Pressure is on: QB Jackson eager to prove he can lead Vikes to playoffs
Desperate for football talk, instead of Spygate, collective bargaining issues and insane first-round money? You've come to the right place. The majority of this holiday edition of MMQB will be real-football-centric, starting with the story of the player under as much pressure this season as any other player in the game, with the possible exception of Aaron Rodgers.
I bring you the offseason story of Tarvaris Jackson.
Eight hours after the New York Giants stunned the football world by upsetting New England in the Super Bowl in February, Jackson stepped on his treadmill in Montgomery, Ala., loosened up his legs a bit, then went into a serious sprint workout for 45 minutes. Then he hit the weights to do his offseason lifting regimen. Then he went outside and threw the ball to some friends, playing receiver for the routes he called.
"My season started that morning,'' Jackson, the 25-year-old, third-year quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, said from Minneapolis the other night. "I was so excited. After I watched that game, I couldn't wait to get going.''
Jackson is one driven guy right now. When he watched the Super Bowl, this is what he thought, more or less:
Ten weeks ago we went into the Meadowlands as big underdogs against the Giants, I threw a 60-yard bomb on the second play of the game for a touchdown, our defense played great and we throttled the Giants, 41-17. And they won the Super Bowl. Why not us?
That's why he set his alarm for 6 the next morning and hit the offseason running. Literally.
The Vikes have a playoff-caliber team in place, particularly with the addition of 2007 NFL sack leader Jared Allen via a trade with Kansas City, and their biggest question mark by far is at quarterback. Jackson knows there's pressure. He feels it. He's honest about it.
"I know what people are saying,'' he told me. " 'The Vikings have a great defense, the best running back in the league, a great offensive line ... what about the quarterback?' The quarterback position -- every day of your life you're under the microscope anyway. I understand that. I'm very confident in my growth as a player in this system. But I know what's going on. People don't have any reason NOT to ask that question about me.''
The Vikings strongly considered trading for Sage Rosenfels with Houston before the draft. They would have put the efficient Rosenfels in competition with Jackson, and Rosenfels likely would have won the job. Did they ever consider dealing for Donovan McNabb? They never made a phone call to the Eagles, but there's no question it was considered. So Jackson knows he's going to have to play well to keep the gig, and if he doesn't, the team will definitely look to replace him next year.
He's an interesting case. Before I spoke with Jackson, I looked at his bio and his game-by-game numbers from last year. This stunned me: In the final seven games last year, when Jackson and the Vikings went 5-2, he completed 65.2 percent of his passes. Look at these game by completion accuracy numbers, in percentages: 77, 83, 75, 64, 62, 61 and 52. The biggest thing he had to do after his career at Division I-AA Alabama State was work on accuracy (in his three seasons there, he completed 51, 52 and 61 percent of his throws, respectively) and knowledge of the pro game.
In the Minnesota offense, Jackson knows he has a security blanket in the league's best running game -- led by backs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, who combined for 2,185 rushing yards and a gaudy 5.5-yard average last year -- so he knows now not to force anything. He also knows not to shortchange himself. He's worked with former Viking and Raider MVP quarterback Rich Gannon at the Viking complex on several things, one of which is goal-setting. "He stressed accuracy, and he told me, 'Set your goals high. Set it [completion-percentage rate] for 70. So I did.'' Gannon helped Jackson with his dropback, telling him on timing throws he needs to get back from center faster, so he has more time to survey the field before he makes his decision where to go with the ball.
"When I looked at myself on film from last year,'' Jackson said, "the biggest thing was how much of a robot I was at times. Not saying I was scared to take chances, but a few times when the play was already going bad, I'd do something like forcing the ball to make it worse. Working with [quarterbacks coach] Kevin Rogers this offseason, I think I've just gotten more comfortable in the offense and the whole decision-making process.''
In last week's organized team activities, Jackson's offensive teammates thought they saw a change for the better in Jackson. "Night and day in his knowledge of the offense and his comfort level,'' receiver Robert Ferguson said.
"He made a tremendous jump toward the end of the last year,'' guard Steve Hutchison told me, "and it's continued this spring. Quarterbacks need to get a swagger. Not be cocky, but just be confident that where they're going with the ball and how they're leading is right. Now, just the way he is around us and on the field, it's not like he's a rookie quarterback. He's more like one of the guys. He knows he doesn't have to put up Peyton Manning numbers. He's got a great arm, but he's also got a great support system on offense.''
The key for Minnesota on offense, aside from Jackson, is whether free-agent wideout Bernard Berrian can be the deep threat Troy Williamson was drafted to be in 2005 but never became. (Williamson was dealt to Jacksonville in March for a sixth-round pick.) If Berrian can be the defense-stretcher consistently that he was occasionally in Chicago, and if Jackson can find him downfield twice a game, that 5.5-yard average rush for Peterson and Taylor could jump to 6.0. That's a big if, though.
Hutchinson's right -- Jackson has to be a nice complementary quarterback, minimizing his mistakes and completing 65 percent of his throws. But that's a lot to ask of a kid who three years ago was playing against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Tuskegee. It's also easy to lead the league in good news in May. How will Jackson react to walking into Lambeau Field on the first Monday night of the season, with a Packer crowd juiced for their archrivals and the juicing going up a notch with the retiring of Brett Favre's jersey?
"They're probably out there in the parking lot tailgating right now,'' Jackson said.
At least the kid knows what he's up against. Now he's got to go out and prove he's a real, live, winning NFL quarterback. It's too early to predict anything, but I like the moxie of a kid who walks into Giants Stadium and throws a bomb on the second play of the game for a touchdown. Can he make the decisions of a winning quarterback, and can he be the week-in, week-out player to run Brad Childress' offense? Minnesota's playoff hopes are riding on him. We'll see.