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Vikings hope to stand pat at quarterback

2/20/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

INDIANAPOLIS -- Forgive my geekdom, but as I considered Minnesota's quarterback situation Friday, I couldn't stop thinking of a phrase we had to learn in middle school Latin:

Morturi te salutamus.

(Translation: We who are about to die salute you.)

Whoops! Not that one.

Let's try again:

Tempus iter nunc.

(Translation: The time of the journey is now.)

Yes, the Vikings are on the verge of the most important offseason decision in their recent history: Should they give quarterback Tarvaris Jackson another chance to prove he can be their long-term starter? Or do they acquire a veteran to replace him and guide an otherwise skilled roster for the next few years?

On the second full day of the annual scouting combine, Vikings coach Brad Childress came as close as he ever will to tipping his hand. Childress said he wants to create training camp competition for the position, but his first candidate for Jackson's foil is the man who finished the 2008 season as Jackson's backup.

Childress confirmed has had multiple conversations in recent weeks with veteran Gus Frerotte, who went 8-3 as a starter in 2008 but expressed public displeasure when Childress re-established Jackson as the starter in December. There have been indications that Frerotte might seek his release or retire, but Childress said there is an "open door" for Frerotte to return and said, "That could be the source of the competition."

Whether or not Frerotte agrees to the arrangement -- and I have my doubts about how authentic the competition would be -- it seems clear the Vikings have no interest in pursuing a blockbuster deal to find a new starter. That would seem to rule out a run at New England's Matt Cassel, and as of Friday the team had displayed no indications it would pursue pending free agent Jeff Garcia.

In fact, during an extended interview with a small group of reporters, I asked Childress if he could envision a scenario in which the Vikings would pursue a player to be their new and unquestioned starter. Childress paused several seconds and said: "There might be." Then, he added: "But right now I would be honest with you and tell you I wouldn't know who that person would be."

A day earlier, Vikings vice president Rick Spielman also downplayed the Vikings' realistic chances of finding a new starter:

"I think you ask yourself this: How many quarterbacks do you face in a year that you are actually scared of playing? There's maybe a handful that you say, 'Yeah, this guy can carry a team for you.' But if there's a guy that's unique out there and you think he's going to be out on the free-agent market ... the last guy that was o
ut there was Drew Brees and he had a shoulder [injury]. Quarterbacks don't get out there that are unique."

So let's quickly review. Without mentioning Cassel, Garcia or Cleveland's Derek Anderson by name, the Vikings' top two decision-makers are on record saying they don't believe there is a difference-making quarterback available to them. And their first option is to make no changes to their 2008 depth chart.

There's only one conclusion to draw.

The Vikings are giving Jackson another chance.

This decision is borne of the mentality that could allow Jackson to enter three consecutive training camps as the Vikings' most likely starter. Childress believes deeply both in Jackson's ability and his own history in developing quarterbacks. He noted Friday that "we need him [Jackson] to improve" but quickly added: "I believe he will."

This quote neatly encapsulates Childress' thoughts on the situation:

"I think [Jackson] gave some glimpses coming in off the bench and doing the things he did. Obviously he needs to eliminate some of those turnovers. We need him to change that touchdown-to-turnover ratio. And then we need to put somebody in place that will push him and compete with him, and I think competition is the nature of the game. At some places it may not be ... [but] in our situation we need to have a good healthy competition because I think that makes everybody better."

Some optimists will read that quote and believe Childress will simply pick the best training camp performer to start. But Childress made clear at the end of last season that he believed Jackson gave the Vikings a better chance to win than Frerotte.

So I think it's only fair to question how legitimate a summer competition between Jackson and Frerotte would be. Wouldn't Jackson need to slump badly to change the dynamic? And if it's not Frerotte, who could the Vikings sign to bring true competition? Chris Simms? Byron Leftwich, who has never played in a West Coast offense? Kerry Collins, who has already been promised Tennessee's starting job?

Childress said "it's up to me" to facilitate a fair fight. But knowing Childress' history with Jackson and the Vikings' desire to lock down the position long term, well, it's only fair to conclude Jackson is the odds-on favorite.

I asked Childress what he would say to convince Frerotte that he wouldn't face a stacked deck. Childress offered a winding answer, but it boiled down to this: "We've always had a relationship based on honesty."

In other words, Childress will ask Frerotte -- or whichever other veteran the Vikings ultimately bring in -- to take his word. The journey has already begun.