TARVARIS JACKSON understands the anxiety in the Twin Cities. Last year, in his first season as the Vikings' full-time starting quarterback, he passed for more than 175 yards in only three of 12 games and had a mere 15 completions of 20 yards or longer. The 2006 second-round draft pick from Alabama State threw more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (nine), and his passer rating (70.8) ranked 28th in the league. Minnesota lost its last two games and finished a disappointing 8--8.
This year the Vikings are loaded for a playoff run, with seven Pro Bowl players among 22 starters, including the league's most dynamic young runner in Adrian Peterson, the 2007 offensive rookie of the year, and the reigning sack champion in new defensive end Jared Allen, acquired in a trade with the Chiefs. All that's missing is an established quarterback—which is why a lot of people thought Brett Favre would look great in Vikings purple. But he's wearing Jets green instead, and Minnesota is casting its lot with Jackson.
Though Jackson, 25, was 8--4 as a starter in 2007 (he missed four of the first nine games with a pulled groin, a fractured finger and a concussion), you could almost see the gears shifting in his head as he walked to the line of scrimmage. What's the play call? When do I lift my foot to set a receiver in motion? How deep is my drop? "A quarterback should be playing the game on the other side of the line," says coach Brad Childress. "All that stuff, the verbiage, the footwork, the snap count, should be rote memory. When you get to the line and say something—Green 18!—you should be trying to get a [tip-off] from the defense."
And this summer? Jackson has looked much more comfortable and relaxed. He was a combined 15 of 22 for 200 yards and two touchdowns in the first two preseason games (though a sprained right MCL, suffered in the second game, had him on limited duty afterward). "He has improved in every facet—fundamentals, footwork, releasing the ball, body position, technical football," says quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers. "But all of that doesn't mean anything until you win some games."
Jackson is mobile and strong-armed. What he must show is greater command of the huddle and a better feel for defensive coverages. The Vikings signed 15-year veteran Gus Frerotte to be the backup and drafted former USC starter John David Booty. But there is no quarterback controversy; the job belongs to Jackson. If he proves to be as poised on the field as he was in camp, particularly in the face of the Favre speculation, everyone will look back and wonder what the fuss was about. "The guy has a Tiger Woods mentality," says Rogers. "He worries about things he can control, not things he can't."
And those who are of the opinion that the Vikings will go only as far as Jackson takes them should get in line ... behind Jackson. "That's true," he says. "It's like any other team: If the quarterback's not playing well, the team's probably not playing well."