MANKATO – On the day of his promotion to Vikings general manager, Rick Spielman stood at a podium and choked back tears, an unscripted reaction to a significant moment in his professional career.
Privately, he had reason to shed tears from pounding his head against a wall after examining the mess on his plate. The Vikings were coming off a 3-13 season in 2011 and had a disjointed, underwhelming roster.
The organization needed to reinvent itself after the Brett Favre experiment. The Vikings viewed that two-year window (2009-10) as their “All In” moment. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback and veteran roster primed to contend for a championship. So they went for it.
Once that window slammed shut, the roster became old, expensive and badly in need of an overhaul.
“I knew after that window closed,” Spielman said last week, “we were not starting over but … we had some very hard decisions.”
Fast forward to now and Vikings fans should feel encouraged by the roster transformation that Spielman has put into practice. The Vikings are being built the right way, a model that could lead to sustained success if — and this should be written in bold capital letters because it looms over everything else — rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater can develop into their franchise quarterback.
If the Favre years represented an “All In” approach, this current plan looks more like a “Long Haul” formula, to the extent that anything in today’s NFL can be viewed in a long-term manner.
The Vikings have 17 of what I’ll classify as “core players.” That doesn’t include rookies because they haven’t played a snap in the NFL so it’s premature to put them in that category.
But of those 17 core players, 13 are between the ages of 23 and 28, the ideal range for maximizing a player’s talent. That group includes Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Rudolph, Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Matt Kalil, Xavier Rhodes and Blair Walsh. (Adrian Peterson is 29.)
Even the Vikings’ two prized free-agent signings this offseason — Linval Joseph (25) and Captain Munnerlyn (26) — fit that mold.
The NFL’s salary cap creates fluidity in rosters that make retention rates fluctuate sharply some years. The Seattle Seahawks set the template for roster construction last season by winning the Super Bowl with an average age of 26.4 years.
A nucleus of talented players in their mid-20s who are at the end of their first contract or on their second contract serves as an ideal foundation.
“If we can win with these guys when they’re 24, 25 and have these guys under contract, in theory, you’re going to be able to maintain that success,” Spielman said. “It’s not going to be an ‘All In’ one year.”
That process takes time. The roster still has some obvious holes, especially on defense. And Spielman certainly has made mistakes along the way, as well. He whiffed badly on Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman’s signing proved to be a fiasco and he didn’t have a solid Plan B after releasing Antoine Winfield.
But the roster looks more viable now than at any point since Favre retired. The shift in philosophy is illuminated when compared to that 2010 team. The Vikings had 16 starters who were 28 or older that season, including a dozen who were at least 30 years old.
The Vikings likely will start only five players age 30 or older this season. That group includes quarterback Matt Cassel, who still has to win the job in camp.
Spielman took a two-pronged approach in reconfiguring the roster: He wanted to build through the draft while also cutting ties with a group of popular veterans who made an indelible mark on the organization but were on the back end of their career (Winfield, Steve Hutchinson, E.J. Henderson, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Ryan Longwell). He also traded disgruntled receiver Percy Harvin.
“When you have to make those business decisions,” Spielman said, “those are maybe the most painful ones to make.”
Spielman hopes to keep his core young by drafting 10 players every year. He has maneuvered smartly to land seven first-round picks in his three drafts as GM.
He also hired a coaching staff that he trusts to develop young talent. That faith is reflected in new contracts given to Griffen and Rudolph. The nearly $40 million in combined guarantees to those two players demonstrates Spielman’s trust that Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner can draw the best out of young players.
That applies especially to Bridgewater, the linch pin to this whole plan. If he fails as a long-term answer, Spielman will be 0-for-2 on picking quarterbacks and probably won’t get a third try.
Spielman has the right blueprint and his young core makes the future look promising. But he knows everything hinges on that million dollar question.
“A franchise quarterback can hide a lot of warts and it can extend your window,” he said. “If you’re getting younger in other areas, if you have that franchise quarterback, he can bridge that gap while those guys learn and still win ballgames.”