Adrian Peterson has to stop putting the ball on the ground. Peterson, the best running back in the NFL, cannot continue to fumble. He has six in 320 carries so far this season, more than Clinton Portis, Matt Forte and LaDainian Tomlinson combined. If the Vikings hope to be legitimate contenders heading toward and into the NFL playoffs, their star back must take care of the ball. Even running backs coach Eric Bieniemy has told Peterson that his fumbles could dictate where this season ends magically or tragically.
By the time Peterson’s grasp of the football became such a closely scrutinized topic on the telecast of the Vikings’ victory at Arizona Sunday, his team already was up 28-7 in the third quarter. Peterson had just lost the football after a 13-yard gain, game officials initially ruling it a fumble and forcing Minnesota coach Brad Childress to challenge what, to everyone watching on TV, was Peterson’s elbow striking the turf to cause the ball’s ejection. It was a talking point in a one-sided game, an opportunity for the broadcast crew to zag (hey, a Vikings flaw!) after all their nonstop zigging.
Let’s face it, though, wringing one’s hands over Peterson’s rate of fumbling (1.9 percent of his rushes) is like sweating Barack Obama’s stature as a role model because he puffs an occasional off-camera cigarette. If that is the Vikings’ greatest cause for concern as they head toward an NFC North title and their first postseason berth since 2004, things are going well indeed.
Because, in fact, they are.
A complete team performance
No matter how much Childress tries to adhere to NFL math and remind us all that any given week reveals no more than one-sixteenth of a team’s true picture, Week 15 counted more than that for Minnesota because of how complete its performance was down in Arizona. The purple caps and shirts in the stands made the Vikings feel at home, and that’s how they performed, relaxing after Bernard Berrian’s 82-yard punt return just four minutes into the game, then playing free and easy from that point on against the NFC West division winner.
It was an everybody-into-the-pool day in the desert, from Berrian’s big-play theatrics (he caught a perfect pass from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson for a 41-yard touchdown for a 14-0 lead) and cornerback Cedric Griffin’s first interception in two years to Jared Allen’s latest two sacks and a St. Louis offense that bothered to run the ball at or around the Williams Wall just seven times, only one more than the NFL record for fewest rushing attempts in a game. Peterson set a franchise record for rushing yards in a season, 1,581 — 60 more than Robert Smith (2000) with two games remaining. And Jackson threw four touchdown passes with no interceptions, completing 11 of 17 attempts for 163 yards and a 135.5 rating.
Kurt Warner, the Cardinals’ passer and MVP candidate, was 29-of-45 for 270 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 78.9 rating. With Arizona in throwing mode, Warner wound up taking contact on almost every play, his blockers worn down by a long afternoon of taking punishment and very little giving.
There really was nothing not to like for the Vikings and their fans, their team “ascending,” to use Childress’ word, at the right time of the season. Even the inevitable question for this weekend — who will it be taking the snaps against Atlanta Sunday, Jackson or Gus Frerotte? — doesn’t qualify as a legitimate quarterback controversy because, after all, it is a no-brainer.
Jackson must start.
QB question a nonstarter
Childress said immediately after the game that he didn’t want to “go there” — debate the quarterback issue — at least until Wednesday, but there is no reason to wait. Sticking with Jackson is the Vikings’ best bet for the short term, as well as their preferred option for the future. Until his relief appearance of Frerotte against Detroit on Dec. 7 — he went 8-of-10 for 105 yards with one touchdown — there were serious reservations about the younger quarterback’s ability to bounce back from his benching after Week 2, even speculation about his continued employment by the club beyond this season. Jackson’s psyche, resilient enough to withstand 12 interceptions to nine touchdowns as a starter last season, still was seen as fragile, his status as Childress’ guy gone. Idled for 11 weeks, relegated to backing up a 37-year-old journeyman, while the Vikings’ high-payroll express thundered on without him, was going to be too much for even a proven veteran to handle, much less a raw 25-year-old.
But there Jackson was again Sunday, no twitches, no tics. No sneaking glances at Childress. Never once looking over his shoulder. Playful as a pup, looking very much like the quarterback he was supposed to be at Green Bay in the season opener. Jackson said late Sunday that he wasn’t sure what, exactly, he learned by standing and watching Frerotte for 11 weeks. Maybe he learned less about the offense and the job he had held, and more about himself.
“I kind of felt like I had nothing to lose” was how Jackson put it. “I got benched in Week 2. I wasn’t playing my game, and see where it got me? I just wanted to go out there and have fun.”
Adrian Peterson told reporters: “I’m extremely happy for him. Even with the situation early in the season, he remained focused and continued to work on his game. You’ll never know when you will have the opportunity to get back in there. I just have to congratulate him for doing that.”
If Jackson could do that Sunday against a solid Cardinals team and an All-Pro counterpart (Warner) on the road, with little wiggle room in the standings, he ought to be able to do it next week against the Falcons at the Metrodome, with the division title virtually assured and hardly any pressure at all. Sit him down again and Childress risks a shakier return next time. Especially with the real or imagined benefit of resting Frerotte and the healing bone in his back an extra week, or however long this arrangement works.
The rest of the team, on both sides of the ball, is playing well enough to hold just about any quarterback’s hand. For now and for the future, it needs to be Jackson.