EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — When Joe Webb went high in the end zone Sunday to pull in a three-yard touchdown catch, the physical gifts that have intrigued the Minnesota Vikings coaches for years were apparent.
Up against San Francisco’s third-year cornerback Perrish Cox, Webb jumped high in the air, using all of his 6-foot-4 frame and remarkable leaping ability to catch a floating pass from quarterback Christian Ponder. Webb’s athletic ability is still leaving Minnesota’s coaches to find a place for him. Sunday’s catch is the type the Vikings hope Webb can replicate with more time at receiver.
“It was encouraging to see Joe make the play that he made,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “That was a heck of a catch. Great job by him. He’ll get some other opportunities on Thursday night (in the preseason finale), so you want guys to continue to impress.”
Webb’s time with Minnesota has come full circle. A dual-threat quarterback at Alabama-Birmingham, the Vikings drafted Webb as a receiver. As soon as former coach Brad Childress saw Webb throw, he moved him back to quarterback where Webb had been a project until January’s fateful playoff game at Green Bay.
Filling in for an injured Ponder, Webb struggled in his first extended action of the season in Minnesota’s 24-10 playoff loss to the Packers. Webb’s day — 11 of 30 passing for 180 yards, one touchdown and one interception — essentially ended his time as a quarterback. The Vikings signed Matt Cassel in free agency to backup Ponder and Webb was moved back to receiver full-time.
But Minnesota wasn’t ready to simply move on from Webb, a sixth-round draft choice in 2010. They want to see if the athletic ability, such as he showed Sunday, can manifest itself into a contributing role as a receiver and special teams player. Fighting for a roster spot as a receiver, Webb has five catches for 27 yards in the preseason.
“It gives the coaches ideas what ways they can use me, my talent and things like that,” Webb said of his touchdown on Sunday. “I just want to continue to make plays like that, build the trust for the quarterback that he can throw it up to me.”
It’s hard to move on from the skills Webb offers. He’s tall, strong and fast. The leaping ability, which was on full display in a YouTube video in 2010 when he jumped over seven blocking pads in a pre-draft video, would be useful at receiver.
“You send me to culinary school and you’ve got all those great chefs, I’ve never cooked,” said wide receivers coach George Stewart as he tried to summarize Webb’s move to receiver. “I know how to cook scrambled eggs, but it’s going to take me a while. But once I learn, I’m going to be OK. And that’s going to be a minute or two. Just like with Joe, he’s not going to go in, scramble up something that’s going to taste good. But he’s working at it every day.”
And Webb has the ingredients.
“He’s got huge hands,” Ponder said earlier in training camp. “He’s running pretty good routes for a guy that just started a couple of months ago. I think he’s a guy that deserves to be on the field. We know what he can do when the ball is in his hands.”
In the playoff game in January, he ran seven times for 68 yards. In 2011, he set a team record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a game with 109 rushing yards. The Vikings have also tested Webb as a returner and on special teams coverage units since moving him back to receiver.
Webb says he’s not thinking about a roster spot, though he could be competing for one of the final receiving spots on the roster. He is working on his transition, knowing it will take time.
“I’ve came a long ways since back when they moved me back to receiver in April,” Webb said. “I’ve just been working hard every day at it. Coach Stew’s been doing a great job with me. So, I’m just trying to continue on my success.”
His athletic ability is surpassed, perhaps, only by his humility.
When asked to move from quarterback, a position he’s played his entire football life, Webb took the move in stride. Frazier recalled sitting down in his office with Webb during the offseason and telling him about the position switch. Webb told Frazier he’d do whatever it took to help the team.
“It wasn’t an act when he said that in my office because his demeanor hasn’t changed,” Frazier said during training camp. “He’s rare. He’s extremely rare in this business where there are a lot of egos, a lot of guys thinking about me. A lot of guys thinking about the next contract, I don’t sense that in Joe. He just loves the game and loves to play and just wants to help our team.”
Stewart added: “He’s still Joe. He’s still Joe Webb. He’s still happy-go-lucky. He’s always had a great attitude and our team loves him…He didn’t blink (when asked to move). ‘Coach Stew, what do I got to do.’ He’s in there every day, he’s working. You can’t work Joe Webb hard enough. He’s a worker. And that’s one thing that’s a bonus. If he wasn’t, I don’t know if the transition would have been as smooth. But he’s a worker.”
Webb says he’s only focused on building off his touchdown on Sunday. He continues to work and said route-running is his biggest adjustment. After two years of backing up Ponder, he’d love to be on the receiving end of more passes.
“We’ve got great chemistry,” Webb said. “We’ve been together. I’ve been with him since his rookie year so I know how he thinks. I know how he likes the receivers to run the routes. I know everything that Christian thinks. That’s the positive side about it and hopefully we can continue that connection.”