It's becoming kind of old hat around Winter Park. Another Wednesday preparing for an opponent, another quarterback coming into the fray.
The 2007 season has been nothing short of a nightmare for the Vikings – a bad dream that actually started about two years ago. When Daunte Culpepper, who will make his Metrodome return Sunday as Oakland's starting QB, butted heads with new coach Brad Childress, the word came down. If Childress gave in to a star player, it would likely undermine his authority with the rest of the team. With the Vikings refusing to discuss a new contract, Culpepper was abruptly traded to the Miami Dolphins for a second-round pick.
At the time, Childress was confident in his three quarterbacks – veteran Brad Johnson, free agent signee Mike McMahon and rookie Tarvaris Jackson. When it became apparent that McMahon wasn't going to cut it as a No. 2 quarterback, the Vikings picked up Brooks Bollinger as a replacement.
The 2006 season was an unqualified disaster. Vikings quarterbacks managed just 11 touchdowns and threw 20 interceptions. When the season ended, most expected a change … most people except Childress. Aside from announcing Johnson wouldn't be back, he was confident that the Vikings could get by just fine without adding a QB in free agency, despite a veteran like Jeff Garcia, who had succeeded running a similar offense in Philadelphia, being available. Instead, the Vikings went with Jackson, Bollinger and rookie project Tyler Thigpen.
As the 2007 preseason progressed, Bollinger was doing his best McMahon imitation and Childress was forced into another move – trading for veteran Kelly Holcomb, who was about to be the odd man out in Philly. With four quarterbacks, the Vikings gambled that Thigpen would make it through waivers. He didn't. Instead, the team lost its promising young QB and set about the 2007 season with Jackson as their front man and Holcomb and Bollinger on backup vocals.
The plan was to give Jackson a year to prove whether or not he could be the franchise quarterback the scouting staff envisioned. That plan, however, has been sidetracked.
For those of you scoring at home, here is how it has gone down. After winning in Week 1, Jackson injures his groin late in Week 2 against Detroit. He is replaced late by Bollinger. With Jackson unable to play in Weeks 3 and 4, Holcomb ascends to the top of the depth chart and starts against Kansas City and Green Bay – losing both games. After the bye, Jackson is back against Chicago and, while the Vikings win, he is unimpressive. He starts again against Dallas, but injures the index finger on his throwing hand and is again sidelined. Holcomb starts against the Eagles, but gets knocked out in the third quarter – bringing Bollinger back into action. Jackson returns the following week against San Diego, but suffers a concussion in the first half that brings Bollinger back. Desperate with both Holcomb and Jackson iffy for last week's game with Green Bay, the Vikings signed retired veteran Koy Detmer, only to cut him after three days – and paying him more than $90,000.
So, with another week of preparation getting underway Wednesday, the Vikings find themselves again with QB questions. Jackson is back (again), giving yet another look to the Vikings and increasing the frustration for Jackson, who has suffered a handful of injuries in his two seasons with the Vikings that are coming at rate of less than one every two games played.
"That is frustrating for me, because I have never really had any injuries that keep me from playing," Jackson said. "With me being young, the more game experience I get the better I will be, just going out there and just getting comfortable each week. But if I go out there and play two games and be out for two and then play and sit out a game that is not good. That is not good within the team. You just can't get the rhythm going with one guy behind the center. Of course you want to be consistent because part of our job, the quarterback's job, is being healthy and be able to stand out there every week."
The problem has had a ripple effect. While injuries are a given part of the NFL, the situation has been far from what the young Vikings offense had hoped to see in 2007 – which was supposed to be the first step in a building process back to contention.
"I don't think it's ideal," center Matt Birk said of the revolving door at quarterback. "Obviously, you would like to have the same 11 guys healthy every week. It doesn't happen – ever – in this league. Guys are always nicked up, banged up. It really doesn't matter if it's running back, quarterback or wide receiver or linemen (that goes down to injury). It doesn't change your job. It's a team game, but every person has their job to do. It really shouldn't affect you as to how you approach things and how you get yourself ready. By doing your job, that's how you help your team win."
What makes the Jackson injury situation so problematic is the investment the Vikings put in Jackson. He was effectively handed the starting job in January and, between the time he was anointed as the starter and he played in his first regular-season game against Atlanta this season, hundreds of hours had been spent acclimating him to the offense and his receivers – many of whom spent a lot of time in the offseason working to help bring him along.
"We came into this season having put a lot of time in the offseason with (Jackson)," Wade said. "We prepared him to work with this group of guys. We've got to find a way to stick to the scheme and playing well. Having Tarvaris back this week will help with that."
Wade has some experience with dealing with multiple quarterbacks. In his time in Chicago, the quarterback position was seemingly in constant flux. When he moved on to Tennessee, he experienced the growing pains of rookie Vince Young and became one of his go-to targets in 2006. But that couldn't have prepared him from the woes that have befallen the Vikings' quarterbacks this season.
"This one is different," Wade said. "The injuries are one thing – when one player is injured, you know you have to play another guy – but when a guy comes back from injury and the other played the week before, it's something you have deal with as to who plays and who starts. I think it's much harder for (the quarterbacks) to come into that position. As a group and a unit, all (the wide receivers) can do is try to be consistent for whoever has to take snaps that week."
While Jackson is clearly feeling the pressure not only to produce but just to stay on the field for an extended period of time, he claims he's not putting undo pressure on himself to make big plays and put the offense on his back. He just wants to build a rapport with his teammates and prove to coaches, teammates and fans that he belongs as the man behind center for the Vikings for the long-term, not just the short-term.
"I've still got to go out there and just play my game," Jackson said. "I am not trying to go out there and force anything. Basically (I'll) go out there and just have fun and just try to win a game. There are a lot of things that people tend to do when we start losing football games. We are a 3-6 team and guys kind of get uptight a little bit. It's still football, we're still having fun, so that's what we've got to go out there and just do what we know we can do. Just like the Chargers game, that's the type of team you are, and we need to just go out there and play like that and have fun doing it and we'll be OK."
The primary objective the Vikings need to achieve is consistency. Without the same quarterback on the field every week, any progress that any of them have made has been retarded by the lack of time together in meaningful games. While each quarterback has strengths he brings to the table, consistency and chemistry have been sorely lacking.
"That's the biggest thing we're missing," Wade said. "We're missing that (chemistry) to be able to understand your playmakers and guys you want to go to. You need to understand the different looks and the tough looks. It's hard to grab a hold of that as a quarterback when you're in-and-out, in-and-out. There are some things (a wide receiver) will see and you want cut routes off, but you don't want to put the quarterback in a bad position if he doesn't see (the same look). It's frustrating in that respect. Everybody has to try to be as consistent as possible, but at times the system doesn't allow you do that. At times we're missing out on some of those types of plays, because we don't have that consistency."
The result has been self-evident. The Vikings are a 3-6 team that doesn't look like it has a realistic shot to even sniff at a playoff spot. While that can change, the Vikings are hoping to use the final seven games as building blocks to the future – a foundation they hoped to have in place by now, but something they continually finding themselves rebuilding on the fly. For now, they have to suck it up and fall back on what they know best.
"We all have a lot of pride," Birk said. "You can't make it to this level without having a lot of pride. You can talk about being frustrated or whatever, but what are we going to do about it? You have to move on and immerse yourself in the game plan for this week and just worry about going out this Sunday and execute."
Primary Objective: Quarterback Consistency
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