Donovan McNabb (Harry How/Getty)
The chatter about the Vikings going after a veteran quarterback via the trade market is nothing new for the organization. In fact, the team has many of its greatest seasons as a result of going out shopping for a QB rather than grooming one from NFL infancy.
There has been a lot of discussion in recent weeks and months about whether the Vikings will stick with Tarvaris Jackson as their starting quarterback or make a legitimate run to obtain a veteran QB like Donovan McNabb, Chad Pennington or Derek Anderson. While there are those who don’t believe the Vikings will make such a move, it wouldn’t be without precedent in the organization. In fact, it would be much more in keeping with Vikings history than some might think.
The Vikings made their first splash into getting a proven veteran in 1972 – long before free agency existed and trades for draft picks were in vogue. The Vikings had gone two years with Gary Cuozzo as their primary quarterback and, while they had made the playoffs in both of the seasons, they had gone one-and-out – a far cry from the NFL Championship the team won in 1969 prior to the NFL-AFL merger. The Vikings knew they had the component parts to be a Super Bowl contender, but they needed an upgrade at quarterback. The result? They traded for Fran Tarkenton and went to three Super Bowls in the next five years.
Flash forward to 1993. The Vikings had struggled without a true franchise quarterback for years, turning the starting job over to players like Rich Gannon, Wade Wilson and even Sean Salisbury. Looking for a veteran to shore up the position, Dennis Green signed former Bears star Jim McMahon. While his numbers weren’t great – they never really were – McMahon led the Vikings to the playoffs.
In 1994, it was clear that the McMahon experiment wasn’t going to be a long-term move, so the Vikings made a trade with the Houston Oilers to get a veteran instead of being forced to go with Salisbury and untested Brad Johnson. The Oilers believed that Cody Carlson (who?) was the answer and traded Warren Moon to the Vikings for a second-round draft pick. That season and in two of the three years Moon was with the Vikings, the team made the playoffs.
When Moon exited following the 1996 season, Green wasn’t 100 percent sure Johnson could carry the mail without a veteran insurance policy. The result? He lured Randall Cunningham out of retirement. Cunningham came in as the backup to Johnson, but when Johnson injured his neck late in the season, Cunningham helped the Vikings win their final game of the season and brought them to the playoffs. In 1998, he became the central figure in the most potent offense in NFL history – a record that would stand for 10 years until broken by the Patriots this season.
Seeing the need for two quality quarterbacks, despite drafting Daunte Culpepper in the first round of the 1999 draft, the Vikings signed Jeff George as insurance for Cunningham. That moved paid off as George rallied the Vikings to an 8-2 record as a starter and a playoff berth that ended only because of a second-half rally by the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams to knock them out.
In 2000, even with Culpepper appearing to be ready – he would get the chance that year – the Vikings made a strong run to get Hall of Famer Dan Marino out of retirement. Marino considered the Vikings offer, but opted to remain retired – but not due to a lack of effort by the Vikings to convince him to come.
Even with Culpepper at the helm, the Vikings still made a point to bring in a veteran to back him up. Former Steeler Bubby Brister came in for the 2000 season and Gus Frerotte backed up Culepper from 2002-04. In those four seasons, Pepp had the three best years of his career as his backups served as assistant coaches on the sidelines and the practice field.
Since Culpepper’s departure, the Vikings haven’t been able to recreate that sort of offensive magic. In 2005, Johnson was the starter, but Jackson and Brooks Bollinger were his backups and neither did much to challenge for the job when Johnson struggled – which was pretty often. Last year, the Vikings added Kelly Holcomb to the mix only because Bollinger played so poorly in the preseason that it warranted getting another bargain-priced veteran to step in.
Nothing is gained by wondering how the Vikings would have fared with someone like Jeff Garcia, who was not only well-versed in the West Coast offense, but the WCO in which Brad Childress cut his coaching teeth in. That is past and can’t be changed. The future is another story. While trading for a veteran like McNabb, Anderson or Pennington wouldn’t be an indictment against Jackson that so many have painted it out to be, the simple fact is that the Vikings have gone that route many times in the past and in almost every instance, it has led them to the playoffs.
As a student of NFL history, Childress knows this and that could be the reason he hasn’t given a complete vote of confidence to T-Jack as his starter for 2008. History tells us the team might be better by letting Jackson take a step back for a year or two, learn the game much better and be good to go in a year or two when he was supposed to be ready to take over.