Once the Bears took a 23-3 lead on the Vikings in the second quarter of Sunday night's NFC North division game at Soldier Field, the murmuring started to grow louder in the press box. Would this be the game that ended Donovan McNabb's run as an NFL starting quarterback and be the beginning of the Christian Ponder era in Minnesota?
The answer came 17 seconds into the fourth quarter. With the Vikings taking over at their own 29-yard line after the Bears had extended their lead to 29 points, head coach Leslie Frazier finally allowed Ponder, the team's first-round pick, to take his first snap as an NFL quarterback.
Ponder didn't look completely overmatched by the moment. He had a few rookie moments but he handled the Bears' blitz well for the most part, wasn't sacked and completed 9-of-17 passes for 99 yards.
After the game, McNabb, whose deficiencies at this stage of his career have been on full display during the Vikings' disappointing 1-5 start, respond graciously when asked about Ponder, as he always has when put in this uncomfortable situation.
"He prepares well, and for him to go out there and get things going, I was happy for him," McNabb said of Ponder, who likely will keep the reins of the offense the rest of the season, barring injury.
However, the story for now is not about Ponder. His career is in its infancy. The story is about McNabb, who turns 35 in late November and whose career looks to have hit the AARP stage. It is quite possible that he has played his last meaningful down for the Vikings and in the NFL.
While McNabb didn't play well, he wasn't the only reason why the team got blown out, 39-10, on Sunday night. The pass rush sacked Jay Cutler only once and allowed him to torch the Vikings' secondary downfield. And the offensive line didn't create rushing lanes or protect McNabb very well, either.
But this is a quarterback-driven league and McNabb appears no longer capable of being a dependable starter now or going forward. His accuracy, maligned throughout the past two seasons, has continued to deteriorate to the point where he throws as many bounce passes as the average NBA player. His legs, which used to be a dependable weapon, have left him: once able to shrug off defensive linemen with ease, he's now able to be pushed to the ground, as Julius Peppers did for a third-quarter sack.
Even though Frazier wasn't ready to name his team's starting QB for next week's game vs. unbeaten Green Bay, McNabb doesn't believe that this is the end of the road for him, saying that he "absolutely" expects to be the starter next week against the Packers.
"I'm going to keep fighting to the end," McNabb added. "I don't see it ending like this."
Whether or not McNabb believes it's the end is irrelevant. The writing appears to be on the wall, with a rookie first-round pick waiting in the wings on a team with no chance of reaching the playoffs. Whether his benching comes next week on later in the season, it's coming. The best thing for the Vikings is to evaluate the young players they have, especially Ponder.
With McNabb's career winding down, one can hope it's put in the proper perspective. The end looks like it will bitter, with the 13-year NFL veteran having been traded and benched twice since the end of the 2009 regular season. Prior to that, he had tremendous highs, leading the Eagles to five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. He has more career passing yards than Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Troy Aikman and more passing touchdowns than Steve Young and Terry Bradshaw. The argument can be made that he's worthy of enshrinement in Canton, Ohio.
That McNabb is long gone, as his skills have eroded. Injuries, hits accumulated through his days as a scrambler and age have rendered him a below-average quarterback. He no longer can make all the throws necessary to play the position effectively.
But looking past the here and now, it feels like with McNabb's career he has been underappreciated. There is always the "yeah, but" when it comes to McNabb. Yeah, he took his team to the all those conference championship games, but he won only once. Yeah, he won a lot of games during his Eagles tenure but never a Super Bowl.
Like it or not, he was one of the five best quarterbacks of the past decade. After Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees, you would be hard-pressed to find a quarterback that played as well as McNabb or one who accomplished as much.
Obviously, he had his flaws. His performances on the biggest stages often left something to be desired. And he seemed to lack the killer instinct or the fiery disposition that fans desire in their franchise quarterback.
Lost in the discussion of his flaws, however, is what he did well. He carried subpar receiving corps, including the likes of Todd Pinkston, James Thrash and Freddie Mitchell to four consecutive NFC championship games from 2002-05. The year he finally got a stud No. 1 receiver in Terrell Owens, the Eagles came within three points of winning a Super Bowl.
People never fully bought into McNabb from the day he was drafted. Eagles fans never fully embraced him. Kyle and Mike Shanahan never fully trusted him after acquiring him via trade. By the time he made it to Minnesota, he wasn't physically capable of being the player that Frazier and the Vikings hoped they were getting and fans were chanting for his benching even during a blowout win over the Cardinals in Week Five.
It seemed easy to pile onto McNabb because he was so willing to take it. He'd laugh off all criticism, whether it came from Rush Limbaugh, the Philadelphia NAACP or Philly talk radio. He refused to get confrontational about anything or to anyone. He handled controversy with class and dignity.
Now that we are seeing the end of McNabb, it's time to stop focusing on his failures. Point blank, McNabb is one of the best quarterbacks and players of his generation. The way his career ended shouldn't change that.