MANKATO, Minn. — Joe Webb’s physical talents have always had the Minnesota Vikings’ coaches wondering how to best utilize him in their offense.
Two years and three training camps into his NFL career, Webb is still being groomed. But Minnesota’s current set of coaches is sold on his potential at quarterback. Now Webb needs to show the Vikings he is making progress.
Following the 2011 season, Minnesota committed to Christian Ponder as the starting quarterback and said Webb will be the backup, dedicating two young players to the most important position on the team with each set in his role. No longer was Webb going to have his time split between quarterback and receiver. He was given a full offseason to develop as a quarterback.
When Webb took over for Ponder early in the second quarter of last week’s first preseason game, he looked more raw athlete than polished quarterback. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave noted much of Webb’s performance Friday, in which he ended up leaving the pocket often, was due to breakdowns along the offensive line.
“We know as quarterbacks sometimes you’ve got to throw when you can’t step into it,” Musgrave said Tuesday. “We’re doing a bunch of drills this week to help Joe in that regard. I just think Joe will get better and better.”
Webb finished the game 4 for 11 for 20 yards and didn’t complete a pass to a wide receiver. He had two carries for nine yards as well and showed off the athleticism that has been his calling card. Yet, the Vikings have seen Webb’s strengths as a runner and know he can be dangerous outside the pocket.
The coaches want to see his improvement as a passer, in the pocket.
“We know what Joe can do,” Musgrave said. “We’ve got to make sure we can enhance Joe’s limitations in the pocket. He doesn’t have a lot of time on task playing quarterback in the pocket and we want to make sure that we don’t just paint him into a corner where he can only do this. Joe’s tall. He has a good release. We think he can be more effective in the pocket than he has been in the past.”
Webb has provided a spark at times the past two seasons with his athleticism, but it’s mostly been as a runner, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. He has completed 57.9 percent of his 152 career passes. Last year, mainly coming off the bench after Ponder injuries, he was 34 for 63 passing for 376 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Working inside the pocket was a point of emphasis for the coaches with Ponder as well. To help the process, Minnesota tried to upgrade its offensive line during the offseason by drafting left tackle Matt Kalil No. 4 overall, moving last year’s left tackle Charlie Johnson to left guard and making a change at right guard, where second-year player Brandon Fusco is likely to win the starting job.
Ponder looked strong in the first preseason game behind the new-look offensive line. Webb didn’t get the same chances playing behind second- and third-team linemen.
“It was an up-and-down performance,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “Part of what he dealt with was, so many things so many guys in front of him were not able to do, and that affected some of the things he wanted to do at the quarterback position. We fully expect him to keep progressing at the quarterback position. He’s probably the least experienced of all of our quarterbacks as far as playing the position over a long period of time. You just have to continue to let him get reps and let him develop. Joe is a big-play guy, as we all know, so he’ll make his share of plays.”
Webb was drafted in the sixth round in 2010 out of Alabama-Birmingham, where he was the first player in NCAA history to throw for at least 2,000 yards and run for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. His athleticism was always the draw, though. He spent his sophomore season in college as a receiver and, despite playing quarterback his final two years, the Vikings drafted him with the idea of moving him back to receiver.
That was until then-coach Brad Childress saw him throw in training camp. After that, Webb had to deal with being alternated between receiver and quarterback. Webb believes he’s improved since the Vikings told him he could concentrate solely on playing quarterback.
“Just focusing on this one quarterback position instead of going back and forth, I really got better,” Webb said. “I think I improved from the past when I first came in. So I’ve still got a long ways to go though.”
And most of that work is becoming more confident in the pocket.
“I’m still working on it,” Webb said. “Day by day, just trying to get better each day. Progressing through my reads, sitting in the pocket when I need to sit in there and deliver the ball, and that time will come when I need to pull it down and run. So that’s just my focus right now; just going to keep working on it.”