MINNEAPOLIS — Vikings defenders usually hear the same five words whenever backup quarterback Joe Webb steps into the huddle during an 11-on-11 team practice session.
“The Rabbit’s in the Ballgame!” said cornerback Antoine Winfield.
It’s a saying that comes from Fred Pagac, the team’s linebackers coach and former defensive coordinator. “Pug,” as he’s known, has been hunting those wascally wabbits since Woody Hayes gave him his first coaching job at Ohio State in 1978.
“You play a Michael Vick or a quarterback like that and Pug is saying, ‘There’s a rabbit out there, there’s a rabbit out there!’” Winfield said. “The rabbit is going to run. And you know how tough it is to catch a rabbit.”
Yeah. Especially one that’s 6-4 and 220 pounds.
Webb will start at quarterback in the Vikings’ final preseason game at Houston on Thursday night. If all goes as planned, this will be his one and only start in place of Christian Ponder. But that doesn’t mean offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave hasn’t spent hours scheming of ways to use that big young rabbit every now and then once the regular season starts.
“I think we have a good feel for what we want to feature when Joe is on the field this year,” Musgrave said. “There’s a balancing act with how much we use him and how many plays (in a row) we use him. We’re trying to get Joe in there without disturbing the system for Christian.”
Don’t expect Thursday’s game to be any sort of dress rehearsal for exactly how Musgrave plans to expand on Webb’s so-called “Blazer” package during the regular season. For starters, NFL coaches don’t show much in the preseason. Secondly, the Vikings play the Texans again in three months.
Look for Webb to be given a package of plays designed to further develop his pocket-passing skills. That was the plan last Friday, when he completed six of eight passes for 59 yards and a 95.3 passer rating in a 12-10 loss to the Chargers. Webb’s only run — a 3-yard scramble on third-and-2 — was negated by a defensive holding penalty.
“Joe is working really hard to become a better passer,” Musgrave said. “And I think he made strides with that against San Diego. He threw the ball as well as I’ve seen him throw it.”
Webb completed his first six passes. Four of them went for first downs as the Vikings moved from their 10-yard line to the San Diego 19 before running back Derrick Coleman fumbled the ball away.
Musgrave is hoping for more of the same Thursday night. However, if the designed plays break down, the rabbit will do what he does best, which is improvise at high speed.
“I consider myself a pass-first quarterback,” Webb said. “I go through my (route) progressions first. But if something breaks down, God blessed me with running ability. Why not use it?”
Success in spurts
It’s Webb’s ability to collect first downs and spring big plays with his legs that makes him an attractive backup and an ideal candidate for unconventional surprise packages such as the “Blazer.”
A year ago, he relieved Ponder with the Vikings trailing in the third quarter against the Lions in Week 14 and the Redskins in Week 17. Against Detroit, Webb led the Vikings back from a 31-14 deficit to the Lions’ 1-yard line before fumbling as time expired in a 34-28 loss. Webb ran 65 yards for a touchdown and passed for another touchdown. Against Washington, he replaced an injured Ponder early in the third quarter and rallied the Vikings from a 13-10 deficit to a 33-26 victory. He ran for a touchdown and completed four of five passes for 84 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
“I can do a lot of things,” said Webb, who’s 1-1 as a starter with both games coming as a rookie in 2010. “I definitely have a lot of talent. I think (developing) it helps if you have a positive attitude. It’s not just for yourself, but for your teammates. And besides, I know my opportunity will come one day.”
Webb is an interesting player to watch in practice. That’s because all the things that make him so dangerous on game day aren’t allowed to develop in practice because QBs are off-limits.
“It’s real tough for me to hear that whistle stop a play in practice,” Webb said. “Guys out here, they play pitter-pat. They touch me and call it a sack. That’s no sack. Good thing they don’t make me wear that red jersey on game day.”
The Bills probably wished he had one on midway through the second quarter of their 36-14 loss to the Vikings at Mall of America Field. On third-and-8 from the Vikings 22-yard line, Webb lined up in the shotgun with tight end Rhett Ellison and receiver Stephen Burton bunched near the right tackle and receivers Jarius Wright and Devin Aromoshodu bunched near the left tackle. Ellison and Wright ran deep seam routes while Burton and Aromoshodu ran short out routes. Both deep targets were double-covered by a linebacker and a safety. The two out routes were single-covered by cornerbacks and the middle linebacker covered running back Lex Hilliard into the left flat.
“When I see that, I know the defense doesn’t have anyone accounting for the quarterback,” Webb said. “I go through my reads, but I know the field is going to be wide-open for me to run.”
And that’s what Webb did. He juked right, slipped left and broke free up the middle for a 41-yard gain.
Webb was asked how he would use Joe Webb if he could be a coach for one game day.
“I don’t know how to answer that question,” Webb said. “I would just say that I’d find ways to get me on the field. But that’s a hard question to answer.”
Sometimes knowing how and when to use the rabbit can be almost as difficult as catching him.