Jackson preparing to lead Vikings

The Vikings seem ready to put their faith in QB Tarvaris Jackson, who would be one of the NFL's most inexperienced starting QBs, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: May 18, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Even when you are only the presumptive starting quarterback for an NFL franchise, Tarvaris Jackson discovered this week there are still enough perks inherent to the No. 1 job to overcome some of life's more disappointing moments.

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Take, for instance, the Minnesota Vikings' workout Tuesday morning, when an assistant coach yelled from the far end of the practice field that the tight ends needed someone to throw to them. Quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers surveyed the four candidates standing around him, eyeballed Tyler Thigpen, then nodded in the direction of the rookie signal-caller.

"You, go," Rogers barked at Thigpen, a seventh-round pick from Coastal Carolina, and the lowest-ranking player in a Vikings quarterback pecking order that includes Jackson, Brooks Bollinger and Drew Henson.

Two days later, recalling a story that he regards as indicative of how far he has progressed in a very short period, Jackson laughed softly into the telephone.

"I was thinking, 'You know, a year ago, that would have been me they sent to throw to those guys,' and it's true," said Jackson, who started the final two games for Minnesota last season as a rookie and is the favorite to win the starting job this year. "When you're the bottom guy, those are the kinds of things you have to do. But that one thing right there, as small as it was, shows progress, right? To come from a small school like I did, not expecting to be drafted until maybe the third round or even later, it's been good. I've still got a long ways to go, and I don't ever take anything for granted … but I feel pretty good now about where I'm at."

Tarvaris Jackson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTarvaris Jackson started two games for the Vikings last season.
Where he should be this week, though, wouldn't have been too bad, either. And that's where the disappointment comes in.

In recognition of his status as the Vikings' presumed starter for 2007, Jackson was invited to compete in the DirecTV NFL Quarterback Challenge, which will be taped Saturday in the Cayman Islands. For a kid from Montgomery, Ala., who never experienced a big-time vacation and who's rarely been outside the South much less beyond United States borders, the prospect of logging some time in the sun was a pretty exciting one.

So on Tuesday, when he was dodging the throwing session with his tight ends, Jackson was supposed to have been home, packing for the free trip.

Except there was a hang-up with his passport.

The upshot of the bureaucratic snafu: So long, Cayman Islands beaches. Hello, Eden Prairie, Minn., practice fields.

"Yeah, there was some [disappointment]," Jackson acknowledged. "Not only was I looking forward to the vacation, but it was going to give me a chance to meet some quarterbacks that I really admire, too. That would have been nice, hanging out with those guys. But you know what? It's not all that bad being with my own guys, right here."

His guys haven't officially become his team yet, Jackson was quick to point out, since coach Brad Childress has stopped short of anointing him the starter. There is still a chance that Bollinger, who Childress has known since the two spent time working together at the University of Wisconsin, could mount a challenge. But the consensus is that the Vikings, who released veteran Brad Johnson early in the offseason, have hitched their wagon to the man known as "T-Jack" to his teammates.

Contrary to a spate of published reports, the Vikings never made a legitimate attempt to acquire former Atlanta backup Matt Schaub, who was eventually traded to Houston. Nor did they make a play for David Carr. And finally, with the seventh choice in the first round of this year's draft, the Vikings didn't move to stop the free fall of Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, although many felt the Vikings were interested in him.

If Jackson does earn the No. 1 job in Minnesota for 2007, he will be one of the league's least-experienced non-rookie starters. The ballyhooed Schaub also has just two starts. Fellow second-year veteran Brodie Croyle of Kansas City, a third-round pick in 2006 who coach Herm Edwards said will be given the opportunity to win the top spot with the Chiefs, didn't start a game as a rookie. There is a chance, given what transpires in Miami, that Cleo Lemon, with just one start, could wind up as the Dolphins' starter.

In his two starts (both losses), Jackson completed 47 of 81 passes for 475 yards, with two touchdown passes and four interceptions. He was sacked eight times, which Minnesota coaches claim was the by-product of not trusting his instincts and trying to be too precise in his reads. None of that is out of character for a young player at the position.

Such a glaring lack of experience, though, hasn't affected the way the Vikings view their still-emerging quarterback.

"We felt strongly about [Jackson] when we drafted him, and we still do," Childress said at the NFL meetings earlier this spring. "We think he's got starter's abilities. There is certainly talent there to build on, a nice foundation. And he's working hard to get better, doing the things he needs to do."

Beyond the couple of weeks he spent at home in Montgomery following the end of his rookie campaign, Jackson has been in the Twin Cities virtually the entire offseason, putting in time at the Vikings' complex, working on his on-field skills and on the important relationships that a quarterback must forge to be acknowledged as a leader.

Jackson has been a regular not only at the spring workouts but also at the weekly Wednesday night bowling outings held by some of the team's skill-position players. Teammates have begun to gravitate to Jackson's apartment to watch the NBA playoffs, and last weekend he hosted a barbecue.

"He wants guys to like him, but even more, he understands how important it is that he earns people's respect," said wide receiver Bobby Wade, one of the Vikings' key additions in free agency this spring. "He's getting that. You can see his confidence [increasing]. He knows he can't be just the small-school guy anymore. There's more expected of him and he wants to step up to those [expectations]."

Last spring, Jackson's own expectations were somewhat modest, he conceded. A self-avowed draft junkie, he had planned for a long weekend in front of the television set, until the Vikings made his vigil much shorter than he anticipated. Projected by the most optimistic pundits as perhaps a third-rounder, he went off the board in the second round, the fourth quarterback chosen after Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler and Kellen Clemens. Jackson was the first Alabama State player selected since wide receiver Reggie Barlow was taken in the fourth round in 1995.

He wants guys to like him, but even more, he understands how important it is that he earns people's respect.

Bobby Wade, Vikings WR

"That last month or so, when teams started doing the individual workouts, it kind of created a little buzz around him," said former Alabama State head coach Charles Coe, who recently joined the Oakland Raiders' staff. "People saw first-hand he wasn't just some small-time talent, a guy whose numbers were inflated by the level where he played. But the Vikings, they did a good job of not letting on just how interested they were. And they got themselves a good football player and a really good person."

Jackson began his college career at Arkansas but, with Matt Jones ahead of him on the depth chart and after suffering a shoulder injury that set him back as a freshman, he transferred to Alabama State after two years. The move got him the playing time he sought, and in three seasons and three dozen starts for the Hornets, he completed 537 of 985 attempts for 7,838 yards, with 67 touchdown passes and 27 interceptions.

Those numbers earned him a spot in the annual East-West Shrine Game, and his practices at that heavily scouted all-star contest garnered Jackson attention from league bird-dogs. Now he's gaining notice, it seems, among the Minnesota veterans.

Jackson has a good, live arm, and his accuracy is improving. His size is more than adequate. And he has proven correct Coe's much-repeated assessment to the NFL scouts that he is a fast learner.

"I don't think you have much choice at this level, because if you don't pick stuff up quickly, they're going to leave you in the dust," Jackson said. "I've found out that this is a league that is all about today. Stuff happens in a snap around here. I mean, there are guys that I was cool with and, one day you went by their lockers, and they were gone. There are guys I know I'll never see again. That's sad, but it's also the reality, you know? It kind of really motivates you, though, because you understand that you could be next, if you aren't getting it done.

"And there are people counting on me to get it done."

Part of "getting it done," Jackson allowed, is minding even the smallest details, both on and off the field. And so Jackson, who is hopeful that his future includes a few trips to Honolulu, and at the league's expense, won't forget to keep hounding government officials about his passport.

"I know you don't need it for the Pro Bowl, but I might want to go on vacation to someplace like the Cayman Islands on my own someday," Jackson said. "When that time comes, man, you better believe I'm going to be prepared."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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