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Peter King
September 05, 2011
The Donovan McNabb gamble could pay off big—or go bust
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September 05, 2011

4 Minnesota Vikings

The Donovan McNabb gamble could pay off big—or go bust

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The Vikings are the NFL's cover-their-bets team of 2011. Three months after using the No. 12 pick to draft Florida State's Christian Ponder, their quarterback of 2015 (and maybe much sooner), they traded for their quarterback of September 2011 (and maybe much longer), Donovan McNabb. Now the drama unfolds—McNabb trying to regain his playoff form after the nightmare that was his 2010 season with the Redskins; Ponder trying to learn from McNabb, then hasten his retirement.

At training camp in Mankato, Minn., owner Zygi Wilf schmoozed with Betty McCollum, the congresswoman from the suburban Minneapolis district where Wilf is attempting to get a new stadium deal. Then the Vikes arranged for McNabb to meet McCollum, and they chatted amiably. Afterward one of the team's p.r. men, Tom West, explained the stadium project to the quarterback, including naming options for the stadium. "How about the House That Donovan Built?" McNabb said with a laugh.

You never know. After being wedded to Brett Favre for two years—for better in 2009 and for worse in 2010—Minnesota is still following the Packers' lead at quarterback, but in another way. The Vikings watched Aaron Rodgers sit behind Favre for three years and develop his game under a strong offensive coach, Mike McCarthy. In a perfect world McNabb, who turns 35 in November, would be reborn under new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and allow Ponder from one to three postgrad years to watch and learn. "It worked out well for Aaron," Ponder says. "Maybe it can work out for me. If we're playing well, I'm all for it. I know it's definitely better for the team to have a veteran in there now."

Coach Leslie Frazier pushed hard for the McNabb trade, which sent a sixth-round pick in 2012 and a conditional sixth-rounder in '13 to the Redskins. "Everyone in this game goes through a tough season," McNabb says. "This is the time for me to bounce back with an offense I like through a door the Vikings have been good enough to open for me. I'm looking forward to knocking that door down."

You might ask: Why would Frazier, the former defensive coordinator who took over for Brad Childress with six games left last season, have an easier time with McNabb than Mike Shanahan did in Washington? A couple of reasons: Frazier remembers the old McNabb; he was the Eagles' secondary coach in McNabb's first four years, when McNabb was soaking up Andy Reid's quarterback lessons. Frazier saw everything good about McNabb—the hard work, the extra film sessions, the leadership. What he didn't see was the friendly but ultimately uncooperative McNabb who bombed last year. McNabb hasn't discussed the story about his refusing to wear a wristband to streamline the Redskins' play-calling; an NFL source says that if it happened, it's because McNabb didn't want to appear to need a crutch in running a new offense. But Frazier understands McNabb well enough to know he can get results without pushing a proud man to do something he'd abhor. Frazier also thinks Musgrave can tailor an offense to take advantage of McNabb's strong downfield arm and his ability to move in the pocket and make plays quickly.

Still, with top wideout Sidney Rice gone, McNabb's options are limited. Deep threat Percy Harvin's two seasons have been stop-and-start due to migraines (a problem he now says he has under control). After that there's a bunch of Bernard Berrians and Greg Camarillos, guys who are going to have to be made better by their QB.

Frazier will give McNabb plenty of leeway, and the plan is for him to play the season and see how it goes. At the very least the double-barreled quarterback strategy will make constructing future rosters much easier. "Next year we're not going to be sitting in the draft room picking 21st in the first round and saying, 'We've got to get a quarterback,' and we can't get one," Frazier says. "We've got that position secure, and it's a great feeling after how unsettled it's been at times."

"I'm happy to have Donovan here," says veteran middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. "We've got a guy who's seen every defense, who's been through turmoil, who's a rock. We're going to need that this year."



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