MANKATO, Minn. (AP) -His speech stayed in cadence, and a sly smile crept across Tarvaris Jackson's face when the subject of Brett Favre came up on the first day of training camp.
The Minnesota Vikings need their quarterback to keep his cool just like that this season.
Because he came from a small college, because he had so many ugly performances in his first year as a starter, and because his position is so very important, Jackson is viewed more widely as a liability for the Vikings than as a yet-to-be-unveiled asset.
With several important veterans in their 30s, the time has arrived for Minnesota to chase a championship.
Though far-fetched as the possibility has been, a guy like Favre is naturally assumed by the masses as the missing piece for a suddenly promising team. Jackson was asked Friday if he felt slighted by all those suggestions that he's the unpolished player keeping the Vikings from their Super Bowl push.
``Not at all. It kind of helps me out,'' Jackson said, in his typical take-it-in-stride tone. ``I know I have to get better to the point where if it happens again with any other guy, there wouldn't be a question. But I've still got some improving to do. I know that. It's all speculation, but I know it's going to happen because of the type of quarterback he is - and I have to prove myself yet.''
As two-a-days began at Minnesota State University in Mankato, the team's preseason home for the last 43 years, the Vikings learned Favre was reportedly ready to show up at Green Bay's training camp - the latest development in this back-and-forth saga.
His retirement vacillation has become one of those Hollywoodesque stories that everyone seems to grumble about but can't stay away from. To hear Jackson tell it, he's right there following along with all the fans.
``I'm watching. I'm keeping track of it every day, just because I'm a fan of sports,'' he said. ``I try not to watch it, but I can't help it because I love sports so much.''
Last season, as he endured a rough couple of months throwing and hanging onto the ball and the Vikings started lost six of their first nine games, Jackson needed a break from his habit. He was hearing too much negativity.
At some point, however, he couldn't resist grabbing the remote and flipping on the tube again.
``I can't help it. I love sports, so that's what I always do,'' Jackson said. ``That's my favorite. I've got my TV on NFL Network right now.''
Last year, Jackson had problems with inaccuracy and judgment - even jumping and trying to fire a ball into tight coverage on one make-the-coaches-cringe sequence. He threw 12 interceptions and lost three fumbles against only nine touchdowns and suffered three minor injuries early in the season that kept him out for 4 1/2 games.
The gravest charge against Jackson was more general: a sluggish passing attack that didn't do enough to complement amazing rookie running back Adrian Peterson and the stout defense on the other side.
Progress was clearly made down the stretch, through, and coaches and teammates have raved about his focus, attitude and improvement - at least in practice - since those first few forgettable starts.
``Expectations always get higher for every year you're in the league,'' coach Brad Childress said. ``There's definitely a curve that you want to see him approach, and like I've said before, I think he's about right where a third-year quarterback should be. I've seen the work he's done in the offseason. I want to see it transfer now.''
In a fledgling career featuring a mere 14 starts, including two meaningless games at the end of his rookie season, Jackson has not had much time to prove himself even though so many people outside the organization and in the fan base have written him off.
``To understand what it's going to feel like, that's priceless,'' said receiver Bobby Wade. ``I think that he's 100 percent a better player this year. I expect him to be just as great as he wants to be. Obviously we put some good people around him, so hopefully we can help out and take some of the pressure off him.''
Safety Darren Sharper took that support a step further.
``This is his team. We expect this to be his team,'' Sharper said, adding: ``It's how I feel. I wouldn't make that statement if I didn't believe it.''

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