Why Aren't the Vikings Tapping Into Justin Jefferson's Most Fun Skill?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Jefferson has a subtle message in the new Madden commercial. See if you can catch it.

“FieldSense. It changes everything,” he says, referring to the video game’s new feature. “So I can finally throw the rock!”

Yeah, so JJ wants to pass the ball. That commercial plays about 100 times a day during a football Sunday, then throughout the week on ESPN and regional sports networks across America. Jefferson isn’t being subtle. He wants to reach back and air it out.

Kevin O’Connell has obliged once this year. Up 14-3 on the Chicago Bears in Week 3, the first-year coach dialed up a doozy. On third-and-10 from the 32-yard line, Kirk Cousins faked a handoff to Dalvin Cook and lateraled the ball across the field to Jefferson. The wideout glanced downfield, then threw the ball back across the field to Cook on the other sideline, who ran it for 23 yards.

“I mean, I wish we woulda scored, for sure,” he said during the week after the game. “But it was definitely great to get a pass in. Of course, I played quarterback when I was younger, so to bring it back, when I’m in the NFL, getting passing yards and completions feels great.”

It was a play out of the NFL Blitz playbook. Think Back Split, where you throw left and then immediately to the right. Works every time. Is it Da Bomb or Turmoil? No. And shame on O’Connell for not running those yet. But it belongs on the first-year coach’s menu, and it takes gumption to call it.

“Yeah, it’s a little nerve-wracking,” he said. “I see what Kirk goes through sometimes. Just ’cause you don’t want anything bad to happen. Of course, I don’t want to throw a pick on one of my only passes. So, I mean, it’s nerve-wracking, but I’m glad I got the completion.”

Jefferson is putting pressure on himself because he wants to do it again. He also doesn’t want to put his team in a tough spot. If he drops Cousins’ pass, a defender could easily scoop it up for a score – it’s a live ball. And if a savvy defensive player on the other side of the field reads the play, he’s got a pick-six opportunity.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” said Jefferson. “But that’s just us practicing it throughout the week. Me? I gotta pass the ball forward, Kirk gotta pass it back toward me for the whole play to be completed. So there’s a lot that goes into it.

“Of course, I gotta make a good enough throw to get it all the way across the field. I think it was, like, 45 yards or something, so I gotta little arm on me, right?”

There he goes again, advocating for himself as a passer. If O’Connell didn’t catch that quote after Week 3, he definitely has by now. We all have. My guess is that he will, but he hasn’t done so since the Bears game. Even Mike Zimmer, the defensive-minded coach allergic to the forward pass, let Jefferson hurl the pill four times last year.

Jefferson ended the season 2/4 for 35 yards. Was he Randall Cunningham reincarnate? Hardly. But he wasn’t Josh Freeman or Joe Webb, either.

My favorite part of this is that Jefferson, one of the most accomplished third-year players in NFL history, continues to push himself. It’s not enough that he is breaking cornerbacks’ ankles and Randy Moss’ records. He wants to turn back the clock to when he was under center at Destrehan High School. Why limit yourself to catching touchdowns when you can hit Adam Thielen or T.J. Hockenson on an iced rope?

Last Sunday, Christian McCaffrey joined LaDainian Tomlinson (2005), David Patten (2001), and Walter Payton (1979) as the fourth player since 1970 to throw, rush for, and catch a touchdown in the same game. Tomlinson and Payton are Hall of Fame running backs. Patton is a three-time Super Bowl champion wide receiver who played from 1997 to 2008. Therefore, Jefferson would be joining elite company.

“I would love to be,” he said, drawing out the “O” in love when I asked him if he wanted to be the fifth. “But I ain’t the one calling the plays, so we gotta talk to KO about that.”

Naturally, you would think that throwing a touchdown pass and running one in would be most difficult for him. He’s a receiver, after all, and he’s caught 19 touchdown passes in his career. His Griddy touchdown dance has become ubiquitous. But, strangely, he has run in a touchdown and thrown a pass more recently than he’s had a touchdown catch.

Jefferson had two touchdown receptions in Week 1 when the Green Bay Packers perplexingly didn’t have Jaire Alexander shadow him in that game. But Jefferson has become the focal point of opposing defenses since then. While he’s had other 100-yard games, the opposition has kept him out of the end zone. His most recent score was a red zone touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints in London.

“I mean, we’ll probably pull back the one we ran from the Saints, get a little easy one right there,” he said with a snicker. “[Catch] a touchdown, that’s what I do, and hopefully, we can throw at least one.”

Here’s to JJ the QB. We’ve seen the Vikings become a more offensive team under O’Connell, and that should only increase after they traded for Hockenson at the deadline. But Minnesota feels like a team that is marginally better than the Zimmer version. Meaningfully so, they’re 6-1, but it doesn’t quite feel like a McVay offense yet. Maximizing Jefferson is the key to that.

O’Connell came here to tap into everything that Jefferson offers. He had to be thinking about what to do with the transcendent receiver as soon as the Vikings gave him an interview. So listen to the man. Let Jefferson uncork a spiral every once in a while. Everyone knows he wants to. He’s made that much clear.

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