Rick Spielman quietly celebrated the anniversary of his promotion to Vikings general manager this past Thursday.
He became emotional in front of reporters that day last January, his voice cracking as he acknowledged the challenge that awaited him following a 3-13 season. His vision included a major rebuild that required tearing down the roster and reshaping it with an influx of new faces and young talent. A year later, Spielman has formulated the right blueprint to help the Vikings organization achieve long-term health and stability.
The Vikings bucked predictions by advancing to the postseason in a presumed rebuilding campaign. That's a credit to the players and coaching staff who refused to view their own expectations in those terms. But the success also reflects Spielman's belief that his organization can build a solid foundation through the draft without compromising the NFL's win-now mandate. This Vikings team proved that being young and being good are not mutually exclusive.
"I think we're on the right track," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "We played so many young guys and mixed in the older guys. If we come back next year and bomb, I think we'll all be disappointed."
Spielman jettisoned a veteran core last offseason and assembled the NFL's eighth-youngest team, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. At the time, the moves felt like a necessary cleansing that signaled the Vikings were starting over. And given truth serum, a number of veterans probably would confess to privately questioning where this thing was headed. Nobody in pro sports wants to hear about rebuilding jobs, especially guys on the backside of their career.
But the pieces fit. Not perfectly, of course. This roster is not a finished product. But of the 12 playoff teams, the Vikings featured the second-youngest roster behind Seattle.
"I think Rick had a plan going into this year," left guard Charlie Johnson said. "Whatever he had in mind, it worked. I have trust in them that we're going to keep this thing rolling and that it's something that we can sustain."
The players cleaned out their lockers Monday and scattered into the offseason, but their future looks different than it did following the team's 2009 playoff exit. That was a veteran team that knew it had one more shot at the Super Bowl if Brett Favre returned the next season. That group professed an "all in" mindset as its window began to close.
This situation feels more open-ended. This team has a nucleus of talented youngsters and players in their prime who forged tight chemistry despite their age gap. Their window for success looks wider, even though everyone realizes the NFL is a year-to-year proposition and things can change quickly.
"I think Rick has done a great job with his vision, building a young roster with guys who are hungry and want to work hard and having good veteran leadership," center John Sullivan said. "I definitely think we're a team on the upswing."
The Vikings' average age is 25.98 years old, which is a byproduct of two consecutive successful drafts by Spielman and his scouting department. Half of the team's 20 draft picks the past two years are either starters or key contributors.
Spielman says he never evaluates a draft class until after three years, but it's safe to assign the 2012 rookie class headed by Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith and Blair Walsh an 'A' letter grade. Their collective contributions solidified weaknesses in all three phases at a level that few could have anticipated, probably even internally.
Now Spielman needs to nail this upcoming draft, too. The Vikings must find a true No. 1 deep threat at wide receiver, two starting linebackers and a defensive tackle. They also need to sign a competent veteran backup quarterback, presumably in free agency. First and foremost though, Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier must solve the riddle that is Percy Harvin and iron out whatever it is that's bothering him.
No matter how much he tweaks or replenishes the roster, Spielman's tenure will be judged largely on Christian Ponder's success and whether he develops into a franchise quarterback. Ponder's play was so all over the map this season that it's impossible to say with any degree of certainty that he's capable of leading this organization to long-term prosperity. However, the Vikings should feel encouraged by his performance in December and the way he pulled himself together as his season started to crumble.
Even with Ponder's inconsistency and a young roster, the Vikings won more games than their previous two seasons combined. They have a clear vision now that's recognizable and understandable. And it makes sense.
A year ago, Spielman promised to build something here. We got to see the framework this season.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org