The QB Goes Over the Middle

Tuesday August 13th, 2013

MANKATO, Minn. — When Joe Webb was a boy in Birmingham, he played all the positions, but mainly quarterback. He turned down Purdue, Alabama and Auburn in favor of UAB, in part, so he could play quarterback. He was drawn to the exclusivity of it.

“It’s not like being a receiver or a defensive back,” he says. “You’ve got four or five of each out there on the field at one time. There’s only one quarterback.”

But the coaches at UAB used him for a season at wide receiver before putting him back under center. The Vikings drafted him as a wide receiver, only to switch him to quarterback. Now entering his fourth NFL seasons, he’s back at receiver.

The 26-year-old is left to wonder: If I never ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, would I be an NFL quarterback, or an NFL washout?

“That 4.3,” he says, “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Looks like hopefully it’s a good thing.”

Right now it’s a very good thing, because it means he has a job.

A sixth round pick in 2010, Webb thought he would be playing receiver in Minnesota before coach Brad Childress told him he would be a QB. He got a three-year audition as a backup, which culminated with an 11-for-30 performance in last season’s 24-10 wild-card loss to the Packers.

When the Vikings acquired former Chiefs starter Matt Cassel to back up Christian Ponder this offseason, coach Leslie Frazier called Webb in for a version of the same talk he had at UAB, when he was moved for his redshirt sophomore season to wideout. That time he was just happy to be seeing the field. This time it came with higher stakes.

“It’s been like that my whole career so I’m used to it now,” he says.

On one hand, it’s hard to give up throwing the football when you’re a guy who once idolized Kordell Stewart, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham. On the other, Webb recognizes how lucky he is to be able to play two positions in the NFL.

“I’ll do whatever I can do for the team,” he says. “I’m just blessed to be in the position. A lot of guys come out of college, either they get cut or don’t even have a chance to get on an NFL roster.”

Being a wide receiver has its pros and cons. Webb says he tries not to think about the higher risk of injury: He’s a lean 220 pounds stretched over a 6-foot-4 frame—and he had to relinquish the non-contact red practice jersey. He must improve on just about every physical aspect of the position, from route running to releasing off the line of scrimmage. But he’s got nearly every other wideout in this competition beat in one area: smarts.

On a Monday afternoon practice at Minnesota State University here in Mankato, young receivers stick to Webb on the sidelines like eager ducklings, prodding him for explanations of coverages and play calls.

“He’s the guy I go to when I have any questions about defenses,” says undrafted rookie receiver Adam Thielen. “He knows that stuff so well, as far as where they’re going to go in a certain coverage, where they’re going to go if the safety rolls down. Everyone asks him those questions. It’s like having another coach in the wide receivers room.”

Webb is helping out veteran newcomers too, he says, with free agent acquisition Greg Jennings adjusting to a new offense. Webb is in competition with Jennings, Jerome Simpson, and 2013 first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson for playing time. If he sticks, so be it. If not, he’s not shutting the door on getting another shot at quarterback somewhere, someday.

“I try to stay positive about everything,” he says. “I have to look at this move like it might be best for my career, or it just might be for right now. Whatever position they put me in, I try to work hard and be the best I can be.”

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