Two of the ugliest words in the realm of team chemistry are “quarterback controversy.” Often dismissed as mere media creation, the phrase has often been legitimate and divisive in locker rooms. When some team members favor one quarterback and other players prefer another, the term “quarterback controversy” is often associated with team implosion.
The Vikings have changed quarterbacks three times this season – opening the year with Tarvaris Jackson returning from a preseason injury, switching to Gus Frerotte after just two games with Jackson as the starter and turning back to Jackson when Frerotte was injured against the Lions earlier this month. There has never been a huge outcry over any of the decisions, but, just as Jackson begrudgingly accepted his demotion, Frerotte hasn’t stirred the pot. Still, when Frerotte was given the starting job prior to Week 3, Brad Childress told the assembled media at his weekly Wednesday press conference that Frerotte was the starter “for the rest of the season.”
A cousin to the phrase “quarterback controversy” contained within the football Thesaurus is the mantra that “a starter never loses his job because of injury.” The reality is often quite different. A lot of players lose their starting jobs as the result of injury in those instances where the replacement clearly outplays the level of performance from the injured player. However, at a high-profile position like quarterback, it becomes more obvious when a deposed starter is healthy enough to return and is told he will remain on the bench.
Such is the case with Frerotte. It was clear that, suffering a fractured transverse process bone in his back against Detroit, he was in no condition to play against Arizona. But, he returned to practice last Wednesday ready to assume the starting job for that Sunday’s game with Atlanta. Jackson, coming off being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week, was named the starter by Childress.
A week later, with the season hanging in the balance, Frerotte is again being told he won’t be starting against the New York Giants – even though he has been given a clean bill of health to return to action.
“I’m ready to go – 100 percent,” Frerotte said. “I feel really good. I’m not going to feel any differently two or three weeks from now than I am right now. It’s good enough to play.”
Earlier this week, the potential quarterback controversy got a kick-start from Michael Silver, an on-line columnist/reporter for Yahoo! Sports. In a piece in his Dec. 22 column, Silver stated that, not only were a couple of unnamed Vikings agreeing with Silver’s assessment that Frerotte is the better choice at quarterback, but that his broken transverse process bone was the second such break – he reported Frerotte broke another transverse process bone in the loss at Tampa Bay in November but played through it.
When asked if that was accurate – that Frerotte played through the pain without letting on that he had suffered such an injury – Frerotte deflected the question.
“That’s Michael,” Frerotte said. “That’s how he likes to do things. I think you would have to ask Coach (Childress) about that one (the injury discussion).”
Silver, who acknowledged himself as “someone who knows Frerotte well,” opined that Childress owes Frerotte loyalty – pointing out that he has been betrayed by head coaches before during his career. He ended the piece by saying, “Coach Chilly, don’t be silly” and start Frerotte.
Frerotte said he had no idea the column piece was coming and reiterated that he had no part of it – although he wouldn’t dismiss the crux of the story completely.
“He wrote that – that was all him. I never talked to him,” Frerotte said. But, when asked if he disagreed with the representation Silver wrote of him, Frerotte added, “I wouldn’t say that. I haven’t talked to him, so I think he just wrote that on his own.”
The point that was made is valid. When exactly does a starting QB lose his job due to injury? When the Vikings advanced to the NFC Championship Game 10 years ago, Brad Johnson was replaced by Randall Cunningham, who set the league on fire with his Three Deep receiver corps. Johnson was able to get his starting job back, but when he was injured in his first game returning as the starter, Cunningham reassumed the job and never had to give it up again – even after Johnson was healthy.
Prior to this season, Childress had remained consistent with his view of quarterbacks and injury. While he had pulled Johnson three times in games in 2006, it was always due to ineffectiveness and he returned as the starter the following week … until the team decided to go with Jackson in the final two games of the ill-fated 6-10 season.
Last year, Childress showed similar loyalty to Jackson, who was knocked out of action three times with a groin pull, a thumb injury and a concussion. When he was healthy, Jackson returned to action, but it should be noted that backups Brooks Bollinger and Kelly Holcomb did nothing to make a case for remaining the starter when both got their opportunities.
But this year, it has been very different. Jackson wasn’t benched as the result of an injury. Childress simplified the situation by saying he didn’t like “the look in his eyes” and that it seemed Jackson was too tentative and lacking confidence. When he named Frerotte the starter, the claim was that it was for the remainder of the season. That said, Frerotte appeared to be wearing down as the season went on. In one game, he appeared to be knocked unconscious from a blow to the back. In a handful of others, sideline trainers had to come out to attend to him when he went down and stayed down, including the Jacksonville game in which he remained on the ground on three separate occasions.
Frerotte acknowledged that he has been taking some big hits and has been playing with pain for the last few games, but said that everyone plays with pain in the NFL and that his situation isn’t different from that of many of his teammates. However, while he contends he’s ready to resume his job as starter, the offer hasn’t been accepted and it has become a source of frustration on his part.
“It’s very frustrating for me,” Frerotte said. “It’s tough. You play with these guys all year and you put a lot sweat equity into it. Win or lose, you want to be a part of it – no matter what happens.”
Although he isn’t satisfied standing on the sidelines, he also realizes that choosing who plays and who sits rests with the head coach and that Jackson has played well enough the last two weeks to earn the confidence of Childress and his offensive coaches.
“Obviously, T-Jack played pretty well last week and, ultimately, it’s a coach’s call,” Frerotte said. “Coach is making that decision and this is how we’re going to approach it.”
With the Vikings’ playoff future hanging in the balance Sunday – win and you’re in, lose and hope Houston can beat Chicago – Frerotte wants to be behind center. But that isn’t the plan. So, he said he has to return to what he was doing during training camp, the preseason and the first two games of the regular season – be ready at a moment’s notice if the call to action comes from Childress.
“I wish I was in there, but that’s not how it’s going,” Frerotte said. “Right now, all I can do is be ready if the team needs me. That’s my focus right now – just be ready and, if that chance comes, go out there, make plays and help the team win the game.”