Tarvaris Jackson has become the Vikings equivalent of the Maytag Repairman from the TV commercials. He wants to do something, but there really isn't much to do, so he has become almost anonymous.
That hasn't always been the case. Almost from the day that the Vikings moved up to the final pick of the second round to take Jackson in April 2006, he has been a lightning rod of controversy. Many draft analysts said the jump from Division I-AA would be too steep and that a second-round pick – even the last pick of the round – was too high a price to pay on a prospect when more NFL-ready talent was available at other positions.
Whatever master plan the Vikings had for Jackson's timetable to stardom got a quick jolt when Brad Johnson played so poorly that he got pulled from three games in the 2006 season, due purely to ineffectiveness. First-year head coach Brad Childress let Jackson start the final two games of the season and anointed him as the QB of the present instead of the future following that season.
As would be expected with a young quarterback, Jackson had his share of struggles as the starter. Although he posted a record of 8-4 as a starter, his numbers and consistency were both called into question. But, with Brooks Bollinger and Kelly Holcomb as his backups, it was clear that, when healthy, he would be the starter. Many thought the same scenario would play out when Bollinger and Holcomb were replaced by veteran Gus Frerotte and rookie John David Booty this year.
Two weeks into the season, that planned was scrapped. After coming out of the gate 0-2 with losses to Green Bay and Indianapolis in which the offense generated only two touchdowns, Jackson was sent to the bench and Frerotte was named the starter for the rest of the season. Jackson's NFL life came to a standstill. Seven weeks later, Jackson remains Frerotte's understudy and waiting his turn – a process that hasn't been easy.
Although he took his demotion like a professional, Jackson said there has been plenty of frustration with seeing what he envisioned as a breakout season derailed just two games after it began.
"It bothered me," Jackson said. "I didn't want to be on the sidelines. I wanted to be out there playing. The coach made the decision I have to live with it. All I can do now is be ready if I get called on and get better when the next chance comes."
Jackson said the hardest part of the demotion is that his role has changed considerably during the week of preparation. He works with the scout team and doesn't have the work with the starting line and receivers that he has been accustomed to. He has adjusted to the new role of being the backup that could get called on at a moment's notice with expectations that he will produce.
It is a role that many quarterbacks have had to respond to. Through just nine weeks of the 17-week season, a total of 44 different quarterbacks have started games this season, and that number is going to grow this week with Brady Quinn, Rex Grossman, either Daunte Culpepper or Drew Stanton, and possibly Byron Leftwich adding their names to that growing list. Being the guy that is told to sit and wait until the moment you're needed has been a difficult adjustment for Jackson.
"Mentally, you try to keep yourself focused, but it's a lot different than getting ready for a game as the starter," Jackson said. "You try to do your best to get ready for a game so if your number gets called, you're ready to get in and compete. You saw what happened to Ben Roethlisberger (who was injured Monday night). The guy behind him (Leftwich) had to step up. It's hard because you don't get any reps with the first team. It's just something you've got to deal with."
Jackson said his biggest challenge has been trying to keep himself believing that there is a chance he will play. In every one of his starts, at some point Frerotte has been drilled and slow to get back to his feet – leaving coaches and fans (and Jackson) to speculate whether he can continue. Jackson said he has tried to stay sharp and be physically and mentally ready, but that it isn't as easy as it might appear from the outside – taking off the baseball cap, putting on a football helmet and running an NFL offense efficiently. As much as he tried to take the approach during the week that he's the starter and practice accordingly, it hasn't been easy.
"You try to look at it that way, but it's really difficult," Jackson said. "When you know you're going to play, you're focused. It should be the same as the backup, but it's really difficult to keep that same kind of focus. That's my biggest (problem) about being a backup – staying focused and staying ready. When you're a starter, you prepare hard. This is just different."
As it stands, Jackson will remain on the sidelines if Frerotte remains healthy. He said the Vikings aren't working on any of the nouveau Wildcat formations that are spreading like the flu through the NFL that could incorporate his running ability on a limited basis. He's just waiting and trying to keep his game as sharp as he can.
Whether Jackson's problems were the result of being too concerned about making mistakes or play-calling that was so conservative it left him few options for improvisation other than scrambling, his role with the team now is as the understudy to Frerotte. Childress took all of the pressure off Frerotte by naming him the starter for the rest of the season and you have seen the results. Not fearful of losing his job with a bad game, he has taken many more chances downfield. If a big play happens, he looks good. If the pass gets picked off 40 yards downfield, he isn't shaken by it. He's a man playing with nothing to lose because, by his own admission, his NFL career is nearing its end. Jackson hopes to have a bright future ahead of him, but said the days of being overly conservative are over. He doesn't like it on the bench and, when his chance comes, he's prepared to do what he has to in order to prevent going back.
"You want to stay aggressive regardless of where you're at, but some guys know that no matter how good they do or how bad they mess up, they're still going to be the starter," Jackson said. "For a lot of the other guys, it's a different situation. I was trying not to make that big mistake and take care of the football. That took away a little from my aggressiveness. I know the next time I get a chance, it won't happen like that again."
Jackson wrestling with backup role
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