The Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders both felt compelled to gamble on veteran quarterbacks at different points this season, hoping each could help them stay competitive in their respective divisions.
There are many reasons the Vikings (2-7) are at the bottom of the NFC North and the Raiders (5-4) are on top of the AFC West heading into their game Sunday at the Metrodome, with the success, or lack thereof, of those gambles at the top of the list.
The Vikings chose Donovan McNabb, acquiring him in a trade with Washington before training camp opened. The Raiders paid a hefty price for Carson Palmer, sending a 2012 first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder in 2013 that can become another first rounder to the Bengals after Campbell went down in a win over the Browns in Week 6.
McNabb struggled with a limited Vikings offense, failing to get the passing game going as Minnesota lost five of its first six games. He was replaced in the fourth quarter of a 39-10 loss to the Chicago Bears on Oct. 16 and is now relegated to backing up rookie Christian Ponder.
After a shaky debut against Kansas City, Palmer has shown increasing improvement over the last two weeks as the Raiders starter. He has also solidified himself as a leader on the team in short order, inspiring confidence in his teammates that all was not lost when Campbell broke his collarbone a month ago.
"He means a lot," Raiders running back Michael Bush said. "He's been doing a good job of calling the right plays, getting us in the right position to score points. It's hard coming in for a quarterback to pick all the plays, formations and all that stuff. He's doing a good job."
Palmer got his first action in relief of Kyle Boller against the Chiefs on Oct. 23, less than a week after the Raiders brought him in. He was 8 of 21 for 116 yards and three interceptions in a 24-0 loss in Kansas City, but it hasn't taken him long to get his rhythm back. He threw for 332 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in a loss to Denver the next week, then was 14 for 20 for 298 yards, two TDs and one interception in a 24-17 win over San Diego last weekend.
"The biggest thing that he's doing is he's earning the respect of his teammates by the way he's working, whether it be on the field or off the field," Raiders coach Hue Jackson said. "I think the players can see that, in the locker room, on the practice field and off the field in meetings. That's how he's asserting himself, but that's what you'd expect any quarterback to do."
Jackson and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier played big roles in the decisions to bring in their respective veterans and both coaches relied on prior relationships with the quarterbacks while making their decisions. Jackson was Palmer's offensive coordinator for two years at USC and was the receivers coach with him in Cincinnati for three seasons.
So he knew exactly where to turn when he needed a quarterback in a hurry.
"I coached him and recruited him in college, so I knew exactly who he is," Jackson said. "So when the situation happened with Jason, you had a decision do make. Do you just go get somebody to fit in? Or do you get somebody who you think can help you truly win? I wanted to give the team the best opportunity to have success."
Frazier was in a similar position, albeit much earlier in the year.
With the lockout wiping out all summer of workouts and preventing Ponder from learning the offense and developing a rapport with his teammates, Frazier went looking for an experienced QB to fill the void while the rookie got acclimated to life in the NFL. Frazier was an assistant in Philadelphia when McNabb was drafted, and the two became close over their years there.
"Our familiarity with him and watching him in this league and seeing the maturation of him throughout his career, I just know that there's some good football left in Donovan, and I think we'll be the beneficiary of that," Frazier said when the trade was first announced.
But it became apparent fairly quickly that McNabb wasn't going to be able to keep the Vikings in contention in the resurgent NFC North. He threw just four touchdowns in six starts and averaged a paltry 6.6 yards per completion while receiving substandard protection from the offensive line and throwing to a receiving corps that struggled to gain separation from defensive backs.
So the Vikings have turned to Ponder and clearly have shifted their focus to the future rather than the present.
Ponder is 1-2 as a starter, with both losses to the undefeated Green Bay Packers, including a 45-7 wipeout at Lambeau Field on Monday night. He has shown signs of promise and made some mistakes, as to be expected of a rookie playing the most demanding position on the field.
"There are going to be days where you're not as successful as others and you have to learn from those situations and I think he will and our entire group has to learn from what happened on Monday night," Frazier said. "Christian got some valuable experience that I think will help him down the road."