Friday, January 16, 2009

Either Childress Doesn't Get It Or, Sadly, He Does

After yet another season of unfulfilled promises, it is tempting simply to move on and trust that the Minnesota Vikings will learn from their failures of 2008 and improve to a level commensurate with the talent on their team in 2009. Unfortunately, learning lessons seems to be a difficult thing for current Vikings' head coach Brad Childress. Either that or he simply is the most stubborn man on the planet.

Responding to yet another round of questions on the future of the Vikings' quarterback position, Childress offered several illuminating responses.

Regarding the play of current starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and his poor performance in the clutch during the Vikings' playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Childress provided the following observations for our local scribe:

"For some guys it takes a year, two years, three years, four years. You look at guys like Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner. Some of the better guys, it just takes a while. Look at a guy like Rich Gannon. Rich Gannon was out of football for a year ... [sometimes] it takes a while to develop," Childress said, expanding his response to consider the quarterback position in more general terms.

There are, of course, several problems with Childress' response. First, and foremost, there is the that Childress tabbed Jackson an NFL-ready starter last season and called his starter "much improved" this season. Childress never said that he was drafting a quarterback that eventually would be good, he claimed to be drafting a quarterback who was near-NFL ready.

Then there is the matter of selecting the pool of those to whom one compares one's own quarterback. While it's convenient to draw analogies to other quarterbacks who floundered before making their mark in the NFL, it is conspicuous that Childress has never acknowledged the 99% of NFL quarterbacks who start their careers as inauspiciously as has Jackson and fail ever to become a bona fide starter in the NFL. Just as Childress can point to Warner's career arc as an apt early-career comparison, he also could point to the early career arc of Akili Smith.

Moreover, is there not reason to have expected a greater return--or an alternative course of action--by this point in Jackson's career? While Childress points out that Marino had a great first season, he made the statement in an attempt to suggest that the occurrence is rare. But that is not at all the case. Numerous first-year, and even more second- and third-year quarterbacks have succeeded in the NFL, including several first-year quarterbacks this season. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Matt Cassel all have shown far more in one season than has Tarvaris in his two plus seasons in the NFL. And before Ryan, Flacco, and Cassel, there were other fine first-year quarterbacks, including Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning, Terry Bradshaw, Steve Young (USFL), Aaron Rodgers, and Joe Montana.

The problem with Childress' estimation of Jackson's talent is multi-fold but begins with Childress' insistence on changing the terms of the discussion by forever rewriting Jackson's starting point. The games Jackson played in his first season did not count because they were at the end of a losing season. The games in the second season had to be discounted because they were in Jackson's "first full season." And the games this season had to be considered in light of Jackson's pre-season injury, his mid-season benching, and his progress at the end of the season.

This clearly is a game that could continue in perpetuity. Childress can continue to offer suggestions that Jackson could end up being as good as some of the best ever to play the game. He can continue to argue the obvious that we won't know until we know. And he can continue to change the timeline--next year arguing that it is year one of Jackson's first full year as a full-time starter without the burden of the rookie label or having a veteran looking over his shoulder and that Jackson still deserves two more years as a starter before we evaluate him as a starter. None of which matters, of course, for the past or for the immediate future.

One of the classic economic paradoxes pertains to when to cut bait. Some argue that the bait should be cut, despite sunken costs, when the bait fails to yield a return. Others argue that, because of sunken costs, the bait should be kept on the prospect of a rebound.

What Childress and others in the latter camp too often fail to consider is the opportunity cost of waiting on a return from a heretofore failed project. As the Vikings wait for Jackson's promise to blossom into NFL talent, the talent on the team continues to age. After 2009, if not sooner, that talent might well be absent Antoine Winfield, Pat Williams, Chester Taylor, Matt Birk, Jim Kleinsasser, and Darren Sharper, as well as one or two other players likely to be lured away by better offers or who falter through injury.

Three years ago, despite no apparent competition, the Vikings traded up in the draft to take Jackson, only a handful of picks after using another pick to select Ryan Cook. Whether Jackson some day becomes a quality starting quarterback is irrelevant. He clearly was not of that caliber when the Vikings drafted him and has not yet matured to that point, leading the Vikings to waste three seasons of otherwise strong talent on the field. Either Childress now understands this and is attempting to massage what is going on or he does not understand the significance of wasting time in the NFL. It's not clear which is a worse predicament.

Up Next: Free Agency.

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