Thursday, February 12, 2009

If Healthy, Favre Remains a Good Bet to Land in Minnesota

The Minnesota Vikings enter the 2009 off-season in search of the three pieces necessary to allow them to contend for a Super Bowl title, regardless of who is steering the ship. The third piece would be a speedy, sure-handed wide-receiver and the second a sure-footed, foul-free, beast of a right offensive tackle. The first piece, clearly, is a quarterback.

With $22 million and change under the league's 2009 salary cap, the Vikings can afford to spend in 2009 and, in fact, will need to spend at least $9 million just to get above the NFL's salary floor. As the Vikings continue their push for a publicly bankrolled stadium, the odds are good that owner Zygi Wilf will continue his previous trend of spending not only up to the salary floor but also close to the cap ceiling.

Despite significant free-agency signings in each of Childress' first three seasons with the Vikings, the product on the field continues to look very similar to the product that Childress fielded in year one of his tenure--a strong defensive team with numerous talented players on offense. The primary missing ingredient, however, remains a steady hand at quarterback.

Last year, the Vikings rode the remaining vestiges of Gus Frerotte's professional football career to a playoff berth. Frerotte's late season fade, coupled with back issues, spelled the end for the veteran, however, and the reinsertion into the starting lineup of erstwhile starter Tarvaris Jackson.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles' vaunted defense, Jackson had moments that made him look every bit as capable as his counter-part on the Eagles. But, when the game was on the line and everyone knew that Jackson had to pass, Jackson faltered, and faltered horribly. It's been noted here before that not all of Jackson's playoff woes can be attributed to his inability to read defenses quickly enough or pick up the hot read--that some of the problem, if not a significant amount of the problem, rests with a staid offense that signals its coming in years, not moments.

But no matter how the blame is divided for last year's playoff short-comings, a significant part of the problem was the play of the quarterback. For the Vikings to improve in 2009, they either need much more consistent and improved play from Jackson or an upgrade at the quarterback position. As time goes by, it appears more and more likely that the Vikings will have left themselves little choice but to hope for the former.

As the 2008 season wound down, the Vikings looked at the free-agent quarterback possibilities with guarded optimism. Among the prospective free agents were Kurt Warner, Matt Cassel, Derek Anderson, and Jeff Garcia; the Viking viewed their free-agency value in similar order.

With free-agency looming, however, things have changed dramatically. Warner insists that he will remain in Arizona or retire, the former being a solid bet given that the Cardinals are a whopping $42 million under the league salary cap, and the Patriots have slapped the franchise tag on Cassel. Only Anderson and Garcia remain what they were mid-way through the 2008 season, two quarterbacks who have shown ability but about whom, for different reasons, teams ought to move with caution in 2009; Anderson looks like the weak-armed quarterback that he got away with being in 2007 and Garcia looks injury prone.

If the Vikings are intent on upgrading at quarterback in 2009, that seems to leave only one available veteran, Brett Favre. Favre insists that he is done, having suffered yet another rotator injury. Of course, we've seen this opera before and there is little reason to expect a different ending this time--at least not this early in the off-season.

Favre still remains an option to play in Minnesota in 2009 until he signs his retirement papers with the league. That's because, despite having one year left on his contract with the Jets, the Jets cannot afford to keep Favre and his salary. Already a nearly impossible $7 million over the NFL cap for 2009, the Jets need to shed salary and signaled this urgency by placing Favre on the injured/retired list. That clears some room off of the Jets' books, but only if Favre actually retires or otherwise departs the Jets.

As he did last year, Favre has suggested that he might reconsider his position should his health improve enough to permit him to play again, a proposition that the Jets simply could not afford.

Understanding the Jets' cap plight, Favre's likely short-term prospects, and Favre's likely desire to compete for a championship in what likely would be his final NFL season, few teams would offer much for Favre, with only Minnesota and Chicago having a need that meshes well with Favre's desires and career arc. The Bears are in similar salary-cap position to the Vikings with $19 million in cap space, but, as Favre made clear last off-season, all other things being equal, he'd rather be a Childress Viking than a Lovie Smith Bear.

Up Next: Just Say No.

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