EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Rick Spielman joined the Minnesota Vikings in London for the biggest showcase game of the season this week, featuring a roster Spielman has put together over the past 21 months as the team’s general manager.
When Minnesota agreed to the game, Spielman didn’t know he’d be joining an 0-3 team.
The Vikings, with shrewd moves by Spielman last year in releasing several aging veterans and hitting on a successful draft, surprised many in the league with a 10-6 record last year — a seven-win improvement from the previous season — and a playoff appearance.
No one likely expected a matchup of winless teams in London this week for the NFL’s International Series. Minnesota is serving as the home team against the 0-3 Pittsburgh Steelers. The Vikings arrived in England on Monday, with Pittsburgh traveling Thursday.
Spielman has presided over a roster that has suffered breakdowns in every phase and has lost its last two games in the final minute with late defensive collapses.
“It’s a sense of urgency,” Spielman said of the team’s need to turn its season around. “We have to get them corrected and hopefully we’ll be able to do that this week. But that’s the most frustrating thing. It’s not like you’re going out and getting beat 30-0 or 40-0. It comes down each week to two or three plays and that’s like for most of the NFL games.”
Minnesota is seventh in the league in scoring, averaging 27.0 points per game. Yet, the defense has allowed 32.0 points per game, which ranks 30th. In terms of yards, the Vikings have the 19th-ranked offense and are 29th in team defense.
Somehow, Minnesota has lost the last two games despite tallying four takeaways in each game. The Vikings are tied for second in the league with 10 takeaways, but have suffered 10 turnovers of their own, which is second in the league.
“When you go back and you look at the tape and you’re evaluating, it seemed the way we’ve lost the games and it’s a combination of offense, of defense, of special teams,” Spielman said Wednesday, speaking to reporters at the team’s hotel just outside of London. “But to lose them in the style that we lost them, at the end of the games, that’s the thing that can really be frustrating. And a lot of those things, as coach (Leslie) Frazier has stated, can get corrected. And I think we have the right players to get those situations corrected.”
Minnesota entered the season believing it had a roster ready to prove last year’s playoff appearance was no aberration. The Vikings let veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield go in a salary-cap move, but added three first-round picks in defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
Percy Harvin was traded to Seattle, but Minnesota signed Greg Jennings from the rival Green Bay Packers. A veteran backup quarterback was added in Matt Cassel as Joe Webb, last year’s backup, was moved to receiver.
The criticism, fair or unfair, naturally falls on quarterback Christian Ponder though. Spielman’s pick as the team’s franchise quarterback with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Ponder’s up-and-down career has continued this season.
Ponder ranks 30th in the NFL in quarterback rating at 65.9 and his 59 percent completion rate is 22nd in the league. He’s thrown for 691 yards, two touchdowns, five interceptions and has lost two fumbles. Being seventh in the league in scoring shows the issues run deeper than Ponder, but this is a pivotal third season for him.
Spielman has said he will evaluate Ponder at the end of this season, saying he waits until after the third year to get a proper evaluation of players. Spielman avoided offering an in-season assessment of his quarterback Wednesday.
“I don’t want to get into evaluating personnel at this point,” Spielman said when asked about Ponder. “I always kind of sit back and take a grand picture of it and evaluate and assess at the end of the year. I know our coaches, and I write up reports of all of our players every week. But I’m not going to sit here and comment directly on a player, ‘he’s doing this or he’s doing that’ right now. I will do that at the end of the season when we make our final assessments.”
Spielman said his moves, in particular the three first-round selections — which included giving up four picks for the opportunity to pick Patterson — hasn’t added any extra pressure. But the urgency is clear in Spielman’s words too.
“There’s always pressure, whether you’re 3-0 or 0-3,” Spielman said. “That’s part of the business and no one wants to be 0-3. Everybody would love to be 3-0, but that’s not the realistic part of our game. I know our coaches are working extremely hard. Our players are working extremely hard to get corrected, just a couple of those things that can turn our season around and it has to start this weekend.”