While the Vikings aren't entirely out of contention for a playoff spot and even a division title this year, a 3-5 start for a team that was so good last season has a lot of fans looking towards the future. The future of the team is a big issue, as the team has sacrificed some youth over the last few years to try and make a last-ditch Super Bowl run with some of their veterans. While there are several major issues, the biggest and most important decision is who the Vikings will ultimately target to be their starting QB next season. It seems like a virtual certainty this is Brett Favre's last season, and while we really never know with him, I'm just going to assume he's not returning.
There are going to be several options for the organization to choose from, although it's unlikely the team will be acquiring a sure-fire pro bowler. Former 2nd-round pick and 'future franchise QB' Tarvaris Jackson is a free-agent-to-be. Joe Webb was a 6th round pick drafted to be a receiver until the coaching staff saw him throw in mini-camp. Michael Vick is going to be a free agent. Donovan McNabb is going to be a free agent. Ryan Mallet, Andrew Luck and Jake Locker currently all have first round grades from most draft experts, so the team could look to finally draft a first round quarterback again. That's at least seven options the team will undoubtedly consider. I'll take a look at the three rookies in the near future; so for now let's just look at Jackson, Webb, Vick and McNabb.*
*It's interesting to me that the Vikings have a history over the last ten-fifteen years of great black quarterbacks. They signed Warren Moon, saw Randall Cunningham revive his career on the second greatest offensive team in NFL history, and then drafted and developed Daunte Culpepper into a pro-bowl, MVP caliber quarterback before injuries and coaching changes ruined his career. The four non-rookie options for this team for this coming season in my opinion are also all black. There's not a point to this random sidebar, but it's interesting nonetheless in a league in which most quarterbacks are white.*
Tarvaris Jackson: Jackson was drafted at the end of the 2nd round in 2006, Brad Childress' first draft as head coach. When he was drafted the organization warned that he was a project, and he likely wouldn't see the field in his first season on the team. Well, Brad Johnson was brutal enough that Childress decided to give Jackson the starting job for the final two games of the season. Jackson played in four games as a rookie, posting a very poor QB rating of 62.5 in 81 pass attempts. He did manage to run for 77 yards though on just 15 carries, good for a 5.1 average.
It was clear Jackson had the tools to one day be a good player, but as a rookie he wasn't anywhere close to being an NFL caliber quarterback. Jackson went into 2007 as the team's starting QB, and he battled a few injuries that held him to 12 games. While fans were optimistic that Jackson's athleticism would mask just how raw his talent was, that wasn't the case. Jackson threw nine touchdowns and twelve interceptions in his second year, posting a QB rating of 70.8. At this point, many fans wanted a new QB already, despite the fact that Jackson was a former D-1 AA player who had been called a project the day he was drafted. For these fans to expect Jackson to excel immediately was foolish, but again, sports can turn even the most rational people into irrational fools.
In 2008, Jackson was again the starter, although the team brought in Gus Frerotte to at least challenge Jackson and provide a 'stable' veteran if needed. Whether Frerotte was good enough to bring in at all is a debate for another time, but it's my opinion that Frerotte was brutal and the team really made a misguided decision when they benched Jackson after two games for Gus. The Vikings started 0-2, and Jackson didn't play great, but a Visanthe Shiancoe dropped TD in the red zone was ultimately the difference between 0-2 and 1-1, and in my opinion it wasn't the right move. Frerotte predictably struggled, to the point where I legitimately cheered when he left injured against Chicago, but the team was talented elsewhere and won games in spite of Gus. Jackson was reinserted as the starter near the end of the year, and his final stats were solid: nine touchdowns and just two interceptions, good for a QB rating of 95.4, including a four touchdown-zero interception performance against the Arizona Cardinals. His completion percentage was still under 60%, which isn't a great sign, but his ability to make plays with his feet more than made up for it. Jackson seemed on his way to turning the corner after the '08 season, even if most Vikings fans refused to notice.
In 2009, the Vikings failed to learn from the Gus Frerotte mistake and traded a fourth round pick for Sage Rosenfels to compete with T-Jack. T-Jack still appeared to be the starter, though, until Lord Favre decided he'd unretire and sign with the Vikings. Signing Favre was a no-brainer, and Jackson was obviously relegated to back up duty. He has held that position since. In extremely limited playing time over the last two years, Jackson is 18-27 with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. He looked solid when he played near the end of the Patriots game a few weeks ago.
My first assumption is that it's simply a small sample size; Jackson is an average quarterback who will never be the guy to lead the Vikings atop the NFL ladder. The fact that he's going to be 28 when next season starts seems to suggest to me that he's no longer a 'project' and he needs to start producing. Of course, it's difficult to produce when you aren't given an opportunity, and in his very limited opportunities he's been very good over the last two years.
I think it's clear Jackson deserves a chance to start somewhere, and I do think if the Vikings offered Jackson a contract and told him he was the team's starting QB next season, he'd re-sign here without much thought. However, complicating matters is the status of Brad Childress. I don't think Jackson likes Childress, like most Vikings players and fans, but if the team brings in a different coach, it's possible that the coaches system won't be a fit for Jackson. It's my opinion, though, that good quarterbacks will do well in any system. If Jackson is indeed considered a starting-caliber player by those who make decisions, the team's offensive playbook shouldn't keep them from retaining him.
Joe Webb : Webb was an athletic specimen at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) and was among the best players in college football. UAB used him at quarterback, but early scouting reports suggested that he'd have to transition elsewhere in the NFL because his arm wasn't NFL-caliber. He was considered a potential late round steal if he could adjust to being a receiver, and the Vikings decided to take a gamble on him in the sixth round last year.
Favre's decision to sit out all of the mini-camps and most of training camp actually really benefited Webb, and if he develops into a starting caliber quarterback it will also really benefit the future of this team. The Vikings needed an extra arm to throw balls to the many receivers, and while originally they had wanted to bring someone in to do that to allow Webb to stay at receiver, things changed. Childress saw Webb throwing the ball around and decided to give him a long look at QB. The thinking was that Webb was a long ways away even as a receiver, and if he had the chance to develop into a quarterback, that would be much more valuable down the line.
Webb looked very good in the pre-season, and many fans have been calling for Joe Webb to replace Favre. These fans undoubtedly dislike Jackson because of his early struggles, and want to see what Webb can do. Of course, all that would likely lead to is these same fans jumping off the Webb bandwagon in the near future when he struggles. He's not yet ready to be an NFL QB, and I think it's silly for fans to expect Webb to be the future of this team. The fact is most sixth round quarterbacks don't develop into anything; for every Tom Brady there are hundreds of Ken Dorsey's.
Webb is a special case, though. There's no doubting his ridiculous athleticism; and if he can learn to read defenses and his arm is even average, he could be special. That said, I think it would be a mistake to expect Joe Webb to be the starter next season when the team will still have some talented veterans. If the Vikings decide to rebuild and are willing to endure a losing season, Webb is the right guy because he will develop more by playing and the tools are there to be great. I just don't think he's going to be a starting-caliber QB next season. I am optimistic he will one day develop into a solid player, though.
Michael Vick : Michael Vick has had probably the strangest career of anyone currently playing professional sports. He was considered a sure-thing when he was taken #1 overall by the Falcons, and even before all of his legal issues, he wasn't a great quarterback. He was loved by the fans because of how electric he could be, and 2007 Mike Vick will always be the greatest video game player of my lifetime. The only one who compares is Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl, but I wasn't yet alive. Look, I'm not here to defend or criticize what he did. It was a terrible thing; some will say unforgivable, and I won't argue or try to persuade people to feel differently. Bill Simmons did a great job explaining Vick's situation and I feel basically exactly the same way he does.
Vick is having a sensational comeback year in Philadelphia. After an injury to Kevin Kolb against Green Bay opened the door for a Vick return, he hasn't looked back. Vick did get hurt a few weeks ago, breaking some ribs, but he's returned to the field now and he swears he'll be better about avoiding unnecessary contact to prevent future injuries. Vick has always been fantastic to watch because of his unbelievable arm strength/speed combination. He can outrun defensive backs consistently, and he sometimes has to harness his arm strength to avoid overthrowing even the fastest of receivers. He's extremely talented and always has been.
He didn't really ever put it all together though, until this year. Now, he's only played in 5 games this season, so it's possible it's simply an example of a small sample size confusing us. I don't think that's the case though, and most people tend to agree with me. Vick has looked much smarter, much calmer, and he's made much better decisions all year. Andy Reid seems to have really gotten through to Vick in ways his previous coaches couldn't; and of course spending almost two years in jail will make you more receptive to your coaches advice.
Vick has thrown for over 1,000 yards, ran for another 261, thrown seven touchdowns and most importantly he has no interceptions. He's arguably been the league MVP to this point, and if he continues to excel, the Eagles will likely look to lock Vick up (excuse the pun) long-term. It's a tricky situation with absolutely no parallels to learn from, so I wouldn't be surprised by anything. If Vick was to re-sign for $10MM a year for four years, or more, I'd understand. If he became a free agent, the bidding war would be interesting. Zygi has proven in the past he'll spend money when necessary. If the team feels Vick is the answer, I think the Vikings have to be among the favorites to land him. It would certainly sell tickets, although some fans would likely refuse to support a team with a convicted dog-killer at quarterback.
Vick is hands down the best option of the ones covered in this piece, which is also why it's very difficult to predict just what will happen with him. I would love to see Vick in purple next year, but at this point I'd guess he doesn't even hit the market and the Eagles lock him up, creating yet another QB controversy in Philly. That could make Kevin Kolb available, but for now that's just speculation and the Vikings really can't afford to trade away anymore draft picks, so Kolb isn't a legitimate target in my opinion if he becomes available.
Donovan McNabb : McNabb has had a very good career. However, he has been substantially overrated for many years. His career QB rating of 85.9 is respectable, but it's not anywhere close to an elite level like he's been portrayed throughout his career. He has had great years, just not enough to make him truly elite.
He has struggled this season, even getting benched at the end of the game against Detroit for Rex Grossman. Yes, Rex Grossman. Obviously that was simply a foolish decision by an even more overrated head coach in Mike Shanahan. McNabb is likely having trouble because it's difficult to learn a new system in one year, especially after playing in the same system for so long. Again, though, I think a good quarterback will be a good quarterback in any system, and there's no arguing McNabb is struggling this year. He has terrible receivers and no running game, though, so that's undoubtedly part of the issue.
Personally, I don't want the Vikings to go after McNabb if he's a free agent. He'll be 35 in a week, and his struggles at this point in his career are a red flag to me. It's rare for quarterbacks to continue to play at a high level past their 35th birthday; the only ones that really have are the truly elite ones or in Rich Gannon's case, the fluky ones. But McNabb doesn't strike me as likely to be a 'fluke' because those kinds of things only happen when the right player finds the right coach at just the right time. Gannon and Jon Gruden were sensational together. I don't think McNabb and any head coach, even Gruden, would have that same magic. And as I mentioned previously, McNabb is not an elite quarterback and really hasn't been since 2004.
He'll command more money than he's worth, and the truth is it's very likely Jackson would outperform McNabb over a full season if given the opportunity. For that reason, I'd much rather have a 28-year-old Jackson making about half the money that McNabb will be.
So, what should happen? If Vick becomes a free agent, the Vikings should sell the farm to bring him to Minnesota. He's playing at an elite level right now, and spending two years in prison means his body is far less beat up than most 30-year-old NFL QB's. If not, the team should simply re-sign T-Jack and finally give him the opportunity to show the organization and the fans what he can do.
Regardless, I think the team needs to determine if Joe Webb is the future of this team or not. If he isn't, which is the way I tend to lean, they need to draft an elite QB prospect and let him develop behind Jackson or Vick. This team needs a young, franchise QB to build around as they age; I'll take a look at some of those prospects in the near future. For now, as a Vikings fan, my 2011 wish list is: Vick, T-Jack. No McNabb. And no Webb, yet.
And of course, no Childress.