Minnesota Vikings: Tarvaris Jackson

MINNEAPOLIS -- Since he was introduced as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 17, Mike Zimmer has preached open competition as one of his core beliefs, and he should. It's a way for the new coach to keep his players honing their games to a fine edge, at least in theory.

If the Vikings hadn't gone into their coaching search with an open mind, Zimmer might not have landed his first head-coaching job at age 57, to the delight of people around the league who believed the longtime defensive coordinator had to wait too long for his shot. So when Zimmer -- who turned 58 earlier this month -- talks about an open battle at the quarterback position, adding that the Vikings won't be afraid to play rookie Teddy Bridgewater if he's good enough to win the job, there's every reason to believe the coach. There's also every reason for Zimmer to make sure Bridgewater has to clear a high threshold if he wants to line up as the Vikings' starter in St. Louis on Sept. 7.

Zimmer needs only to look at the situation that played a large part in his job becoming available last winter. In April 2011, four months after the Vikings removed the interim tag from coach Leslie Frazier's title, the team took Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Ponder had no offseason to learn the Vikings' playbook and no time to work with his new coaches because of a lockout that stretched until August. But after six mediocre performances from a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb (in what turned out to be the final six games of his career), the Vikings handed the job to Ponder and never looked back, putting two young quarterbacks behind him in 2012 and using several solid games during a playoff push at the end of that season -- a year in which Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards -- as justification to declare Ponder the uncontested starter before 2013, despite the presence of Matt Cassel on the roster.

Would things have turned out differently if Ponder had been given more time to develop? Possibly not. But by putting him in the lineup as soon as they did, the Vikings were, in effect, making a statement that Ponder was ready to take the job for good and locking themselves into a long stretch with him. They didn't have to make that pronouncement as soon as they did, but if they'd waffled on it shortly thereafter, they would have invited scrutiny for their lack of direction at quarterback (as they did with their Ponder/Cassel/Josh Freeman carousel in 2013). Quarterback instability ultimately doomed Frazier, and in effect, it doomed his predecessor, Brad Childress. After feuding with Daunte Culpepper shortly after taking the job, Childress pushed for the Vikings to select Tarvaris Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft and vacillated on Jackson until the team signed Brett Favre, whose stormy relationship with Childress ended with the coach's ouster 10 months after the Vikings nearly reached the Super Bowl.

The bet here is that Zimmer won't make a rash decision with Bridgewater, not when the Vikings are set up so well to avoid one. In Cassel, who's signed for the next two seasons, they've got the perfect custodian for Bridgewater: a veteran who's solid enough to handle the job in the short term, but not entrenched enough to step aside without a fuss. And even Ponder, who will be a free agent after the season, has some usefulness in 2014, as an emergency option in case Cassel gets hurt (or struggles early) and Bridgewater isn't ready. The Vikings have done everything they can to construct a healthy atmosphere for Bridgewater's growth. The key to the whole thing, though, is a coach who's patient enough to let it work. Zimmer might get only one shot as a head coach, and he's got something of a cushion this season, with the Vikings moving into a temporary home while trying to remodel their defense. One poor season won't cost the coach his job, but mismanagement of the quarterback situation ultimately could. Especially with offensive coordinator Norv Turner at his side, Zimmer should have the good sense to avoid the potholes his predecessors hit.

So how does this all play out? The 2012 Seattle Seahawks might provide a good blueprint. They signed Matt Flynn to a three-year deal worth just $9 million guaranteed, giving themselves a quarterback they could play if Russell Wilson wasn't ready to start. When Wilson ultimately won the competition, the Seahawks were free to trade Flynn a year later. Only time will tell if Bridgewater turns out to be as good as Wilson has been -- the Vikings QB has looked sharp to this point, albeit only against defenses prohibited from hitting him -- but if he can take advantage of the situation, Minnesota has the mechanisms in place to make it work, just as the Seahawks did.

For Bridgewater to get on the field in September, he should have to prove he's unequivocally the best man for the job. Otherwise, with the Vikings facing a nasty early schedule, a tie should go to the veteran. It's a good, sensible construct for the rookie coach and quarterback, and with so many recent cautionary tales about the costs of quarterback foul-ups, the Vikings would be wise to take advantage of it.
Rick SpielmanAP Photo/Jim MoneThe success of the next Minnesota Vikings quarterback may determine the legacy of general manager Rick Spielman.

MINNEAPOLIS -- In his 17 years as a member of NFL front offices, through a career that's spanned three teams and taken him through two convoluted power structures, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman might never have had more influence over a team than he does right now.

Vikings ownership scrapped its disjointed "triangle of authority" structure in 2012, elevating Spielman from vice president of player personnel to general manager and giving him full control over personnel decisions. The Wilf family decided not to give coach Leslie Frazier a contract extension after a surprising 10-6 season in 2012 and fired him after a 5-10-1 season in 2013. Spielman got to pick his own coach for the first time in his career, hiring well-respected former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and heads into the 2014 draft with four of the top 100 picks, including the No. 8 overall selection.

Spielman could use that pick to take the highest-drafted quarterback in Vikings history. If he does, he could also be making the selection that defines the rest of his tenure as the Vikings' GM.

The biggest hole in Spielman's résumé with the Vikings -- which includes an otherwise commendable record on first-round picks, a shrewd trade for DE Jared Allen, and what appears to be a good return on dealing WR Percy Harvin -- is his inability to find a long-term solution at quarterback. Spielman came to the Vikings shortly after the team had used a second-round pick on Tarvaris Jackson, and didn't have to devote a high pick in the draft to a QB until the end of Brett Favre's two-year run triggered a youth movement in 2011. And now the Vikings appear to be acknowledging that the decision to pick Christian Ponder 12th overall in 2011 was a mistake.

"I haven't got it right yet. We've worked as hard as we could to try to get that right," Spielman said after the Vikings fired Frazier on Dec. 30. "I wish that you could get a quarterback [easily], and it's not. It's maybe the most difficult position to fill, but we're going to do everything and use every resource we can to try to get that corrected."

Spielman will have veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner helping him this time, and the GM might rightly conclude that the best decision is to take a defensive player in the first round, come back to draft a quarterback later and let him develop without the expectations (and guaranteed money) that often drive a first-round pick into action right away. But the Vikings would have to bring Matt Cassel back on a new deal or go another route if they want to have a veteran quarterback on their roster next year, and trading for a player like Kirk Cousins or Ryan Mallett would cost the Vikings at least a midround pick while offering few guarantees. More than ever, it's incumbent upon Spielman to get it right at a position he's struggled to fill since his days in Miami.

During his five seasons with the Dolphins, Spielman initiated the first of his two trades for Sage Rosenfels, a move he'd repeat with the Vikings. Spielman had a hand in the acquisitions of Ray Lucas and Brian Griese, and in 2004 -- his only season as the Dolphins' full-fledged GM -- Spielman dealt a second-round pick to Philadelphia for A.J. Feeley, only to watch the quarterback fail to hold the starting job as the Dolphins slipped from 10-6 to 4-12.

The Dolphins' 2004 season went awry in part because running back Ricky Williams went AWOL before the season, but a clear direction at quarterback might have helped the offense weather the loss of its best player. And for all of the Vikings' defensive issues -- and running back Adrian Peterson's nagging injuries -- along the way in their fall from 10-6 to 5-10-1 in 2013, there's a convincing argument to be made that the team could have won a mediocre NFC North if it had stability at quarterback. Frazier seemed to be making that point on his way out of town, leaving some strong hints that responsibility for the quarterback situation -- and who started games there in 2013 -- should be borne by more people than just him.

Frazier, of course, is gone now, and Spielman got his chance to build a more seamless football department by picking his own coach. He has outlived his gaffe on Ponder, and he has more than $20 million of cap space with which to mold the roster this spring. Ownership seems firmly behind him, and as the Vikings move toward the opening of their new stadium in 2016, their direction is firmly under Spielman's control.

But the stigma of his misses at quarterback still follows him around, and if he can't get the position right this time around -- especially if he makes what turns out to be a bad investment with the eighth overall pick -- he likely won't get another chance to change his reputation. General managers can often survive at least one coaching change, but the best ones extend their careers by finding quarterbacks.

To his credit, Spielman seems to know he needs to fix the position. All that's on the line is all he's built for himself in his time with the Vikings.

"I have confidence we'll get this quarterback situation resolved. I really do," he said on Dec. 30. "What that answer is right now, I'm not going to have those answers until we get the coach in place. And when we sit down and delve into what we have at this position -- what is potentially out there in free agency? What is the draft class? Those answers will all come in time."

An oddly Minnesotan Super Bowl

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
MINNEAPOLIS -- Percy Harvin ran the opening kickoff of the second half back for a touchdown. Darrell Bevell coordinated the Seahawks' offense. Former Vikings assistant Pete Carroll got doused with Gatorade. Sidney Rice and Heath Farwell got a championship. University of St. Thomas graduate John Schneider put the whole thing together. Even Tarvaris Jackson got on the field to take the final kneel-downs of Super Bowl XLVIII.

Even Bob Dylan showed up in a commercial, and Prince made a cameo on the post-game episode of "New Girl," putting a fitting coda on a night with an oddly Minnesotan feel.

We asked you Vikings fans just over a week ago how you felt about Harvin being in the Super Bowl, and most of you said you were happy enough with the trade that sent him to Seattle to wish him well. Getting the first-rounder to draft Xavier Rhodes, replacing Harvin with Cordarrelle Patterson and still having the Seahawks' third-rounder this year is a handsome return for Harvin, but when I asked for an instant reaction on Twitter after Harvin's 87-yard kickoff return on Sunday night, I got an interesting mix of gallows humor, shrug-it-off reaction and shoot-the-messenger rage. At this point, you'd have to say the Harvin trade has worked out swimmingly for both teams, but I can't imagine it felt great for Vikings fans to see Harvin showcase his talents in several ways in the Super Bowl.

If there's a silver lining in all this for Vikings fans, it's that they seem to have replaced all the pieces now in Seattle without too much trouble. They have Patterson and Greg Jennings instead of Harvin and Rice, and Norv Turner could jump-start their offense next year if they're able to fix their quarterback situation. The situation could look even better if Patterson is able to stay healthy where Harvin couldn't. But after playing just 1 1/2 games before Sunday night, Harvin looked like the most dynamic player on the field in the Super Bowl, and it's still incumbent upon Patterson to prove he can excel at that level. He could, in time, but in Super Bowl XLVIII, Harvin looked very much like a man who got everything he wanted.

He also has a 25-year-old quarterback who was drafted in the third round a year after the Vikings took Christian Ponder and nine picks after they selected Josh Robinson. That might be the component the Vikings most need to match if they want to get on a path to where so many of their former players and coaches arrived on Sunday night.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have seen for far too long, and know far too well, what it's like not to have a franchise quarterback. They've had a quarterback start all 16 games just three times in the past 10 seasons -- or as many times as they've used three starting quarterbacks in a season -- and they're looking at starting over once again after shuttling through two first-round picks (Daunte Culpepper and Christian Ponder), a second-round pick (Tarvaris Jackson) and an expensive free-agent acquisition (Brett Favre), among others, during that time.

But as the Vikings prepare for the possibility of looking for another franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft, they're undoubtedly aware of how expensive it can be to get caught in the middle with one who only looks the part some of the time.
The Chicago Bears proved that again on Thursday when they announced a seven-year, $126 million extension for Jay Cutler. According to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter, the deal has more than $50 million in guaranteed money. The total amount of the deal is interesting, though, because while the salary structure is obviously different, it's known as the Contract of Death in baseball.

Why? That deal has typically gone to players (Vernon Wells, Barry Zito, Jayson Werth) who are good, but not good enough to get the megadeals averaging more than $20 million a year. Those players have tended to fall short of expectations on their contracts, either through injuries or ineffectiveness, and though they're not getting absolutely top-shelf money, they're getting enough that they're expected to perform like franchise players, rather than just very good ones.

Baseball, of course, guarantees every dollar, but as the average annual value of NFL contracts continues to climb, the deals are starting to look more like baseball contracts, and Cutler's AAV of $18 million matches what the Dallas Cowboys gave Tony Romo. His guaranteed money puts him in an elite group, as well -- only seven quarterbacks are currently playing on deals that include at least $50 million in guarantees. Four of those (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco) have Super Bowl rings, while two of the other three (Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford) were top draft picks before the NFL curtailed rookie spending.

Cutler, like Romo, has a history of wilting in big games, but his regular-season numbers have been even less impressive. He's only thrown for 4,000 yards once, has thrown at least 14 interceptions in a season five times and has never thrown more than 27 touchdown passes in a season. Flacco's put up plenty of pedestrian numbers, too, but he earned his deal after leading the Ravens to a championship last year. Cutler has only quarterbacked two postseason games, and before he got hurt in the 2011 NFC Championship Game at home against Green Bay, he had hit just 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards and an interception.

The deal the Bears gave him is an awful lot of money for a quarterback who remains an enigma at age 30, but after all the Bears gave up to get him, and all the time they'd invested in developing him, they might not have been able to risk starting over at the position. They're now essentially committed to Cutler for the rest of his prime, even if he has yet to reach an elite level, and he'll eat up a large chunk of their cap space during the deal. He'll have plenty of work to do to prove he's worth it.

On some level, the Vikings saw with Ponder what it's like to commit to a quarterback that's not providing commensurate returns, but their commitment to Ponder was a pittance compared to what the Bears have invested, and will continue to invest, in Cutler. They're spending premium dollars for a player who's yet to provide premium production, and they'll have spent a dozen years with Cutler by the time the deal runs out. If he only remains a quarterback who's just above average, the Bears will have wasted plenty of time.

The Cutler deal is an example of how high the stakes are at the quarterback position. The Vikings might not find a great QB in their next attempt, but if they make a Ponder-like mistake, their commitment is at least relatively short. It would be far worse for them to be where the Bears could find themselves at the end of Cutler's deal: having spent an astronomical amount of time and resources on a quarterback who never got past pretty good.
Welcome to Around the Horns, our daily look at what's happening on the Vikings beat:

When the Seattle Seahawks took Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft, they seemed unsure at first if they had just unearthed a franchise quarterback. The Seahawks had former Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, and had added former Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn. But coach Pete Carroll saw something special in Wilson, and after an anxious wait between the second and third rounds, Seattle plucked Wilson with the 75th overall pick.

That decision, as Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes, might be the biggest difference between the future of the Seahawks, who went to the second round of the playoffs last year and are 9-1 this year with Wilson, and the Vikings.

Minnesota will face Wilson on Sunday, and could head into the 2014 draft in search of a quarterback for the second time in four years after drafting Christian Ponder 12th overall in 2011.

Wilson slipped to the third round largely because of concerns over his height (5-foot-11), but the Seahawks' decision undoubtedly left other teams wondering what they had missed in the University of Wisconsin product. The early bet is that the Vikings use their first-round pick on a quarterback next May, but spending a high pick on s quarterback means the consequences for making the wrong decision are that much higher. What Wilson has proved is that quarterback prospects aren't always as obvious as they seem, and good scouting departments can find unconventional answers at the position if they're looking for the right things.

The Vikings are still in the market for a long-term quarterback, and as they watch Wilson on Sunday, you can't fault them for having at least a little jealousy.

Here are today's other Vikings stories of note:
Josh FreemanAP Photo/Bill KostrounJosh Freeman completed fewer than half his passes and had a 6.1 QBR in his Minnesota debut.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- From the moment the Minnesota Vikings signed Josh Freeman to a one-year contract Oct. 7 -- effectively signaling the end of whatever commitment they had to Christian Ponder as their starting quarterback -- it seemed inevitable that the team was going to get the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback on the field soon. But this fast? In time for a Monday night game against the New York Giants after Freeman had just two weeks to learn the offense?

When coach Leslie Frazier announced last Wednesday that was the Vikings' course of action, the immediate line of questioning from Twin Cities reporters was whether he'd made that decision in a vacuum, or whether he'd had involvement from his bosses -- either the approval of ownership and general manager Rick Spielman, or an outright demand that Freeman be put on the field as soon as possible.

Frazier said the decision was up to his coaching staff and him, adding that he would have been able to go another route than naming Freeman the starter for Monday's game. But then he admitted he went to Spielman and the Wilf family, telling them what he planned to do and asking for their input. And then Frazier said something that might synthesize the underlying truth behind the Vikings' quarterback mess.

"When you’re talking about the quarterback position, which affects your entire franchise, this is not a decision that you make alone," Frazier said. "I informed them what I was thinking and why I thinking this and why I wanted to do it, and they signed off on it. But no, you don’t make these kind of decisions on an island."

The Vikings are certainly on some kind of island after a 1-5 start to their 2013 season. Their ferry off of it and back to relevance officially disappeared over the horizon Monday night, as Freeman went 20-of-53 for 190 yards and the Vikings lost 23-7 to the previously winless Giants. Their best chance to get through the rest of the season without turning on each other is to get behind Freeman, hoping he can deliver something closer to efficient quarterback play as he learns the offense and provides some shred of hope heading into 2014. Otherwise, some of the Vikings' decision-makers could be paying with their jobs for a quarterback situation that has gone very, very badly.

It started in 2011, when Spielman -- then running the draft, though not with the same complete authority over personnel he now enjoys as general manager -- picked Ponder 12th overall. The Vikings seemed unsure of how to develop Ponder from the beginning, first bringing in Donovan McNabb to start the 2011 season, then handing the job over to the rookie once the McNabb experiment turned sour six games into the season. From then until this season, Ponder had complete control of the starting job, free from any challengers even as his play fluctuated between respectable and reprehensible.

But what the Vikings did at quarterback heading into this season might have been even less coherent. They signed Matt Cassel to a two-year deal in March, giving themselves a veteran quarterback they unequivocally said was not there to challenge Ponder for the starting job. Ponder went through training camp as the unquestioned starter, staying in that spot through three sloppy performances in the first three games (all losses) until a rib injury gave the Vikings political cover to look at Cassel. They said Ponder still would be the starter if he were healthy, then watched Cassel lead them to a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London. They came back from their bye week saying that Ponder had been cleared to play but Cassel was the starter and added Freeman in a week where they already had uncertainty bubbling up at quarterback. Then they made Freeman the starter and Ponder the backup, putting Cassel, who'd started their past two games, on the inactive list.

Clear, concise answers are hard to find from the Vikings about their quarterback situation these days, but what has been clear for years is how uneasy the team appears to be about fully committing to a rebuilding process. They threw their support behind Tarvaris Jackson as the starting quarterback in 2007 only to take the job away from him several times and eventually sign Brett Favre for what amounted to a one-time title shot with a roster in its prime. The Vikings paid for having an aging roster in 2010 and began to build through the draft in 2011, but here they are, barely two full seasons later, ready to start over at quarterback again.

They've had three, maybe four, Hall of Fame-caliber players (Adrian Peterson, Kevin Williams, Jared Allen and Antoine Winfield) in their primes over the past few years, which makes it hard to think solely about the future, but then why attempt to go young at the quarterback position at all? The Vikings, it seems, have been caught between what they know they will eventually have to do and what they'd like to do for immediate success. Freeman is the least familiar quarterback with the Vikings' scheme, but he might also be the most talented and the most capable of delivering a quick fix. He could allow Spielman to reclaim some credit as a quarterback evaluator after the Ponder pick, and he might deliver Frazier enough wins to keep his job. But the Vikings also are trying to get Freeman to that point in short order, and the NFL has a funny way of thwarting teams who try to piece things together on the fly.

At 1-5, the Vikings can no longer be caught between the future and the present. They've started their Freeman experiment, and they've made it clear in the past two weeks -- by sitting Cassel and refusing to put Ponder in two games where the offense has struggled -- that they don't see either of those two quarterbacks as their ultimate solution. The best way for the Vikings to attach some significance to this season is to ride with Freeman, as awful as he looked Monday night, see if he can play and decide either to move forward with him (to the tune of a long-term contract) or dip back into what's expected to be a talented quarterback draft next spring. It's entirely possible Frazier could lose his job if the experiment leads to an 11-, 12- or 13-loss season, and it's even feasible that Spielman could suffer consequences for missing on the Ponder pick.

But the Vikings have pursued a disjointed strategy at quarterback for too long, and as painful as it might be, they need to spend the rest of this year seeing what Freeman can offer them. Their only way off the island is to set a course for the future, with a plan to solve their quarterback quandary and a commitment from all parties involved to press forward through the squalls that could come.