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Sunday, January 4, 2009
QB questions not going away for Vikings

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

 
 G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
 His performance in the Vikings 26-14 wild-card loss to the Eagles might have chased Tarvaris Jackson out of Minnesota.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

MINNEAPOLIS -- This has to stop.

The madness must end.

It's time to move on.

The Minnesota Vikings have held themselves hostage to a quarterback experiment for two full NFL seasons. They can't afford to make it a third.

It would have been difficult to watch Sunday's 26-14 loss to Philadelphia and see quarterback Tarvaris Jackson for anything other than what he has always been: A physically talented passer who might or might not develop into an NFL-caliber quarterback.

Tarvaris Jackson by distance thrown
 Five yards or lessSix yards or more
Comp.-Att.10-185-17
Yards10955
TD-INT0-00-1
Rating73.616.1

On Sunday, Jackson's performance indicated the latter. He threw a horrible interception that Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel returned for a touchdown. And, he rarely looked downfield while throwing six consecutive incompletions when the Vikings shifted to catch-up mode and could no longer present the illusion of a running game.

Jackson flashed some bright moments in 2008, most notably in a four-touchdown game Dec. 14 at Arizona. But his performance Sunday -- including a 42.8 completion percentage and a 45.4 passer rating -- suggested he is a risk the Vikings can no longer afford to take.

Asked how difficult a decision he faces on Jackson's future, coach Brad Childress said: "You know what? There are decisions all across the board. Some are tougher than others. Just suffice it to say we'll evaluate the whole roster and won't make any decisions right this second."

Childress enters the fourth year of a five-year contract in 2009. He has already erred once by counting on Jackson as his unquestioned starter this season. Backup Gus Frerotte saved the Vikings' season by winning eight of his 11 starts; that Jackson lost four of his six starts only clarified the difference in the Vikings' offense with a seasoned veteran behind center.

Jackson has displayed enough potential to merit a return in some capacity next season. But bringing him back as the unchallenged starter, as many around the organization expect will happen, could spell the end of Childress' tenure in Minnesota. But if he plans to pursue a new starter this offseason, Childress wasn't letting on in the immediate aftermath Sunday.

Perhaps the most revealing segment of the game came after Eagles tailback Brian Westbrook took a screen pass 71 yards for a touchdown, giving Philadelphia a 23-14 lead with 6:37 remaining. Although they trailed by nine points, the Vikings took the field with two of the most explosive players in the NFL this season and were by no means were out of the game.

Tailback Adrian Peterson led the NFL with 20 runs of at least 20 yards, while receiver Bernard Berrian averaged 20.1 yards per catch -- the highest average for any receiver with at least 35 receptions this season.

Jackson, however, threw six consecutive incompletions over the next two series. In other words, during the one competitive stretch of the game when the Eagles knew the Vikings would throw, Jackson was utterly ineffective.

According to video analysis by ESPN Stats & Information, 10 of Jackson's 15 completions traveled less than 5 yards in the air -- hardly the kind of downfield competence a team needs when trying to make up a deficit.

Childress acknowledged the Vikings need to improve in "must-throw situations" but did not point the finger directly at Jackson.

"That's all around playing," Childress said. "That's from quarterback, offensive line, backs. That's why we practice two-minute football. We're not Oklahoma, where we're in the wishbone and we come back out and we're in the wishbone again. We've got to be able to move it that way as well."

Other than the Oklahoma reference, that's almost the exact sentiment Childress expressed after the 2007 season, when a late surge of competence convinced him Jackson was ready to take the next step. The Vikings need a better passing offense, not just one that can throw when teams are expecting heavy doses of Peterson. Did Jackson give any reason to suggest he is ready to lift his team to that point next season?

Surprisingly, two k
ey offensive players thought that he did. Or at least, that's what they said when asked to answer in a public forum Sunday. Berrian, who caught five of his seven touchdowns from Frerotte during the regular season and produced all four of his 100-yard games with him as well, said: "You have to start where you left off next season.

"You can't just throw a guy out," Berrian added. "He finished very strong. He took the benching very well. He showed a lot of character, came back and had some really great games. I think it just shows the character of the coaching staff and the rest of the players that we should have faith in him."

Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, meanwhile, said there is no doubt in his mind who should start in 2009.

"In the offseason, I'm not going to be thinking about any other quarterbacks," Shiancoe said. "Me personally, I feel like that's our man. I don't feel any changes should be made. That's my opinion. It's up to the coach. But that's how I feel."

For his part, Jackson chose his words carefully. He has experienced how quickly an NFL job can be taken away, and he watched Frerotte simmer after losing his job. Frerotte would seem unlikely to return next season, but Jackson knows there are no guarantees for him, either.

"I'm not going to get into that," Jackson said. "I'm just going to take this year for what it is worth and reflect back on this season.

Indeed, Childress said Sunday was not the time to make pronouncements about his 2009 starting lineup. He has invested three years and much of his professional reputation in developing Jackson into a competent starter. Owner Zygi Wilf declined comment Sunday but appears solidly in Childress' corner this winter. Yet it's hard to imagine Wilf tolerating another offseason mistake at the most crucial position in the game.

Soon, we'll know what Childress values more: Pride or professional survival.