The question facing the Minnesota Vikings is not so much whether they botched their latest series of trades, but whether the general manager who made them is the right general manager to operate in their wake.
Rick Spielman traded Stefon Diggs because he thought he had no choice, and wound up with a slew of draft choices and an outstanding rookie replacement in Justin Jefferson. That was astute.
Spielman traded a second-round pick and a fifth-rounder to Jacksonville for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue in August, and Ngakoue provided underwhelming results as the team started 1-5. He misjudged his team.
On Thursday, Spielman traded Ngakoue to Baltimore for third and fifth-rounders. What the Vikings lost in the two deals: Instead of a high pick in the second round, they will pick at the end of the third round, and they spent money on Ngakoue they will never get back. This was wasteful.
Both deals typify Spielman’s tenure. He is willing to roll the dice on exceptional athletes, he is unafraid to make aggressive moves to win now, and he doesn’t always accurately judge personalities and systemic fits.
The question is not whether Spielman should have dealt for Ngakoue, or dealt him away. The question is whether he, at 57, and coach Mike Zimmer, at 64, are the right decisionmakers to manage what suddenly looks like a rebuilding project.
The Vikings are 1-5 on merit. They have won two playoff games since 2009. They are nearly three years past the peak of the Spielman/Zimmer era, when they lost by 31 points in the NFC title game.
Spielman and Zimmer have obvious strengths. Spielman has an eye for athletic ability. Zimmer remains a knowledgeable defensive coach.
Both are also responsible for the decisions that have destroyed this season.
They wrongly placed their faith, and much of their discretionary spending, on quarterback Kirk Cousins, who leads the league in interceptions. They judged Cousins’ arm talent accurately, but wrongly viewed him as a leader.
They wrongly signed linebacker Anthony Barr, whose salary has kept them from investing more in their offensive line or perhaps a veteran cornerback.
They have failed to develop a strong offensive line, even though the position has been problematic since about 2012.
They have built their entire philosophy around, and invested heavily in, running back Dalvin Cook, an exceptional player who has been able to start just 33 of the Vikings’ 54 games since they drafted him because of various injuries.
Spielman and Zimmer have done a lot of good work, but they have made it to one conference championship game together, and with many of their best players in their prime, they lost 38-7 in Philadelphia.
If that was Spielman and Zimmer at their best, is rebuilding with them at the helm worth the time and effort?
On Thursday, Spielman talked about his team making progress during the past three weeks. That’s a sentimental view.
Six games into the season, the Vikings have been outscored by 37 points. The Bengals, Texans, Eagles and Falcons have been outscored by fewer points. The Vikings have earned their record.
To quote Zimmer’s mentor, Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Spielman said: “When you have probably one of the top running backs in the league, I don’t know if you’d call that a rebuild or not.”
That sounds like something Mike Lynn might have said in 1991.
That is not something Spielman should be saying after watching his team flop for six weeks, on the day that news broke that star defensive end Danielle Hunter will have season-ending surgery.
Is Zimmer still lying and calling Hunter’s injury a “tweak?”
Back to the big picture.
There are 15 NFL teams with winning records. Two rely on star running backs: Tennessee and New Orleans. But the Titans and Saints also have star-caliber quarterbacks.
The Titans began winning when Ryan Tannehill took over as their starter last year. Drew Brees is the most prolific passer in NFL history.
Spielman is stuck justifying giving a running back a large contract in a league where that has proved to be a fatal mistake.
For all of his quality moves over the years, his financial commitment to a mediocre quarterback and an injury-prone running back might be his undoing.