Some of my fellow Vikings' fans have strangely been calling for the ouster of the GM before he has drafted a quarterback or hired a head coach.
First, let's agree on something right away. What matters most are two things: building a team with character, and winning a Super Bowl, What matters second most is building a dynasty that wins multiple Super Bowls. Everything else, including regular season stats, is not nearly as important as these three goals. We're not out for fantasy football. We want a trophy, and then multiple trophies, and we want a team with character that really deserves to bask in the glory.
In January 2012, the Wilfs promoted Rick Spielman to General Manager of the Vikings football club. Before then, Spielman was Vice-President of Player Personnel. It has been widely reported that personnel decisions before January 2012 were made by consensus between Spielman, the head coach (Childress or Frazier), and in case of major moves, the Wilfs. There is an old saying about decisions made by committees.
Since January 2012, Spielman has had complete control of the draft.
Here is our 2011 draft, decided by committee: C Ponder, K Rudolph, C Ballard, B Burton, D Love, M Raymond, B Fusco, R Homan, D Reed, and S Burton. Of these, Rudolph and Fusco have proven to be good players. That is 8 picks from the 2011 draft that haven't paid off over three seasons.
Many Vikings fans think the Vikings should have drafted Andy Dalton, and blame Rick Spielman for not doing so. Nevertheless, Dalton is 0-3 in playoff games and is not a franchise quarterback. Fantasy football stats and regular season games don't matter. While Kaepernick has won playoff games, he wasn't really on Vikings' fans radar back then. Kaepernick isn't a "shudda cudda wudda." He is more of a "How'd we miss that guy?".
Here is our 2012 draft. M Kalil, H Smith, J Robinson, J Wright, R Ellison, G Childs, R Blanton, B Walsh, A Cole, and T Guyton. Even if we want to knock Josh Robinson for various reasons, he did get playing time. Maybe he will prosper in a new defensive system. This draft looks like gold as we sit in January 2014.
Here is our 2013 draft: S Floyd, X Rhodes, C Patterson, G Hodges, J Locke, J Baca, M Mauti, T Bond, and E Dawkins. This is a very nice draft with Patterson the Pro Bowler, and several other potential starters.
Many Vikings fans were crying for a quarterback to be drafted in 2013, but the Vikings took none. Here is a list of all quarterbacks drafted in the NFL in 2013: EJ Manuel (QBR 77.7), Geno Smith QBR 66.5), Matt Barkley, Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson, Landry Jones, Brad Sorensen, Zac Dysert, BJ Daniels, and Sean Renfree. So far, after one season, it looks like the Vikings didn't miss out on any quarterbacks in the 2013 draft.
Not a perfect record, but aside from the quarterback position, Spielman has done very well so far.
In free agent signings, Spielman signed Matt Cassell and Josh Freeman. While Cassell has been worth the money, and should be kept, Freeman proved himself a liability by being consistently late to team meetings and not contributing. While the Vikings spent $2 million on a failed half season by Freeman. That money effectively did nothing but purchase the information that Freeman was not worth pursuing further. That $2 million was spent poorly. Yet, it wasn't a total waste or even a big loss in light of how much other teams often spend futilely pursuing a franchise quarterback. Spielman also made a big move to get Greg Jennings. The jury is still out on that signing.
Now let's move to coaches. The Wilfs fired Tice, hired and fired Childress, and hired Frazier. If Spielman was even consulted by the Wilfs for any of these moves, it would be breaking news in the Viking world. Those decisions were made by the Wilfs. I was tepid when Frazier was elevated to head coach but became supportive. Eventually, in 2012 we saw Frazier making progress, but in 2013 it fell apart. In retrospect, Frazier is a good defensive coordinator. Spielman earns a point for not giving Frazier a long extension that would have cost the Vikings more down the road.
An organization's successes or lack thereof all start at the top. The ups and downs of the 2006 to present era belong to Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf. After making a number of good moves and a number of mistakes, they made a championship-level master move, and named a GM. This was a long time coming. It is clear that the Vikings need a GM, and needed one since 2001, when the Red McCombs/Dennis Green era broke down in East Rutherford, and continued the following year until Green quit before the season ended.
The year 2012 can be looked at as the key turnaround year for the Vikings. That was when the Wilfs finally closed the stadium deal, a deal that had eluded McCombs and the previous ownership before him, and took six years with the Wilfs at the helm to finally reach. It was the year the Vikings got back in the playoffs, and was the first Wild Card berth under the Wilfs. It was also the year they named Rick Spielman to be GM. At last the Wilfs took themselves out of the process and trusted all of the football decisions to be made by a football guy, a professional who had ascended the ranks from within the organization.
There is probably no position that is both as underrated and overrated as quarterback in the NFL. As we have seen time and again, who is drafted/signed/traded for matters, but so does the coaching and the team around him. What really matters in making a franchise quarterback, however, is the work the man puts in day after day, week after week. The work is what really separates an Andrew Luck (playoff victory) from an Andy Dalton (playoff loss). Getting a quarterback is only part of the job. The rest of it is creating a good situation and then it's up to the quarterback himself to actually take the reins and put in the necessary work to secure victory over the team's highly-motivated competition.
This takes us to Christian Ponder. In the biggest game of his NFL career, he was money. He sunk the Packers in Week 17 of 2012, when the Packers needed to win. He almost broke his arm and suffered a severe bruise and couldn't throw with any strength at the playoff game the following week. Ponder's career playoff record is still 0-0. Ponder has reached the proverbial 1000 career attempts mark, and "the game should slow down for him," as they say. A 6'2 guy, he should be tall enough to play the position. His passes have often come out without enough velocity, but that goes to his footwork. We have seen big, high-velocity throws from him, but not consistently.
Frazier, Musgrave and the QB assistant coach, Craig Johnson, did little to bring Ponder along other than give him lots of chances. Instead of designing an offense that reduces pressure on the quarterback, Musgrave routlinely would not call a pass play on 1st or 2nd down, but would wait until 3rd and 10 or 3rd and 16 sometimes. Through it all, Ponder has had a steadily ascending completion percentage, and more career touchdowns than interceptions. To this day, nothing has proven that Ponder is not a franchise quarterback. What has been proven is that in Musgrave's offense no quarterback had any big success. I don't know why Ponder's footwork is still sub-par. In the end, part of that is on the coaches, but part of it is on Ponder. Ponder hasn't put in championship-caliber work, quantity or quality. It's not too late in his career for him to turn it around. Clearly he has an on-field vision situation that needs to be corrected. His in-pocket QBR should be as high as his QBR when rolling out. These things are correctable. Ponder should remain a Viking.
The powerhouse team that Spielman has laid the foundation for is something we are seeing in its beginning stages. Based on Spielman's performance in the draft, I anticipate he'll make a great choice for head coach.
The Wilfs are smart to keep Spielman. This is a time of transition. The Vikings will play at a university stadium for two years. The Vikings will have four head coaches in 9 years, and it's time for stability. That starts with the Wilfs and carries over to the front office. There is no reason to make a change at GM. There is every reason to think that Spielman has the ability to do everything a GM can and must do to help the Vikings to a championship.
On the character side, 2013 was not a banner year. Erin Henderson will be shown the door after his multiple problems with drinking and driving. I don't see AJ Jefferson coming back. If every athlete with a child conceived out of wedlock became front page news, that would be all the news every day. Yet, Peterson didn't have the best press coverage this year, and yet it's hard to have anything but sympathy for his late child and for AD.
While Chris Kluwe is a jerk, he may have actually helped the Vikings. First, the Vikings look like the innocent victim of Chris Kluwe, a raving madman, an egocentric punter who is just another wannabe Hollywood playboy looking to tweet out a smear and leave a trail of classless vindictiveness against an organization that always treated him above and byeond what he deserved, a Vikings football club that gifted him an opportunity to have a well-paid, mediocre career in the NFL. With all that being said and done, it's unlikely that Priefer will get a chance to be a head coach in 2014, and so the Vikings can benefit from his services as special teams coach again. The whole "Kluwegeddon" situation further underscores the wisdom of the Wilfs's decision to promote Spielman to GM. Kluwe was strung along for years when he should have been cut, I admit. The Vikings didn't mind the quirky, positive publicity he generated, and occasionally he punted decently. Once Spielman became GM, he hired Mike Priefer. Ultimately, Spielman drafted a new punter who does a better job than the overpaid Chris Kluwe. Then, finding himself with no more big paycheck from the NFL, Chris Kluwe waited until maximum publicity was possible and then chatted up some media gutter rats to help him rip on the Vikings right before the country's attenion was glued on Wild Card Weekend. Apparently he was going to do that regardless of whether the Vikings had a playoff game coming up. If the Vikings had a GM years ago, Kluwe's career with the Vikings would have been short. Yes, the Wilfs enjoyed Kluwe's gadfly remarks on various societal issues, but it still must personally hurt them to see Kluwe burn his bridges to the Vikings so pyromaniacally and with so little remorse. I think the Wilfs are unlikely to ever again protect a player they personally like from being cut. Furthermore, I don't think the Vikings are going to be very tolerant of a tweet-happy distraction machine on the squad again.
The Wilfs turned over the longboat's steering to Rick Spielman, and so far Spielman has navigated well. Let the voyage continue.