The words, if taken at face value, convey valuable unselfishness, a message from a demoted veteran to the hot-shot rookie.

"I'm going to support him, and I'm going to be there for him. I've said all along this is a team sport, and there's only one quarterback on the field and the other two guys have to support him and back him up."

That's a direct quote, a message vital to the Vikings' immediate future.

Only those words didn't come from Donovan McNabb this week. They were spoken by Doug Pederson. In Philadelphia. Twelve years ago -- when McNabb was the hot-shot rookie.

So just what does that have to do with the start of the Christian Ponder Era? Everything. For when the backup's clipboard was forced into McNabb's hands Tuesday, he immediately flashed back and began referencing Pederson.

Sure, he was sour, in strong disagreement with Leslie Frazier's decision. But McNabb quickly vowed not to brood.

That's why when Frazier shoved him down the depth chart, McNabb tried to overpower his disappointment by reaffirming his commitment.

Before Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson could get to McNabb with a request to stay engaged for the next 11 weeks, McNabb spoke up first.

"Really, he talked to me about that," Johnson said. "I know sometimes there are quarterbacks who say, 'I'm not helping the young guy. I'm not helping the rookie.' He has been the exact opposite."

Why? Because 12 years ago in Philadelphia, McNabb appreciated Pederson's grace and willingness to mentor. Frazier was also in that locker room as the Eagles defensive backs coach. So he wasn't altogether surprised when McNabb cited Pederson.

"He pointed out what Doug meant to him and how Doug took it when they informed him Donovan was going to be the starter," Frazier said. "He knew Doug wasn't quite pleased. But it never changed the way he helped Donovan prepare."

Look, the Vikings never figured a one-year, $5 million investment in McNabb so quickly would become a student-teaching assignment. But when your quarterback turns out to be a lemon, you can only hope he's willing to grab a headset and make lemonade.

For years, McNabb's class and professionalism have been lauded. Now he gets his biggest test, asked to invest significant time and energy to further the growth of a team that has given up on him.

With a prudent view of the future, the Vikings have conceded that McNabb no longer has what it takes to be their starter. But the team also won't ignore the value of McNabb's résumé -- the 177 career starts, those 258 touchdown passes, his five trips to the NFC Championship Game.

So much valuable insight is folded within those pages.

That's why Johnson sees the development of the McNabb-Ponder relationship as a bridge to a promising future.

McNabb will offer another set of critical eyes -- on the sideline and in the film room. His veteran expertise can help Ponder become a speed reader of defenses. And if truly devoted to this new cause, McNabb can be a calming influence for a rookie with a lot coming at him.

Said Johnson: "That means 10 times more than anything coming from any coach. Believe me. For a veteran player who's been through the wars, to come up and take a younger player aside and say, 'Look for this,' those little details coming from a veteran make a difference. ... That is a great asset to have and for Christian to lean on."

For what it's worth, in his starting debut, McNabb misfired on 13 of 21 passes and threw for 60 yards as Philadelphia somehow beat Washington 35-28. McNabb won only two of his six rookie starts.

Before his impressive success came periods of struggle. Ponder should know that.

The rookie's words, taken at face value, convey a sincere appreciation for the man he replaced.

"All year we have sat together and he has talked about things that he has seen and what he looks for on film," Ponder said. "Obviously he has those 13 years of experience. He knows a little more than I do."

Dan Wiederer •