixth-round pick and a conditional 2013 sixth-round pick just one year after he was supposed to have been the face of the Redskins franchise, McNabb now seems far more calm and at ease. And the Vikings, finally removed from the Brett Favre saga as they are, have a head coach in Leslie Frazier and a new offensive coordinator in Bill Musgrave who seem to have no agendas but those which will further McNabb's production and his role in the team concept.
"Bill and the rest of our offensive staff have done a great job of putting together an offensive package that he's comfortable with," Frazier said of McNabb's fit in Musgrave's version of the West Coast offense McNabb has operated throughout his career. "They sit down and talk to him about the language we use, and it's something that he's comfortable with, but at the same time to get the things done in the offense we want to get done. You really have to credit Bill for Donovan looking as comfortable early as he does. It's great for us, and as we continue to put a little bit more in, we'll always talk with him about what verbiage he feels most comfortable with, because we know that athletically, he can still get the job done."
It's a collaborative effort between Musgrave and McNabb, led by Musgrave's own experience — he played quarterback in the NFL for a total of five years for the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos. And Frazier was the Eagles' defensive backs coach from 1999 through 2002, which put him on the team through McNabb's first four NFL seasons.
"The thing about Bill is that he played in the same offense that Donovan played in," Frazier said. "So, he has an advantage over some coordinators in that regard. He can tailor things to Donovan, based on his history in a similar offense. So, it's a good situation for us."
The verbiage is slightly different in each version of the West Coast offense. "Trips Right HB Counter Motion Drag Slant" could be a base call for different teams, but though the play concept is basically the same, how it's dressed up in one system or another can be completely different. Even for a veteran like McNabb, it can take time to get the hang of everything.
"Well, one thing I tried to get comfortable with was Bill's terminology — the way he prepares for each game, how the practices are going," McNabb said. "For us to communicate, and that's something you get ready for before the season. Talking about plays that you like and that you think would be effective for your team, and try to utilize that in each situation."
Of course, another reason McNabb is on the clock in Minnesota is that the Vikings require an on-field tutor for rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. Selected 12th overall in the 2011 draft, the former Florida State phenom is known for two things — a pro-style history, and a series of injuries that limited his effectiveness and production through his time with the Seminoles. But he was healthy for the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine, and he impressed tremendously in both situations. Ponder isn't the strongest-armed quarterback in the NFL — think of him as a Jeff Garcia type with more overall physical talent — but because of his experience and intelligence, he's a better bet than some to pick up and personify the complexities of the more advanced NFL offenses.
Ponder did reasonably well against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday in his second NFL game; he completed 6-of-12 passes for 63 yards in a 20-7 win and showed a nice command of movement out of the pocket and the ability to read and adapt to what's in front of him.
"I think so," Ponder said after the game, when asked if he's getting more settled with Musgrave's offensive concepts. "We got a chance to do some two-minute stuff, and get in some different situations, which was good. We got in with the twos [Seattle's second-team defense], and I think we saw their number one defense out there for a bit. I thought it was OK. We could have made some more plays, but we played pretty well."
Ponder also showed an impressive way with playfakes, especially the boot-action concept that had him faking to the back and rolling right to throw. That stretch-action look is a staple of several different kinds of offenses (you'll see the Saints and Colts run it as often as anyone), and the more mobile versions of the West Coast offense see it as a staple. This was especially effective when the Seahawks tended to abandon the flats for whatever reason and give the Vikings the short easy passes.
When told with a laugh by one reporter that "it's a shame you never get to run play-action out there," Ponder countered with the other side of the concept. "Yeah, it's a shame we never get a chance on any of those naked bootlegs, either," he said with a laugh. "They were working. [Seattle's defense] kept giving us the edge, and we kept taking it, and it was good."
But it was McNabb at the epicenter of the Seahawks' victory — he went 6 of 8 for 81 yards and looked even more efficient and comfortable with the motion and read ability required by Musgrave. "I think that was the mindset — to improve from the first game. And for me, being in a new offense, that was something that I tried to go into each practice trying to do. Have [my teammates] get comfortable with me. To come out here in game situations and try to perform."
What is Ponder learning from his new mentor? "He's been really good to me, since the first day I met him," Ponder said of McNabb. "We kinda kicked it off, we have a great chemistry, and he's a pretty funny guy. But he's helped me on and off the field — not only learning how to play quarterback at the NFL level, but how to be a quarterback off the field, as well. He's been great, and I've enjoyed being around him."
NFL defenses have been slightly less hospitable at times. I asked Ponder about the biggest differences between the defenses he solved at the Senior Bowl and the ones he's trying to work his way through now.
"The biggest thing is getting used to the speed of the game," he said. "On top of that, learning this offense and building team chemistry. But the biggest adjustment is that the windows aren't as open as they were in college, and you have to make the reads a lot faster — get the ball in there a lot quicker than last year. It's an adjustment, and it's part of that learning curve right now, but it's been fun."
Fun for the rookie, yes, but even more so for the veteran. And after all these years, McNabb's the one who's earned it.
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