In the past few days, Vikings coach Brad Childress has talked with quarterback Gus Frerotte for the first time since they parted ways after the season.
The air, it would seem, is being cleared, and that could create an opening for Frerotte to return to the Vikings for an open competition for the starting position with Tarvaris Jackson. If that did happen, Childress said it would be on him to create a fair competition where they had an equal chance to win the starting job.
“That’s up to me and all the drill work we do to be able to create that,” the Vikings coach said on Friday. “Then you say, they’re getting 50 percent of the work. … (There) could be a day when a guy takes all of the reps, takes none of the reps. He takes half the reps. That’s up to me to be able to figure that out.”
Frerotte left the 2008 season behind with a feeling of frustration that he wasn’t given the opportunity to start when he returned from a back injury – typically an axiom that is supposed to be followed through on when a starter is healthy enough to return to action. Frerotte, a devout family man, said the 2008 season was the most emotionally draining of his career. After moving his family with him every time he made a move, he and his wife decided to have his family remain at their home in St. Louis rather than uproot their children once again and enroll them in another new school.
Frerotte’s future may be up in the air, but Jackson, a fourth-year pro, is still under contract with the Vikings from the deal he signed as a rookie. So, while there may be some questions as to who will compete with T-Jack for a starting job, there is no question about whether Jackson will be in Mankato competing in August.
“Tarvaris is going to be on our roster,” Childress said. “I just expect another step in the development, the experiential thing. If you just go through last year, training camp, hurt, two games, out, not easy - the span of time that he sat and how he responded when he came back. You know you’re going to go through adverse situations. You can’t build those into it. I don’t know that he went through anything like that in college. Just like people are asking about (USC quarterback Mark) Sanchez after 16 games, how do you put much into that? I don’t think you can put a dollar value on the experience thing. As it is every year, it’s an important year for him.”
If that is the route the Vikings intend to go heading into 2009, does Frerotte believe he will be given a fair chance to win the job outright? Childress believes he does. The two of them had a long phone conversation prior to Childress leaving for the Combine and the two discussed Frerotte’s dissatisfaction with how the quarterback position was handled last year. Childress emphasized that he never blindsided Frerotte and was up front with all of his decisions with both Gus and Tarvaris.
“Just talking to Gus the other night, we’ve always had a relationship based on honesty,” Childress said. “Coming in, I don’t think I represented anything to him any different than it occurred. His role coming in was in a mentoring role. Obviously it was important that he did come in with a co-pilot’s mentality. In the aviation industry, you can only be a co-pilot for so long before they don’t let you be a pilot anymore, because you have a co-pilot’s mentality. But through it all, even though he’s in a mentoring role, that somewhere – he’s been around long enough – you’re going to have to come in, whether it’s a play, a snap, a series or a game and win. In his case it was 11 games. We’ve been transparent about that. Did he agree with what happened at the end of the year? That’s a matter of record. I don’t think he has any reason to believe otherwise. That’s just my sense of talking to him.”
The conversation earlier this week was the first time the two had spoken since the playoff loss to the Eagles. Childress said the lack of communication over the last month had nothing to do with animosity or feelings that required a clearing of the air. Childress said that is pretty much standard procedure with veteran players.
“I talked to him right up until that playoff game – we had a pretty good sitdown right before that happened – I don’t think it was a matter of clearing the air. I think it was just a matter of letting time go, him getting home, getting with his family, everyone stepping away for a little bit. It wasn’t a re-hash or a blow-by-blow of last year. Of course, he knows that.”
The bigger question is whether, at his age and given his separation from his family, if Frerotte is willing to come into training camp fighting for a starting job with no guarantee of winning the preseason battle. Childress said he plans to speak further with Frerotte before the free-agent period begins at midnight Friday, Feb. 27, but at this point, he would only be speculating as to Frerotte’s thought process.
“It would be strictly a guess,” Childress said of Frerotte’s willingness to compete for a starting job. “I’m not going to venture a guess. We’re going to continue the dialogue, and I imagine it will continue this week. He knows we’re on that.”
Childress said there is a lot to be decided between now and next Friday. While he didn’t go as far as to say there is a drop-dead point in which there would be no turning back, Frerotte has some minor medical issues to deal with and, if he plans to compete for the starting job during OTAs and minicamps, he will need to get that out of the way as quickly as possible so he can be 100 percent when and if he returns.
“I think you know he’s going to want to switch gears here pretty quick,” Childress said. “He did a little cleanup on one knee, and is going to get a cleanup on another. As I say, grease, oil filter – we all kind of go through that. He’s going through that process right now. But just as I found him and talked to him last year, he had to get over the fact of getting jilted by St. Louis. Your mind as a football player begins to spin around to what’s next - him with his family, his football future. It’s moving that way. He’s got his wife there to bounce things off of. I don’t know if it’s been a continuous dialogue.”
When asked if there was a scenario in which the Vikings would go after a veteran in free agency that could step in and be the unquestioned starter, Childress hesitated for four seconds and finally said, “there might be” – adding that, at this point, he isn’t sure who that player would be. He said Frerotte didn’t ask for his release and the team wasn’t making any threats to do so from their end.
However, with the signings in free agency typically blowing up like popcorn in the first couple of days of the signing period – the Vikings locked down Bernard Berrian and Madieu Williams in the first two full days of free agency last year – there is the need to have a decision. Yet, Childress said there wasn’t going a be a deadline parameter given by the team to Frerotte.
“I didn’t impose one nor did he,” Childress said. “It’s not like we agreed to keep talking. It’s not like I had to ask him to keep talking. It was a great conversation.”
While the waiting game continues, Childress said that all options remain open – having Frerotte return to compete with Jackson, use a high draft pick on a rookie QB or go out into free agency and bring in a veteran. All are options the Vikings intend to explore and decide which route is best for the organization.
“I wouldn’t open or close the door on anything,” Childress said. “It’s fluid. If you did this, would that happen? I don’t know. You guys all know who is out there and who is available. You know what’s in the draft. You know I’m not going to tell you how I feel about any of those guys. There is also an incredible range of scenarios that none of us could know about right now.”
While the future isn’t as clear for Frerotte, it is a given that Jackson will be back. Childress said he expects him to make the next step in his progression as a pro and come out fighting for the starting spot when the horn sounds in August.
“For Tarvaris, it’s re-familiarizing himself with the system,” Childress said of Jackson’s offseason workout program. “He’s got plays on tape, he understands more and did more things in the last three games under pretty tough circumstances, pretty good defenses (the Falcons, Giants and Eagles). I just see him taking the next step growth-wise.”
With the days counting down to free agency, the big questions Vikings fans have had for more than a year continue. Will Jackson still be viewed as the starter? Will the team spend money in free agency to bring a short-term solution? Is Frerotte part of that short-term solution? Until the flag drops and the free-agent race begins, fans (and the Vikings) will just have to wait and see.