Can Jackson Move from Manager to Playmaker?

Tarvaris Jackson's teammates say they saw an evolution in his game during the 2007 season. Where and how did he improve? Steve Hutchinson talks about his presence in the huddle and receiver Bobby Wade talks about a transition in philosophy, while Matt Birk, Pat Williams and Darren Sharper also offered their thoughts on Jackson.

The biggest question of the offseason is clearly going to be the direction the Vikings take in filling the quarterback spot. At midseason, it appeared as though Tarvaris Jackson was going to be a one-and-done starting quarterback. His play seemed to regress at the midway point and observers got the impression that games the Vikings won were despite Jackson, not because of him.

But once Jackson was able to remain in the lineup, the Vikings turned their season around and got to within one home win of making the playoffs. As it turned out, Jackson didn't play well down the stretch and, when the season ended, Brad Childress was asked on two separate occasions whether Jackson would enter the 2008 offseason workouts as the clear-cut starting quarterback. In both instances, he refused to clearly anoint him as the starter, a departure from his statements following the 2006 season, in which he said Jackson and Brooks Bollinger would fight it out for the starting job.

It would seem, however, that despite not getting a vote of confidence from his coach, Jackson has that from his teammates, who said his maturity as a quarterback grew substantially during the season – giving the strong impression that they're ready to head into '08 with Jackson as their candidate of choice.

"We knew going into the year that it's hard to play the quarterback position when you're a vet, much less a second-year guy," Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson said. "He didn't play until the end of last year, so really he was kind of like a rookie. We knew going into the year that if we could run the ball successfully and take some of the pressure off of him, we'd all be better off and make his job a little easier. For the most part, I think we were pretty successful running the ball and kept him in manageable third-down situations. He made great strides learning and their no substitute for experience, and he got a lot of it this year."

Fellow Pro Bowler Pat Williams agreed, saying that the Vikings committed to Jackson by taking him in the second round of the 2006 draft and that he deserves a chance to excel. Whether he succeeds or fails, he knows that his teammates support him.

"He's all we've got now, so everybody's going to back Jackson," Williams said. "That's our quarterback. I can't look on the outside. That's the guy we drafted. That's the guy we're going with. I think he'll be alright. He has to take his time."

The big difference, according to his teammates, came in the win column. In the four games Jackson didn't start, the Vikings went 0-4. That number wasn't lost on his teammates, who saw the competitive fire come out in Jackson late in the season. If the Vikings are planning on bringing in a veteran QB in the offseason, they apparently haven't shared that information with the players.

"I don't know where they are with that, but T-Jack played pretty well this year," Sharper said. "It comes down to wins and losses, and when he was out there, we were 8-4. For a first-year starting quarterback, that's pretty impressive. Just how he fought back in the game (vs. Denver) showed the heart of that kid. We played with him all this year and we'll continue to play with him."

With every young quarterback there are growing pains and, while Vikings fans grew a little impatient with Jackson, his teammates were able to see the progress he made and that the future looks markedly brighter for T-Jack than it did six months ago.

"For a young guy, he came along," Birk said. "He handles himself well. He's got a good head on his shoulders. I think he's like the rest of us – keep working hard and keep improving and good things will happen."

That doesn't mean the Vikings won't look in the free agent or trade market for a veteran. But most likely that veteran will be told he's coming in to be a backup and that Jackson will have the first (and perhaps only) shot to win the starting job in the preseason. While Jackson is the main man right now, even his top receiver said there's nothing wrong with bringing in a veteran to serve as a backup and a mentor to a young quarterback.

"I don't think that would ever hurt (to bring in a veteran)," wide receiver Bobby Wade said. "Any time that you get somebody that can be some type of leader or mentor for you at that position is good, especially if it's someone that has more experience than you. I wouldn't bring in a veteran in that hasn't seen the things he's seen, but any veteran at that position, for the most part, will help him improve his game."

While some believe that bringing in a veteran with designs on starting could retard Jackson's growth as a quarterback, Wade disagrees. He knows from where he speaks. He spent the 2006 season in Tennessee watching Vince Young grow into being a starting quarterback. As a rookie, Young had some dismal games, but ended up being selected to the Pro Bowl at year's end. He has seen some of the same traits Young brought to Tennessee showing up in Jackson.

"There is a point where a quarterback realizes that there are plays that need to be made and he needs to make them," Wade said. "A comparison earlier with Vince that I found was that Tarvaris needed to get that competitive nature back there – understanding that you're playing that position not just to manage the game, but to compete to make big plays. I think he's been exceptional at growing into that. That was something Vince just had immediately."

If leadership is the question, perhaps the Vikings already have their quarterback of the future – both short-term and long-term. As a rookie, Jackson was a wide-eyed backup trying to catch up with the speed of the game. In 2007, he was asked to manage games and not make critical mistakes. By the end of the season, he was making plays and commanding the respect of his teammates and setting his own tone for the future.

"In the huddle toward the end of the year, he was a different person," Hutchinson said. "He demanded respect in the huddle and that's what you like to see."

The million-dollar question now seems to be what will the Vikings do in the offseason? Whether they bring in a veteran from the outside or not, one thing they can be assured of – when training camp opens this summer, their quarterback position will be stronger than it was in 2006, even if they don't bring in a veteran. Jackson made strides in his second year and it might just be time to unleash him and let him show what he can do when he's asked to win games, not just manage them.

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