Vikings coach Brad Childress didn't commit to Tarvaris Jackson as his starting quarterback for the 2009 season at his season-ending press conference last week, but several Vikings players gave Jackson at least a public vote of confidence.
"He came an awful long way this year," said wide receiver Bobby Wade, who led the Vikings in receptions for the second consecutive season. "It was almost like a double year for him. Obviously, he comes out and starts, struggles a little bit, got the call to get benched and then was able to come back in as a backup and then start. He's grown an awful lot mentally and, not only that, but as a leader on this team and what he's been able to do. I really look forward to be able to move forward."
The Vikings entered the 2008 season hoping that Jackson would be taking that next step forward next year, but his performance in the first two games – when he posted passer ratings of 59.0 and 73.3 – ended up getting him benched in favor of veteran Gus Frerotte.
However, Jackson returned to post ratings of 143.8, 135.5, 98.5 and 88.5 in the final 3½ games of the regular season, when he got the chance to redeem himself after Frerotte was injured against Detroit.
"He definitely can get the job done," said safety Darren Sharper. "I've played against quarterbacks that have won Super Bowls and go against him in practice every day. He has all the tools to take this team to the next level."
Antoine Winfield has been one of the biggest player proponents of adding free-agent talent over the last few seasons, but his comments following the Vikings' 2008 season would indicate he feels better about the talent on the team.
"I feel very confident. We have a lot of players that will be back next year, a lot of good players. Guys will work hard this offseason to get better, so look for a better season next year," Winfield said. "… With AP (Adrian Peterson) running that ball, T-Jack, we have the weapons. It's about putting it all out on the field. If we do that, our chances will increase."
Asked specifically about Jackson, Winfield continued to portray confidence.
"I think he's taken a lot of great steps this year. Earlier in the year they switched quarterbacks, but I think the playing experience will only get better. Another year under his belt and another offseason he'll continue to get better," Winfield said.
Jackson endured quarterback questions throughout the 2008 offseason. First it was the Vikings trying to trade for a quarterback around draft time, and then he likely felt the weight of his own teammates wondering how he would respond. When he came to training camp, all he heard about was the possibility of Brett Favre coming to the Vikings in a trade.
Through it all, Jackson put on a good face, although he admitted during the season that he was trying to do too much at the start of the season.
"He's great. Tarvaris is tough," said center Matt Birk. "First, I'm happy for him to bounce back the way he has. He's a great competitor, great talent. I think this last month or so he's showed the naysayers that he certainly belongs in the league."
The biggest remaining question for Jackson will probably feed off his playoff performance: Can he perform under pressure – both the pressure of the playoffs and the pressure of blitz-happy teams like the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, the two teams Jackson struggled with the most at the end of the season.
During a critical fourth-quarter stretch of the playoff game against the Eagles, when the Vikings' deficit grew from two points to nine points, Jackson was 0-for-7. But several players and coaches admitted that playing against the Eagles defense when Philadelphia has a lead late in a game can be a difficult proposition for a quarterback (witness: Jake Delhomme's playoff performance).
"It's tough when it's passing situations – when you're down they know you have to pass the football," Wade said. "It would be tough for anybody. It would be tough for our offensive line to protect at that point. It's tough for him to make the right reads. It's hard to put somebody in that position."
Overall, Jackson showed progress as a quarterback when he was reinserted as the starter late in the season. The question is whether or not he showed enough to keep the Vikings from making a free-agent or trade acquisition this offseason.
Teammates publicly support Jackson
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