There’s a reason why Gus Frerotte, the 37-year-old quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, can’t keep a starting job in the NFL. He lacks the big-time arm, the consistency and the end-of-the-game panache that separates the serviceable, like him, from the great, like Peyton Manning, who dismantled the Vikings’ defense in the final minutes last week.
What Frerotte does possess, however, are skills as subtle as the gray in his sideburns. Like keeping his eyes moving to avoid tipping where a pass is going. And finding his secondary and tertiary receivers without freaking out. And at the line, recognizing the defense and, when necessary, changing the play seamlessly.
None of this requires an Ivy League education, just the calm patience Frerotte showed on Sunday. Bailed out by the defense after a rough start, Frerotte directed the Vikings to a touchdown and a field goal in the second half of a 20-10 victory over Carolina. Frerotte completed 16 of 28 passes for 204 yards, avoided the big mistake and directed a 19-play drive over the third and fourth quarters that killed a huge chunk of time with the Vikings ahead.
Gus banishes gloomy Guses in the stands — for now
“I think he did a nice job of pulling the trigger,” Coach Brad Childress said. “He was basically on-task, looking where he needed to look.”
That quelled the calls for Childress to be fired, at least for the moment. And it belied the underlying concern of management that a third season under Childress without making the playoffs might submarine the Vikings’ chances of getting a new stadium in the upcoming legislative session.
“You talk about musts,” Childress said. “This was a physical and emotional necessity.”
No doubt. Whether owner Zygi Wilf demanded that Childress bench Jackson, or Childress made the call on his own, something had to change after the Vikings’ 0-2 start. On blogs and message boards, many of the same fans who shorthanded Jackson’s name to “T-Jack” and demanded he play two years ago spent last Monday and Tuesday inventing obnoxious and offensive nicknames for their former favorite.
It took an extension of the NFL blackout deadline for the Vikings to claim a sellout Sunday, even though scalpers still hawked fistfuls of tickets an hour before kickoff, and a good 1,500 seats appeared unoccupied in the top rows of the upper deck. Boos accompanied Vikings misplays on their first two series, especially after Chris Gamble’s jarring hit separated drop-prone tight end Visanthe Shiancoe from the ball.
“Coach talked about it earlier in the week,” wideout Bobby Wade said. “I think everybody’s been talking about it, understanding this is one we had to have.”
The Vikings needed something big, and they got it from cornerback Antoine Winfield, pound-for-pound the toughest Viking. Just before halftime, the blitzing Winfield stripped the ball from quarterback Jake Delhomme and ran 19 yards for a touchdown. Going into the half tied 10-10 instead of being behind 10-3 took the snarky edge out of the crowd.
Then on the first series of the third quarter, Frerotte kept his feet moving, slipped away from trouble and lobbed a deep ball down the left side to Bernard Berrian, who made an over-the-shoulder catch for 48 yards to the Carolina 29. Two plays later, pushed five yards back by a false-start penalty, Frerotte found Shiancoe on the right between the hash marks and the yardage markers. Frerotte might have been the only person in the building who trusted Shiancoe to catch the ball, and Shiancoe rewarded him by taking it 34 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
On both throws, Frerotte looked over several possible receivers to prevent defensive backs from anticipating the target and breaking on the ball. That’s something Jackson did not do two weeks ago in Green Bay. Packers safety Atari Bigby said that on his game-clinching interception, Jackson looked to his side the whole time.
“On the play to Shiancoe, he sent the safety the other way with his eyes, and then came back to Shiancoe,” Wade said of Frerotte. “That type of ability is big for the passing game.”
And in the huddle, Frerotte handled things with the professional cool expected from a 15-year veteran. The 19-play, 75-yard second-half drive that led to Ryan Longwell’s 32-yard field goal demonstrated that. Even after a holding call nullified a 13-yard touchdown pass to Chester Taylor, Frerotte remained unruffled. Frerotte said he was more nervous about his son’s youth football game Sunday than his own.
“I don’t know if I know Gus enough to say he was loose,” Wade said. “But I think he was comfortable enough to make the plays that he made.”
Added Childress: “It’s almost as if he’s on Valium. He’s a flat-line guy. You’re not going to get a wave out of him. He’s been doing this so long that there’s a great confidence about him.”
And between series, Frerotte and Childress often huddled with Jackson and third quarterback John David Booty on the sidelines, to continue Jackson’s learning process. Frerotte may not be a Manning, but he’s savvy enough to know Jackson better be ready to play if anything happens to him. And Frerotte is secure enough to work with Jackson, as he did with Daunte Culpepper in his first stint here.
“T-Jack was great today,” Frerotte said. “We talk all the time. Hopefully he listens, and we’ll all go through the season together.”