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Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Rare relevance for a Favre backup

By Kevin Seifert

Favre
Vikings backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson says he feels "the best he's ever felt" in his NFL career and hopes to prove it on the field.
The deed was sealed the moment Brett Favre climbed aboard a private plane and returned to the Minnesota Vikings this summer: Only a historic, unprecedented event would get him off the field in 2010.

Never in 19 previous seasons had an injury prevented Favre from starting a game. Meanwhile, the desperation with which the Vikings pursued and compensated him essentially eliminated any possibility of benching him for performance reasons. How bad would it look to yank a player who was begged to return, and guaranteed $1 million per game, in favor of a player they deemed inadequate as a starter in the first place?

That's why I think few people cared last month when the Vikings traded Sage Rosenfels and awarded their No. 2 job to Tarvaris Jackson, a fifth-year player who had 19 mostly inefficient starts between 2006-08 and hasn't been heard from since. And I understand that. The proficiency of Favre's backup has never mattered. Why should anyone have cared now?

Given Favre's history, I'm far from convinced that he will miss Sunday's start at the New England Patriots. With 291 consecutive starts under his belt, it makes some sense to at least test his left ankle -- two fractures and all -- in the early going at Gillette Stadium. But it seems reasonable to expect that Jackson could get significant playing time, perhaps in a relief performance, at a time when the Vikings are in crisis mode as they look to turn around a 2-4 start.

Some of us have joked that the Vikings will face their "T-Jackalypse" the moment Jackson enters a meaningful game. So can the Vikings rely on him to navigate them through a relatively short-term window of uncertainty? As you know, I had my doubts after an underwhelming preseason in which many of his previous deficiencies -- most notably inaccuracy and discomfort in the pocket -- were still evident. But Jackson believes he has improved measurably while watching Favre start the Vikings' past 24 games, including the playoffs.

"This is the best I've ever felt," Jackson told reporters this week. "Hopefully it will translate to the field, but this is the best I've ever felt since I've been in the league."

When you look at the chart, two things jump out about Jackson's career numbers. The first is his 58.7 completion percentage. There are any number of reasons why a pass might fall incomplete, but a 19-start sample is large enough to illustrate what is visible to the casual observer: Too many of Jackson's passes miss their mark. For context, consider that 24 NFL quarterbacks have completion percentages higher than 58.7 this season.

Jackson has been especially inaccurate on deep throws, and as a result 85 percent of his career completions have gone for less than 20 yards.

What also stands out is the relative across-the-board paucity of the numbers. In 33 appearances, including those 19 starts, Jackson has attempted only 585 passes. In comparison, Favre has thrown 710 passes in 22 regular season starts with the Vikings.

Jackson's time as the Vikings' starter was marked mostly by protecting him in development, not in opening up their offense. But I think that's why the Vikings are confident they could find a way to navigate in the short term with Jackson. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. agrees.

"Yes, for a game," Williamson said. "He can get hot or make plays with his legs, and they can lean heavily on Adrian Peterson and rely on their defense. But for the long haul, I don't see it. He's just not accurate enough."

The last game in which Jackson saw competitive action was a loss in the 2008 divisional playoffs to the Philadelphia Eagles. Is it possible for Jackson to have improved while standing on the sidelines since then?

"I've improved a lot in the past year and a half, watching Brett," he said. "I feel like I came a long way, the farthest I've come from year to year, even though I didn't play a whole lot."

For my money, the best and most encouraging start of Jackson's career came in the 2007 season finale at Denver. In that game, Jackson led the Vikings back from a 14-3 halftime deficit, throwing two fourth-quarter touchdowns to force overtime. Jackson made a point to use his mobility to break the pocket during the frenetic comeback, extending one drive with a 32-yard run and giving the Vikings hope that he was a multi-faceted threat who only needed to learn when to apply each skill.

That never happened, however, and Jackson has admitted regret about not leaving the pocket more often during his time as a starter. If anything, his time on the sideline should have demonstrated how valuable that aspect of his game could be.

"Obviously," he said, "I'm not Brett. And a lot of the stuff he sees, I probably can't see. But I'm a different player. I feel like I can move around a little more at times, and good things can come my way. I know I'm not going to be able to operate the same way he does, but I feel like I've learned a lot from him. I'm not going to go out there and try to be him, but watching him will help me play a lot better."

We have no way of knowing whether that's the case, and we might never find out. But the relevance of this discussion alone means the Vikings are much closer to pulling the fire alarm than anyone could have imagined.