Tarvaris Jackson: Fragile or unfortunate?

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In the toy industry, they're known as china dolls: Well-crafted and highly ornate, fragile but perfectly formed. Made of porcelain, they are not for play. No, these dolls are for show purposes only; even the slightest jostle can break 'em.

We learned a brief history of china dolls last year. (It's amazing what comes your way covering the NFL). In discussing the questionable durability of quarterback Tarvaris Jackson last November, Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress said: "You ask yourself, 'Is this just one particularly bad year? Is it the fact he is a china doll?' Somewhere you have to have some durability and resilience."

Unfortunately for Childress and the Vikings, we still don't know if Jackson is fragile or just unlucky. We aren't sure if he lacks toughness or simply hasn't mastered the NFL's unwritten code for injured players. (Get on the field ... or else)!

We're not sure if he's a china doll or a speed racer that just needs more tuning.

Jackson's most recent malady is a sprained right knee suffered last Saturday in Baltimore, an injury that could shelve him for the rest of the preseason. Though not serious, the sprain qualifies as the fifth ailment to sideline him since his rookie season in 2006.

Childress has placed an enormous amount of faith in Jackson, in many ways staking his job on whether he develops into a competent quarterback. Jackson, in turn, has kept himself in excellent condition while working diligently to improve his decision-making and knowledge of the West Coast offense. But Jackson's pattern of injuries -- and, how should we put it, his inexperience in playing hurt -- threatens his viability as the Vikings' long-term starter.

"I think he understands the fact that he needs to be out there for 16 games this year," Childress said Monday.

Rarely injured in college, Jackson missed about a month during his rookie season after tearing cartilage in his knee during practice. He recovered in time to start the Vikings' final two games but had surgery the following offseason to repair the damage.

Last season, Jackson took himself out of an overtime loss to Detroit after straining his groin. That injury cost him two games. An avulsion fracture in his right index finger sidelined him for one start, and he lost another because of a concussion. Meanwhile, Jackson also departed in the fourth quarter of a Dec. 17 game against Chicago because of leg cramps. (At the time, the Vikings were trailing by one point and were facing a third-down play in the red zone).

To be sure, the injuries were all legitimate. But would some NFL players have pushed through them and played in the games Jackson missed? Very likely. Childress, in fact, refers to that mentality as a "push to Sunday," and at times has gently suggested Jackson follow suit.

Indeed, NFL players are rarely "healthy" in the true sense of the word. Instead, they are judged by the extent to which they can play when nicked up.

Jackson was not available to comment Monday at the Vikings' training facility in suburban Minneapolis. But speaking on the topic last season, he said: "I've always been taught that as a quarterback, part of my job is to be there play in and play out, to be there and be able to stay healthy week in and week out. [The injuries] are frustrating because I know it's part of my job."

Some players are considered "injury-prone." But there is also a lesser-known classification that includes players who aren't comfortable taking the field when they have less than 100 percent of their faculties. Jackson might fall into that latter category, one that is perfectly human but nevertheless qualifies as a danger zone for anyone seeking the full confidence of an NFL head coach.

It makes little sense to push Jackson to play in Saturday's preseason game against Pittsburgh. Based on all indications, Jackson will sit it out. Childress, however, is making a point to at least put Jackson through the motions of a game-week recovery process.

"Guys don't always feel chipper the first part of the week," Childress said. "They get dinged up, but they find a way to push to [Sunday]. That's how he is approaching this thing."

At some point, it won't matter whether Jackson can master the technical nuances of playing quarterback in the NFL. He must get on the field and stay there. Whether the porcelain is cracked or pristine.