Leslie Frazier tried to hold off talk of rebuilding in 2011, but eventually reality set in for the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach in his first full season in charge: After the team finished 3-13, there was no doubt a rebuilding project is under way.
The Vikings’ brass wants the team to get younger and build for a long-term future instead of continuing with the “all-in” ways that dominated the 2009 and 2010 seasons with Brett Favre as the captain of a make-or-break aging ship.
In truth, however, there were signs of rebuilding as early as March 2011, even if Frazier was holding onto the hope that his team could remain playoff competitive for another season.
With a hurry-up-and-wait process terrorizing NFL front offices during the pre-lockout and lockout stages of last offseason, the Vikings were faced with some difficult decisions when it came to free agency. Knowing their salary-cap situation would call for salary trimming and unsure how much of the signing game they could control, they had key choices to make with their own free agents: Should they re-sign rising defensive end Ray Edwards and receiver Sidney Rice or simply let them go? As it turned out, they were right on both counts, even if one of the decisions was, essentially, forced upon them.
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On March 3, shortly before the lockout began, the Vikings signed defensive end Brian Robison to a three-year, $14.1 million contract that included $6.5 million in guarantees. Despite placing a first-round tender on Edwards in case he was going to be a restricted free agent (the team figured that wouldn’t happen under the new terms of the CBA but covered its bases), the Vikings knew they wanted Robison. When the lockout ended almost five months later, the team made no attempt to re-sign Edwards, figuring he would be too expensive and remaining confident that Robison could fill Edwards’ shoes.
As it turned out, Robison produced more than Edwards, who signed a five-year, $30 million deal ($11 million guaranteed) with the Atlanta Falcons. In Minnesota, Edwards had 16.5 sacks and 71 tackles over the previous two seasons with the Vikings. But despite starting every game for the playoff-bound Falcons, Edwards had only 3.5 sacks and 24 tackles in 2011.
Meanwhile, Robison, Edwards’ backup the previous four seasons, essentially doubled Edwards’ numbers in Atlanta. Robison had 54 tackles and eight sacks, as well as 40 quarterback hurries, only five fewer than NFL sacks leader Jared Allen. Robison and others knew he could rush the passer – he had set a goal of double-digit sacks – but others questioned whether he would be able to hold up against the running game as a full-time player.
But, to know Robison is to know that he is motivated by doubters.
“Definitely been a motivation. I’m still getting it. It’s never good enough,” he said at the end of the season. “Sometimes I still see people saying, ‘He’s not holding up against the run. He’s not pass-rushing like we thought.’ It’s bullcrap. You can’t use it in a negative way. All you can do is used it as motivation and keep going at it and keep fighting.”
The Vikings’ approach to Rice was much different. Despite the perception he was angling for a new contract during the 2010 offseason when he delayed hip surgery, the Vikings still wanted him back in 2011. There were conflicting accounts from Frazier and Rice’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, about how far along contract talks got before the lockout, but it was clear the Vikings were pursuing him.
When the lockout finally did lift, they continued tracking the 2009 Pro Bowl selection. But eventually Minnesota’s decision-makers capitulated to the Seahawks’ heavily guaranteed contract offer to Rice. When the asking price reached $18.5 million in guarantees for a player who had missed significant playing time in three of his first four seasons due to injury, the Vikings bowed out.
The question surrounding Rice has never been about productivity, rather about durability. When healthy for a full season in 2009, Rice was a deserving Pro Bowl player who produced 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns on 83 receptions. But his delayed hip surgery in 2010 cost him the first 10 games and he never was the same, catching 17 passes and two touchdowns in the final six games. The Seahawks rolled the dice on the injury-prone receiver and got bit, at least in the initial season of his five-year, $41 million deal.
Rice played in only nine games, catching 32 passes for 484 yards. Worse yet, according to the Tacoma News-Tribune, is that Rice’s $7 million base salary for 2012 is fully guaranteed … and he just had surgery, reportedly on both of his shoulders. With $23.5 million of his deal tied up in the first three years of his contract, the Seahawks didn’t get much return in the first year. After shoulder, knee and foot injuries – as well as suffering two concussions in a three-week span – it appears the Vikings were right to pass on shelling out a big guarantee for Rice. He had dealt with ankle, knee and hip injuries and Minnesota, and, despite the front office being disappointed it didn’t land him last July, the early judgment gives the win to the Vikings.
In Edwards’ case, the Vikings made a decisive move before the lockout and free agency and were proved right by Robison’s strong season. In Rice’s case, despite the Vikings not adequately filling the receiver’s big 2009 production, his continued history of injuries is making them look wise for not wanting to commit as much guaranteed money as Seahawks.
With free agency now five weeks away, if Minnesota’s management team can continue to keep making all the right moves in free agency and the draft, its rebuilding process could have the framework of a solid structure sooner than anticipated.