Start of camp is next step in rebuilding

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2012 - 12:03 AM

Vikings GM Rick Spielman has put together a gifted but young team that he readily acknowledges will require time to figure everything out.


Second-year Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has shown he is eager to take ownership of the offense.

Photo: Genevieve Ross, Associated Press - Ap

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It was more a quick exhale than a deep breath. Still, time away is time away.

So after minicamp ended last month and with the preseason closing in, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman made certain to squeeze in a brief getaway, traveling to his sister-in-law's lake house near Michigan City, Ind.

For five days, Spielman relaxed on the beach and also hit the golf course several times where, as usual, progress and frustration collided.

"You know, it's funny," Spielman said. "I stink every year until the week before training camp. And then it clicks. It's crazy. You think, 'Man, it took me this long to get into some kind of rhythm. And now it's time to pack the clubs up until next June.' "

Spielman hopes his GM efforts won't experience any similar disruption, where continuity and positive momentum prove difficult to sustain. As training camp opens this week, Spielman is convinced the Vikings have made significant progress in the past six months and he's heartened by the positive vibes pumping through the organization.

"With our players, that energy and the sense of urgency is something you can feel," he said. "To me, that's important."

Since being promoted to GM in January, Spielman has carefully devised the blueprint for the Vikings' massive rebuilding effort. From the outset, he made clear the top priority was to make the roster younger. But in concert with coach Leslie Frazier, Spielman also vowed to stock the locker room with a specific brand of player -- guys who are talented and intelligent, who care deeply about improving and who will invest in a long-term climb up the treacherous NFL mountain.

"The biggest thing is finding guys passionate about being successful at what they're doing," Spielman said. "I think that's the theme, what we really honed in on with the type of players we wanted to bring in and build with going forward. ... We want to see guys buying into what the coaching staff is preaching on the field. We want to see a sense of urgency. And so far we have seen that."

But along with such positivity comes a call for patience, an understanding that potential takes time to be realized.

"If you're going to have young players playing, you have to understand that they're going to have to grow and they're going to have to learn," Spielman said. "And there's going to be adversity, hiccups here and there."

Making strides

That's what will make the next 5 1/2 months so peculiar.

It will be hard to generate overwhelming giddiness for a team that even the most hopeful fans understand won't likely supply a winning season. There will be no victory parades through Nicollet Mall for a 7-9 or 6-10 march. Yet still, those records would indicate marked improvement. So the current in-house sales pitch encourages both optimism and realism.

And through the offseason, Frazier felt plenty of the former.

"We feel like we're just so far ahead because of some of the things that have happened in practice, the way the guys have competed and the competition that we have created on our roster," he said. "We just feel like we're going into this thing with the right attitude and the right approach."

Spielman has little difficulty going up and down the roster, citing evidence to prove these Vikings are on an upward arc.

There's the dedication and enthusiasm second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has shown throughout the offseason, eager to take ownership of the offense.

There's the leadership skills and savvy of rookie safety Harrison Smith, one of two first-round draft picks expected to start right away.

There's Matt Kalil's strength and agility, Jerome Simpson's field-stretching speed and Chris Cook's rapid growth at cornerback.

And then there's the overall depth -- "very much improved" in Spielman's eyes -- which should significantly heighten the daily battles in Mankato.

So where is all this positive energy, atypical for a team that finished last season at 3-13, coming from? Maybe it's the predictable, yet often hollow, hope that the preseason brings through every NFL city. Maybe legitimate strides have indeed been made. And maybe there's a bit of youthful exuberance kicking in, too.

"We have a young team but we have a hungry team," said linebacker/defensive lineman Everson Griffen. "And you have to use that hunger to stay focused. You can't always worry about the next opponent. First, worry about the team. Once we get us right, battling that next opponent is going to come easy."

Slow and steady

These Vikings, Spielman contends, have been built for those who enjoy watching progress in increments and not for those expecting immediate success. So for now, that means embracing the 44 days that separate the opening of camp from the season's first game as an opportunity to monitor progress, to define starters and back-ups and players who fit with the long-term vision.

"It was great for us to have an offseason, especially with the youth movement we made," Spielman said. "At training camp, we have to look at things day by day. How do things look that first day of camp? But also, where are we going to be in Week 1? Where are we going to be in Week 8? Where can we be at the end of the season? We have so many new faces. But that's the exciting part -- to see how quickly this comes along."

Realistically, the Vikings could storm into their Sept. 9 season opener against Jacksonville with nine or 10 starters 25 years old or younger.

In all likelihood, the average age of the defensive starters on opening day will be around 27.5 with the average age of the offensive starters an even more green 25.3.

The youthful energy will be obvious. The youthful blunders will be, too.

A team that lost 13 games a year ago is far from turning the corner.

So now what? Next stop: Mankato.

"For me, you take excitement in the process," Spielman said. "You look at the small steps and how things continue to build. And you have to acknowledge progress and show guys not only where they are but where they're headed and where they've come from. ... You may not see all this from the outside. But internally you can see all this starting to come together. And that's exciting."

Spielman paused for a second and smiled.

"With the understanding that it takes time."


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