With the Draft behind us and the bulk of free agency settled, there are two months between now and the 2008 football season, when the NFL's epic story continues with another chapter. In that time, TiT will be looking at the players, coaches, and situations that will form their own small stories and will play a large role in driving our experience of the season as a whole. Today, we begin with a look at Vikings QB Tavaris Jackson, and why his inevitable total destruction of himself or his opponents is the foundation for what will happen to the Vikings this season.
You think your team is thrilling to root for? The Vikings fans take your excitement, chop it into fine powder, melt it down, and shoot it straight into their veins; it’s called living and dying by the progress of Tarvaris Jackson, and its going to be the story of the 2008 season for Minnesota. Indeed, despite the fact that he’s become something of a punchline under center (and lobbing a ball backwards over your head without looking will do that), there might not be another quarterback outside of Tom Brady whose success is more directly tied to where their team will finish this year. With his team having sacrificed the bulk of their draft to acquire DE Jared Allen, turning the league’s most one-sided defense (best against the run, worst against the pass) into a complete monster, the pressure now falls on the team’s third year quarterback as the last big question mark between the Vikings and dominance of their division.
As with most situations where a single player shoulders the lion’s share of responsibility for team success or failure, this is a bit unfair to Tarvaris. After all, you put anyone under center with Troy Williamson, Bobby Wade, and an unpolished Sidney Rice as their receiving targets and I doubt they’ll come out looking like a Pro Bowl QB. Yet much of the frustration of fans has been fairly directed at Jackson’s flashes of freakish ability. Watch him for an entire game, and you inevitably wind up stunned by one out of every five or six plays, when the talent that made Brad Childress spend two third round picks to acquire him in the 2006 draft. He has a way of making defenders miss with his feet, a complete lack of fear in the pocket, and an arm that can hit every single point on the field, even under pressure. He turns what would be a loss of yards into a first down, he makes a bullet throw into a tight window under pressure, and all of a sudden there’s not a single quarterback in the league besides perhaps Vince Young with his combination of passing and rushing ability.
The problem is that for the remaining four of five plays out of the six described, you walk away equally stunned by Jackson’s complete inability to coordinate his actions into a focused effort. The quick feet become panicked, the lack of fear becomes the absence of rational decision making, and just like that all of Jackson’s physicality becomes the means by which his lack of organization explodes on the field, inevitably doing more harm than good. The results over two years have not been pretty, with Jackson putting up only 11 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. As such, the team’s confidence has faded over the past offseason, as Childress picked up veteran QB Gus Frerotte and rookie John David Booty out of USC. The message is clear: Tarvaris either learns to live with his talent, or the team learns to live without him.
But the truth is that the Vikings need Jackson this season more than ever. Frerotte and Booty are game managers, but they aren’t putting the fear of God into anyone else in the NFC North, let alone the league at large. Meanwhile, Jackson is the opposite. He may never learn to quietly manage a game as well as either of his possible replacements, but look at the last six games of the season after his return from injury, during which he went 4-2, put up two TDs in a close overtime loss to Denver, and stepped on the necks of both the Lions (204 yards, 2 TD, and a 42-10 win) and eventual champions the Giants (129 yards, 1 TD, and a 41-17 win). If the team is going to get everything it can out of RB Adrian Peterson, it’s going to need to get defenders out of the box, and neither Frerotte nor Booty is shaking defenses down. If Jackson even starts to find a rhythm, however, there’s not a single throw he can’t make, and that, combined with his mobility, forces defenders to adjust. As such, for this team to even remotely approach its potential, it needs him to find his stride.
It’s this reliance on Jackson that will make him so interesting to watch. Usually, teams do their best to take pressure off of an immature physical talent like Jackson. Here, the team has no choice but to hitch its high expectations to his progress, actually increasing the pressure on Jackson to turn his talent into production. The defense is going to be spectacular, and everything points to Peterson being just as deadly a running back as he was last season, but if Jackson can’t succeed then none of it matters, as opponents will simple jam the box and find a way to eek out low scoring victories. Furthermore, given the nature of Jackson’s game, it would appear that the middle path of workmanlike game management is not an option, meaning that if he fails, it will turn the entire season into a hilarious blooper reel, but if he succeeds, we could be looking at one of the most special offenses in the last few years. Having spent the last two years drifting aimlessly in and (mostly) out of brilliance, Tarvaris Jackson is this season’s most unstable chemical in the league’s most pressure-filled situation (fact: Brett Favre is gone, and there’s no reason a team with potentially the league’s best defense and unquestionably the league’s most exciting running back shouldn’t win the NFC North, if not more). Vikings fans had better buy that Tarvaris Jackson jersey now, because it’s getting used…maybe for wearing, or maybe for ritualistic burning, but used nonetheless.