Whether real or imagined, there is a growing belief among many Vikings observers that if the team is going to make the playoffs, Tarvaris Jackson will be involved, at least in some capacity. With the steadily declining yardage numbers of Gus Frerotte and the growing frequency of him staying down after being hit, there is the unsettling feeling that his next big hit may be his last big hit.
Officially, Jackson's position hasn't changed. Coming out of the bye week, Jackson told Viking Update that he was having a hard time with his new role. Since becoming a starter late in his rookie season, he had never spent weeks in the backup role – taking second-team and scout-team snaps and not working with the first-team offensive line or receiver corps. He admitted that, at times, he would lose his focus and needed to remind himself to stay mentally sharp, despite realizing that there was very little chance that he would be coming into the game.
Over the last few weeks, that has changed. Frerotte has been knocked down and stayed down – albeit momentarily – in three of the last four games. In Sunday's win over Jacksonville, he went down three times in which the training staff had to be summoned to the field to assist him. Once was on an interception. Another was on a third down. On the other, Jackson had to come off the bench and hand the ball to Bernard Berrian on a reverse. While Frerotte returned to the game on the next play, it came as something of a wakeup call to Jackson. He's being told all week during practice to be ready. Sunday proved why the coaches harp the same line over and over again.
"It's gone to show me that you really have to be ready to step in at any time," Jackson said of Frerotte's recent injuries. "I have to prepare just like (Frerotte) does, because you never know when your number is going to get called."
Jackson still will confess to not always being at his top mentally during the preparation week and occasionally gets frustrated with his diminished role in the offense, which has gone from starter to almost nonexistence. But he is learning that a 37-year-old quarterback can't take the kind of punishment NFL defenders can hand out if he's hit too often. While head coach Brad Childress called Frerotte's injuries last week primarily "self-inflicted," the facts speak for themselves. With each big hit, Frerotte is getting up slower and, like multiple concussions, they seem to be taking a greater toll on him.
What Jackson said he's learning is that the quarterback position is unlike any other on the field. If you're a backup running back or wide receiver or cornerback or defensive lineman, there is likely a time during the game in which you get used – whether on a third down or special teams or to give a starter a couple of plays off. It's not like that at quarterback. Barring ineffectiveness on an epic scale, most starters don't get yanked. They play through bad games. But when an injury strikes, he's out and the backup is in – with the expectation of running the offense as if he was the starter all along.
"You've got to expect to play, because with one play anything can happen," Jackson said. "It's been hard to make the (transition) from starter to backup because you don't get the reps you need every week. You don't have the same feel for the game that you do when you know you're going out there when the game starts. It's not always easy, but I've been working at it and keeping my focus."
Frerotte was asked about his relative health at his weekly Wednesday press conference. It is a topic that has become a growing concern, as has passing numbers have steadily dropped over the last five weeks. He said the beating he takes on a weekly basis is bad enough, but it is compounded by the fact that his aging body doesn't heal as quickly as it used to.
"It's a long season," Frerotte said. "We have been sacked a few times, and you do take some hits. As the older you get - and I'm sure some of you guys know – things don't come around as fast as they used to. So you just have to take care of yourself a little bit more, get in the training room a little bit more, get in the cold tub a little bit more, do all those things you have to do to be professional. Some weeks are better than others, and you just have to prepare on how your body feels."
Frerotte said most NFL players deal with pain on a week-to-week basis due to the violent nature of the game. He said the week following the win over New Orleans was the worst of the year for him, but said that veterans learn to adjust to their injuries and, by this time of the season, just about everybody has aches and pains that bother them to some degree.
"It varies week to week, but you just move on," Frerotte said. "You play on turf and you practice on it all the time. Wednesdays are tough for everybody. Wednesdays are days to go out and get everything flowing and to get a good sweat going and you kind of work a lot of that stuff out. Between doing that and staying in the treatment room and doing the things necessary to get back on top (you'll be ready). Because the day you really want to be ready is Sunday."
Jackson has been more than a casual observer when Frerotte has been slow to get up. Although technically Frerotte is the guy who took his job, Jackson said he's never been excited about getting his chance to take the field again – at least not under the circumstances in which he did for one play Sunday.
"When I've seen him go down, the first thing I'm thinking is that I want him to get up," Jackson said. "You don't want anyone to get hurt. But you have to be ready when your opportunity comes."
There has been some speculation that Jackson has been or will be getting more work with the first team. With Frerotte's penchant for absorbing big hits, some feel it is only a matter of time before his body betrays him and he has to go the sideline. But Jackson said that hasn't been the case – Frerotte continues to get almost every first-team reps and he continues to wait and practice on the side.
"You only have so many plays that you work on from one week to the next," Jackson said. "You only have a couple of days and you have to prepare for the different looks you can get (defensively) on each of those plays. He needs every rep possible. There isn't enough time for him to get the reps he needs as the starter and to get too many reps for me."
Jackson said he admires the toughness Frerotte has shown. Part of the reason is that Jackson is no stranger to injury. He was forced to the sidelines three different times last year due to injury – missing a total of four games. He took a shot to the head, injured a thumb and had a groin pull. He was having a strong preseason before he suffered another injury against Baltimore. Childress pointed to his tentative nature after returning from that injury as one of the primary reasons for making the switch to Frerotte – along with the pledge that he was the quarterback for the rest of the season after just two games.
As someone who experienced injuries, Jackson knows what Frerotte is going through and that the life expectancy of an NFL quarterback is pretty much week to week.
"At quarterback, you're going to take some shots," Jackson said. "The worst part is that a lot of them are unexpected shots and you don't always get up from them. Gus is a tough dude and he's been able to get up every time he's taken a big shot and only missed one or two plays since he's been in there."
As the Vikings begin their preparation for the Chicago Bears in a critical Sunday night game with sole possession of first place in the NFC North on the line, Jackson will start the game on the sideline. But, he says that, unlike a month ago, his focus will be on what the Bears are doing defensively because, at a moment's notice, he could get the call to rally the offense and lead them to a win.
While he said he's supporting Frerotte and wants him to play well, he understands all too well that most teams don't make it through an entire season with just one quarterback. Through 12 weeks, only 15 teams have used just one quarterback as their starter, which puts the position into better perspective for him.
"You really gain a respect for a guy like Brett Favre, who has played so many games in a row," Jackson said. "With that position, injuries are the nature of the beast. A lot of teams don't go through the entire season with just one quarterback. You take a lot of shots and a lot of them are unprotected shots. You can't really protect yourself like everyone else does when they have the football. There's a lot that goes into it. You can take care of your body and make sure you're on the same page as your receivers, but it also takes some luck. There is an element of luck in making it through 16 games healthy at the quarterback position today."
Perhaps luck will remain on Frerotte's side for the final five games of the regular season and, if possible, the postseason. In the meantime, Jackson sits and waits – this time knowing his call to arms may come sooner than later.
Jackson ready for action
Viking Update Top Stories
Vikings-Cowboys most-watched TNF game everThe Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys game was the most-watched Thursday Night Football game ever.
Viking Update12:49 PM
Counting snaps: DL rotation against big OLThe Minnesota Vikings used a healthy rotation of defensive linemen Thursday night in an attempt to beat what is widely considered the best offensive line in the NFL.
Viking Update3:13 AM
WATCH: Vikings vs. Cowboys highlightsHighlights and lowlights from the Minnesota Vikings' 17-15 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night.
Viking Update12:33 AM
Zimmer made ‘emotional’ Thursday appearanceThe Minnesota Vikings were without their head coach on Thursday night, but Mike Zimmer made an “emotional” appearance Thursday morning.
Viking Update12:12 AM