Friday, October 19, 2007

Measuring Jackson's Progress

In the aftermath of the Vikings' narrow victory over the Chicago Bears last Sunday, much of the attention rightfully was on the performance of rookie running back Adrian Peterson. But, as fans and reporters began assessing the other attributes of the game, most came away with another similar point of praise--the performance of second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.

While some of the praise was outright ridiculous, with one local radio homer more than suggesting that, but for dropped and misthrown passes, Jackson would have had three or four touchdown passes, most of the praise was far more sensible. The most common remarks were that Jackson played a good game, showed some improvement, and, cover your ears if you're tired of hearing stupid football cliches, managed the game well while giving his team a chance to win. Vikings' color analyst, Pete Bercich, even threw in his favorite cliche that Jackson "decided to live to play another day."

Six weeks and three games into his first full season of quarterbacking the Vikings, and seven games into his NFL career, it is worthwhile to assess where Jackson is in his progression toward becoming a bona fide NFL starter. And, while some figures point to Jackson's growth, at least one suggests that views of such growth ought to await review upon Jackson having faced stiffer competition.

Against Chicago, Jackson completed 9 of 23 passes for 136 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions, and finished the game with a quarterback rating of 73.8. Of the 136 passing yards, all but 76 were accounted for on a single touchdown pass to Troy Williamson.

Vikings' head coach Brad Childress was quick to point to three figures when asked to assess Jackson's performance. The first was the absence of interceptions from Jackson's stat line. Win the battle of turnovers, Chilly likes to say to those who have never before heard the line, and you usually win the game.

The second figure Chilly referenced was that of dropped passes--three or four, depending on who's counting. Convert those dropped passes into completions, Chilly suggested, and you're looking not only at a well-managed game without quarterback turnovers, but also one with a fairly good looking stat line for the starting quarterback with an above-average quarterback rating.

Finally, Chilly observed, Jackson contributed in a manner in which his predecessor, Kelly Holcomb, was unable to contribute. Namely, Jackson, relying on his pocket awareness and adroitness in the pocket, succumbed to but a solitary sack against the Bears' vaunted defensive line.

Vikings' fans who, through the years have seen both highly mobile quarterbacks and slothfully slow quarterbacks at the helm, are unquestionably well-schooled in identifying which of the two lots of quarterbacks is the preferred. And Jackson clearly falls into the preferred lot when it comes to mobility and pocket awareness. Against Chicago, a team so woefully beat up on defense that the Vikings did not need to rely on the arm of Jackson despite needing 34 points to win, Jackson showed pocket presence and elusiveness that suggested his maturation as a quarterback.

The lingering question, however, is what Jackson will do if and when he is called upon to be more than an afterthought in the offense? Jackson's stat line against Chicago was quite similar to his stat line against an arguably more formidable defense at the moment, the Atlanta Falcons. Against Atlanta, Jackson was 13 of 23 for 163 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a quarterback rating of 75.1. As in the Chicago game, 60 of Jackson's total passing yards against Atlanta were the result of one touchdown pass. That's not to suggest that Jackson has regressed by putting up lesser slightly lesser statistics against a depleted Bears' defense, but it does raise the question of the extent of Jackson's maturation at this point in his career.

The next six weeks will tell much more about Jackson's progress than did the game against the Bears. While Chicago's defense currently ranks 26th against the run, five of the Vikings' next six opponents are much more stout against the run, with all but Oakland ranking in the upper-half of the league in run defense.

The point, of course, is that against stronger run defenses, even a team blessed with perhaps the best running-back tandem in the NFL this year probably will need to lean on its quarterback more than the Vikings leaned on Jackson in a relatively easy outing in Chicago. Against the likes of Dallas and San Diego, and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia, Green Bay, and the New York Giants, 9 of 23 probably won't get the job done.

Since Jackson first stepped onto the Vikings' Eden Prairie practice field to take part in mini-camp in 2006, it has been evident that he possesses both quickness and a strong arm. Against Chicago, Jackson flashed both his quickness and his arm strength, as well as a measure of poise in the pocket. What he has yet to demonstrate, however, is touch. And, though it would seem to be the easiest of all the necessary quarterback tools for a quarterback to assimilate, it seems to be the toughest in coming for Jackson.

Up Next: How Much is Too Much for a Proven Player? Plus, it's not the top, but it's much better than the bottom.

2 comments:

Sam said...

Some evidence of game-situation awareness that I'm not seeing is a willingness to run for first downs when the situation presents itself. I can recall several 2nd down short-yardage passing plays where Jackson rolled out right, and rather than darting for the very reachable first down marker, opted to drill a pass to a blanketed receiver ten feet in front of him. Predictably, this pass dangerously ricochets off the receiver's hands or shoulder pads. Just take the easy first down!

Vikes Geek said...

Sam,

I've seen the same thing in each of Jackson's appearances this year. What I've noticed, as well, is that when presented with open field to run, he often takes one step forward as though his inclination is to run. That suggests that he is being coached to think pass first, perhaps to the point where he now needs to be encouraged to run first when a first down and out-of-bounds is a available to him and a pass does not appear available.

VG