- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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MANKATO, Minn. -- Teammates say Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson cooks up a mean barbecue. He enjoys inviting teammates to his home and cooking chicken, ribs, anything.
Careful with his 225-pound weight, Jackson won't eat much, preferring to keep his teammates happy. A humble second-round choice from Alabama State, Jackson loves being around his teammates and making them happy. He's not a gourmet, but he knows never to serve his food before it's properly cooked.
His teammates must hope the organization isn't serving him up too early as a starting quarterback. Jackson is raw, but he has good throwing skills. He can throw the sideline out on a line. A good athlete, Jackson can keep a play alive with his quick feet and flick a pass to a receiver in the middle of the field.
The question facing the Vikings this season is whether Jackson is being rushed into the starting job before he is ready. During a Friday afternoon practice moved into the stadium at Minnesota State University, Jackson struggled with his passing.
He was particularly affected by blitzes. The extra pressure got his feet moving too quickly, so he didn't connect with receivers consistently. On some of the longer passes, he didn't get enough air on the throw. Understand this, though. Jackson is doing well for a second-year quarterback who wasn't even sure as he entered his senior year in college that he was going to be drafted.
Jackson's ability to handle the starting job is the key to Minnesota's entire season. His teammates love and support him.
"The biggest thing is going to be the learning curve," said wide receiver Bobby Wade, a veteran who has watched the development of countless quarterbacks in Chicago and Tennessee.
Naturally, a tough first day doesn't doom a season. Jackson has six weeks and four preseason games to smooth out his game. Vikings coach Brad Childress, who developed Donovan McNabb with the help of Andy Reid, boldly states that Jackson is ahead of where McNabb was entering his second season.
Nevertheless, if Jackson doesn't make that big jump during the season, the team is in trouble. In the 2006 draft, many were shocked when the Vikings traded up in the second round to get Jackson, one of the least-known quarterback prospects that year. He was talented enough to compete on a Division I-A level. He signed with Arkansas but left there after losing a quarterback competition to Matt Jones.
"He showed up in the all-star games and the combine, and he started at Arkansas," Childress said. "If things would have rolled a different way at Arkansas, he would have been the quarterback and Matt Jones would have been the receiver. He wanted to play, and I can respect that. He got on our radar screen."
Childress calls Jackson "a clear-eyed" guy. He can look you in the eye, listen to what you are saying and get it on the field on the next snap.
"The thing he lacks is experience," Childress said.
Jackson doesn't have an easy task. Childress runs the complicated West Coast offense. Some say it takes a quarterback five years to get comfortable with the play-calling flow of this system. In Seattle, Mike Holmgren traded for Matt Hasselbeck, who had several years in the West Coast offense as a backup. Hasselbeck struggled his first two years, going in and out of the starting lineup.
"My first year in Seattle was Matt's first year playing," guard Steve Hutchinson said. "There were some growing pains. This is the ultimate team game. Maybe the offensive line has to [bear] more of the weight. We have one of the most dynamic running games in the league with Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson. If we can run the ball successful and put him in third-and-medium situations, it will make his life easier."
Childress knew Jackson was too raw to play as a rookie. He placed Jackson on the inactive list most of the season, but some injuries opened up a chance for the young quarterback to get two starts at the end of season. It wasn't pretty. The Vikings lost a low-scoring game to the Packers and were blown away by the Rams. Even though he completed a respectable 58 percent of his passes, Jackson clearly wasn't ready.
"I'm not worried that this is too much, too fast," Jackson said. "I have some great coaches behind and some great teammates beside me. I just have to make smart decisions and take care of the football. As a quarterback, you learn better with experience."
Day 1 featured a couple of dropped snaps from center Matt Birk, some errant throws, and an interception or two.
At Alabama State, Jackson said, running was one of his checkdown options. In the NFL, quarterbacks have to anticipate the blitz, call a checkdown and get the ball to a receiver quickly. Childress put his stock and the organization's future in Jackson's skills because he liked his feet.
"In today's NFL, you have to have a quarterback who can create," Childress said. "You can't have the 'deer in the lights' quarterback. Somewhere, those athletes who are rushing are going to be better than the five guys protecting him, and that's throughout the league. I like the feature of him having the ability to run."
Creating is one thing. Being a consistent operator within a West Coast offense is another. What's clear is Childress is going to have to monitor Jackson's progress day by day and see whether he's getting better. Jackson is a hard worker and dedicates himself to getting better each day.
As it turns out, the Vikings have a great chance to start off strong, thanks to the schedule. The opening game against the Falcons probably will be against a team that doesn't have Michael Vick. The next three games are against Detroit, Kansas City and Green Bay.
If Jackson can settle into a rhythm in this offense, the Vikings have a chance to have a respectable September record, then rest with an Oct. 7 bye week.
"One thing about Tarvaris is that he has the skill sets that he needs," Wade said. "It's tough to judge that without the game experience."
Wade was impressed by how much improvement Jackson had made since OTAs in throwing deep seam passes. Childress is banking on Jackson being ready to cook this season. This could be Jackson's toughest barbecue.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Despite a difficult first day, the Vikings still feel Tarvaris Jackson can lead the team to success in 2007, writes John Clayton.