Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Minnesota Vikings

Purple Jesus, as Adrian Peterson is affectionately known by Vikings-fan Big Daddy Drew over at NFL humor blog par excellence Kissing Suzy Kolber, did his part to further the interests of the organization Sunday at the Pro Bowl, rushing for 16 carries, 129 yards, and 2 TDs while picking up Most Valuable Player honors (you can argue it means zilch since it's the Pro Bowl and opposing defenses are more interested in taking in the sun and collecting a game check, but whatever). Vikings fans hope this signifies a return to the norm, as Peterson struggled in the last four games when opposing defenses began to focus more exclusively on him and his great asset is his explosive playmaking ability no matter the coverage. Head coach Brad Childress has remarked that Peterson needs to improve (even though he won the rushing title as a rookie) but it's also what happens when you have a great running game (164.6 average ranked first in the league) and a terrible passing game (171.6 coming in a distant 28th). The Vikes will need to address this situation, which is also addressed by me below. Hooray for prescience.

Minnesota Vikings (8-8): Tarvaris Jackson

(Is that or is that not a stupid-looking logo? The plain horns, which technically are historically incorrect, look much better. Then again, at least the logo isn't an accountant in a Helga Hat, which would be sad yet amusing).

Tarvaris Jackson plays what is typically the most important offensive position on a team that's all about the other side of offense, so he routinely gets upstaged by his running back. In a sign of how much the Vikings take advantage of their NFL AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, Peterson, no fewer than seven different players attempted passes this year, including veteran Kelly Holcomb, backup Brooks Bollinger, wide receiver Sidney Rice, punter Chris Kluwe, running back Chester Taylor, and running back Mewelde Moore. No wonder the Vikings are having trouble at the quarterback spot... half the team has taken their turns seeing if they can do better than Tarvaris, who to add insult to injury had the lowest rating of the lot (except for Taylor and Moore, whose one attempt each fell incomplete to leave them with a 0.0 for their efforts).

Jackson grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and attended the University of Arkansas for portions of two seasons before being edged out at quarterback by Matt Jones (now a wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars). He transferred to hometown, Division I-AA Alabama State University, where, in his senior year, he finished with numbers of 2,655 yards, 25 TD/5 INT, and a 61.1% completion percentage; his overall collegiate statistics included 67 TD/27 INT, 7,838 yards, and 537 completions of 985 total attempts. For his efforts, he became the first Alabama State quarterback drafted since Ricky Jones in 1992, the first I-AA quarterback since Spergon Wynn in 2000, and the fifth quarterback chosen that year, with the Vikings' last pick of the second round (64th overall). This was a surprise, seeing as he was projected as a mid-to-late-round choice, but the Vikings had been following his performance closely for some time and leapt at the opportunity to secure their man. Head coach Childress, quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers (who developed Donovan McNabb) and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell saw Jackson as the type of "clay" to whom they could teach a new system, and thus far the results of their experiment are inconclusive.

Jackson did well in the 2006 preseason, compiling a 106.1 passer rating and ranking 15th of 110 qualifiers (he was second among quarterbacks of the 2006 draft class, as a fellow by the name of Jay Cutler did him one better). He also showed some ability to scramble, averaging 11.3 yards (!) an attempt and, at the time, the team's second best rusher behind Brad Johnson. But up until Week 16 of the 2006 season, Johnson remained installed as the Vikings' starting quarterback, although Jackson saw time in Week 15 against the Jets. Jackson was tabbed for the job for good in Week 16 against the Packers and oversaw a dismal effort that saw the Vikings record only three first downs all game, gain only 27 passing yards against a 26th-ranked pass defense, never get even close enough to the end zone for a field goal, and ultimately lose 9-7. (Fred Smoot -- yes, the one in the whole Vikings Love Boat scandal -- intercepted and ran back a Favre pass for their only score). Jackson himself recorded 10 completions in 20 attempts, 50 yards, 1 interception, and a fumble, but he still entered 2007 as a starter.

2007 was a bit of an up-and-down year for the Vikings and Jackson. Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor made a highly effective run duo, but Jackson struggled, throwing four picks in a game against the Lions and 12 total on the year, against only 9 TD passes. He started 12 of 16 games (Holcomb started three and Bollinger one) and finished with 1,911 yards and a 70.8 rating. At one point the Vikings won five straight and looked to edge into the playoffs as a wild-card seed, but both good and bad was on display in their season-closing Week 17 matchup against the Broncos. The Vikings fought back from a 19-3 deficit with sixteen points in the fourth quarter (two straight touchdowns and successful two-point conversions, while I screamed obscenities at my television set) to force overtime, and then they won the toss. Jackson was sacked and fumbled on the second play from scrimmage, however, and the Broncos ran it back in range for Jason Elam to seal a 22-19 win with a 30-yard field goal. The loss ended both the Vikings' season and their hopes for the playoff seed that the Redskins took, which closed an 8-8 2007 outing.

Jackson continued to be an effective runner (260 yards in 54 attempts, averaging 4.8 yards a touch, and 3 rushing TDs) which goes further to show that the current Minnesota offensive scheme is all about moving the ball on the ground. As Childress noted, the Vikes were much less potent when opposing defenses bottled up Peterson consistently, so they'll need to develop another plan of attack. But what they really need help with is a pass defense. The Vikings ranked first in the league at stopping the run (74.1 yards allowed on average a game) but ranked absolutely dead last in stopping the pass, allowing opponents to put up an average of 264.1 yards on them a game. Safeties Dwight Smith and Darren Sharper recorded four interceptions apiece, defensive end Kevin Williams and outside linebacker Chad Greenaway even came up with two each, but corners Antoine Winfield, Marcus McCauley, and Cedric Griffin recorded one -- in between all three of them, and that was Winfield's. Their .500 record means that the Vikings will pick 17th in this year's draft, but fortunately for them, there is a strong defensive class reporting for duty. They'll want to take a look, and focus on improving both pass defense and offense. Jackson is still young and everyone knows that quarterbacks are a different breed who develop at their own speed, so it's not likely he has a fire under his heels just yet or has to be looking over his shoulder. Then again, as the seven different pass-attempters this year proved, the Vikes are still looking for the winning formula behind center.

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