When one looks at the internal disintegration of the Vikings as a franchise and the ongoing attempt to rebuild for the future, one name keeps surfacing in the long line of dominoes that have fallen over the last five years. Tyler Thigpen, who never officially played a down for the Vikings.
There is no question that the middle of the Vikings universe when they made their steady rise to the top from 2007 to 2009 was predicated around the quarterback position. As the Vikings entered the 2007 free agent and draft periods, they were a team with talent on both sides of the ball, but one glaring weakness – quarterback.
The Vikings had drafted Tarvaris Jackson in 2006, a Brad Childress pick made before Rick Spielman came on board (Spielman was hired after Fran Foley imploded on draft weekend and was fired the following week). T-Jack was “Chilly’s guy.” As a hedge to their bet, the Vikings dusted off journeyman Brad Johnson to keep the seat warm for the kid, with the anticipation that Jackson would compete for the job in 2007 and, with any luck, become a Donovan McNabb clone. Unfortunately, he did – but the cloning was more of the McNabb of Vikings and Redskins vintage, not his Philadelphia career. Jackson could make big plays with his arm and his feet, but his mistakes always seemed to come at the most critical times.
Johnson played so poorly in 2006 that he was pulled three times during the season due ineffectiveness. After the third, the Vikings had seen enough and Jackson was not only allowed to start the final two games of his rookie season, but the team brought in no legitimate competition for him. Veterans Kelly Holcomb and Brooks Bollinger were in Minnesota for two reasons – to cash checks and wear Viking-themed baseball caps on the sidelines. Enter Thigpen.
Thigpen was a guy Spielman liked. A lot. He was raw. Players don’t draw a lot of attention at Coastal Carolina. But Spielman saw something he thought he could develop. At the time, the Tripod of Authority had Childress making final roster decisions. Chilly liked what he saw in Thigpen, but, in a move that was questioned even at the time it was being done, Chilly made Thigpen one of the final cuts. He kept Holcomb and Bollinger, although few believed anyone would claim them, with every intention of Thigpen clearing waivers and returning to the Vikings on the practice squad.
That didn’t happen. Kansas City liked what it had seen in scouting Thigpen and claimed him, putting him on the 53-man roster – where he would become a full-time starter in 2008. Since then, he has bounced around the league, spending two years with Miami and last season in Buffalo. He was “the one that got away,” but the Thigpen influence was far from over.
Needing a veteran presence behind Jackson in 2008, the Vikings brought in veteran Gus Frerotte. T-Jack started the season 0-2 (sound familiar?) and was not only benched, but Childress named Frerotte the permanent starter. It was a clear sign that Chilly had given up on the Jackson experiment. Childress was more worried about his job. Third-year coaches get fired if they miss the playoffs again. A desperation move? No doubt about it. But it worked. The Vikings won the NFC North, even though Jackson would end up back as the starter because Frerotte’s aging body could no longer take the beating absorbed in a younger man’s game.
With Jackson’s fragile psyche worn down to a nub, Spielman got in the act – orchestrating a trade to bring in Sage Rosenfels, whom Spielman had traded for when he was running the show down in Miami. Rosenfels was brought in from Houston, which had given his job to Matt Schaub, and was promised a chance to compete with Jackson in a fair and open competition.
At the time, many observers said the Vikings were good enough at so many positions to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender – with one big exception: quarterback. Had the Vikings kept Thigpen, it may have been him and Jackson that were competing, much like Tommy Kramer and Wade Wilson did years earlier. Instead, the Vikings, desperate to make a big splash, wooed Brett Favre out of his fourth retirement to become a Viking.
The Vikings had three quality quarterbacks in 2009 – Favre, Jackson and Rosenfels – but two of them were unhappy. Jackson and Rosenfels had both been promised a legitimate chance to earn their way into the starting lineup – all that most players can ask. That opportunity was denied when the Favre circus rolled into town. The Vikings learned how vital having an elite quarterback was and it was a magical season. But, realizing Favre was a short-term fix, the team kept both Jackson and Rosenfels – making Jackson the Viking with the most starts but the lowest paycheck of the three.
The shock of the Favre signing in 2009 was the precursor to the “will he or won’t he?” of 2010. Enter the Thigpen Theory. With a sixth-round pick, the Vikings drafted Joe Webb, a college QB they planned to move to receiver. That plan changed when they saw him throw. The Vikings had two veteran QBs under contract and a budding gem of a project, much like Spielman once viewed Thigpen. When the Vikings went Seal Team 6 to bring Favre back in mid-August a decision had to be made – a Thigpenian-type decision.
Remembering their experience with Thigpen, Webb became the question mark. Could they cut and re-sign him or would a team claim him off waivers? They weren’t willing to take the chance. So it came down to who goes – Rosenfels or T-Jack? Jackson was the “Childress guy.” Rosenfels was the “Spielman guy.” Something had to give. One thing fans may not have understood was that Favre and Rosenfels talked football all the time – breaking down plays in the locker room and talking constantly. Jackson, on the other hand, had little to do with it. He said he learned from Favre by watching him, not listening to the old man’s stories.
It was clear who was calling the shots at the time. Rosenfels was quietly moved to the Giants and Jackson stayed. By the time the Vikings had to make their next quarterback decision, Childress wouldn’t be involved.
The drafting of Christian Ponder was the clear sign that Jackson was no longer in the team’s plans. They gave Ponder Jackson’s number. The Vikings were posed with a problem. They had two raw, inexperienced quarterbacks and Favre wasn’t coming back. What do you do in that scenario? Enter Thigpen.
Thigpen was a free agent and it was clear Miami wasn’t going to give him the starting job. He was looking for a fresh start. Word out of Winter Park is that Spielman wanted him to come in for an open competition and let the chips fall where they may – Thigpen wins the job, Ponder emerges as NFL-ready or Webb’s athleticism wins him the job. Leslie Frazier had a different idea. Bring in veteran Donovan McNabb. Same song, different verse.
Thigpen wasn’t signed. McNabb was. The rest is history. Perhaps as a result of that critical move, the Tripod of Authority got folded up and put in the closet. Spielman became general manager. The delineation of roster authority became clear.
And who is to thank in the end? Tyler Thigpen, a guy who never played a down for the Vikings.
The coaching vacancies around the NFL continue to be filled, and another coach the Vikings interviewed has opted to remain at home, despite being passed over as head coach. Mel Tucker, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to interim head coach when Jack Del Rio was fired in Jacksonville, was bypassed for the head coaching job when the Jags hired former Viking Mike Mularkey. However, Tucker was offered his old job of defensive coordinator with Jacksonville and accepted it on Thursday.
Steve Spagnuolo remains in the mix, but reports out of Philadelphia are that the Eagles are interested in bringing him to Philly to be the Dream Defensive Coordinator.
Florida running back Jeff Demps is what you could call the anti-Brian Robison. Both Robison and Demps had Olympic dreams. Robison was a shot put specialist at Texas and was extremely close to posting throws good enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team. However, the lure of the NFL put his Olympic dreams on what now would appear to be permanent hold. His commitment to football was eventually rewarded when he signed a three-year, $14 million contract last March prior to the lockout. Demps, who was likely to be a mid-round selection in April’s draft, has decided to pursue qualifying as a sprinter on the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team. His decision of following his true dream is admirable, but, how many general managers are going to want to draft a player in the middle rounds who clearly doesn’t have football as a top priority? Al Davis is no longer around to answer that particular question.
It was interesting to see that the Shakopee stadium proposal was accepted despite not surfacing until the final days of the stadium debate – a third-party candidate in an election year. Some may have been surprised that the Basilica of St. Mary’s site, which had become a clubhouse favorite in recent weeks, wasn’t the proposal of choice by the City of Minneapolis. It went with the Metrodome site, but apparently questions of the $67 million in projected lost revenue wasn’t a part of that plan, which will make it a hard sell with the Vikings. What seems to be lost in the argument is that, while a new stadium is needed, the Vikings still have to approve their portion. Arden Hills firmly remains the organizational favorite, but the team said it would work with whichever site is favored by the legislature.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.