All-in approach sinks Vikes, Childress

BY Alex Marvez • November 22, 2010

With a quarterback renowned as an NFL-style riverboat gambler, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf heavily bet that Brett Favre could lead the franchise to Super Bowl XLV.

And now, both are losers.

Wilf didn’t learn from the prior mistakes of other owners who green-lighted an “all-in” approach hoping that short-term expenditures and personnel moves would capture a Lombardi Trophy. The Vikings (3-7) are essentially out of the playoff race after Sunday’s embarrassing 31-3 home loss to archrival Green Bay. Head coach Brad Childress was fired Monday with millions remaining on his contract. Favre could be out the door next depending on whether he’s benched in favor of Tarvaris Jackson or simply decides to bow out through retirement or being willingly placed on injured reserve.

Minnesota’s future doesn’t look much brighter. Eighteen players are set to become unrestricted free agents in the 2011 offseason. Running back Adrian Peterson will likely be seeking a pay raise after having outplayed his rookie contract. There is no sure thing at quarterback.

This is the price one pays for short-sighted thinking.

We’ve seen this folly before in the NFL’s free-agency era. The 1995 Miami Dolphins made a massive financial push to get head coach Don Shula back to the Super Bowl before his retirement. Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga learned the hard way that a title can’t be bought. Shula was unceremoniously forced out after a 9-7 season and first-round playoff loss. Replacement Jimmy Johnson then had to waste the first two years of his tenure ditching overpaid underachievers, adding youth to the roster and correcting Miami’s salary-cap woes.

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder went even more gonzo with his spending in 2000. Under the misguided belief that an NFL franchise can be run like a fantasy-football team, Snyder added such future Hall of Fame players as cornerback Deion Sanders and defensive end Bruce Smith. The payroll escalated to $93 million — a staggering sum at the time in a league with a salary cap of $67 million.

Although Washington was coming off a playoff campaign, the 2000 Redskins finished 8-8. Like Childress, head coach Norv Turner was fired before the season ended. Replacement Marty Schottenheimer was forced to gut the roster the following season because of all the cash pushed into future years of the cap. Schottenheimer, too, was canned after another 8-8 campaign in 2001.

Teams also can get fooled by the belief that they are “one player away” from winning it all. Under the misguided belief that a better pass rush was the key to a championship run, the 2008 Jacksonville Jaguars traded away a slew of draft picks to select Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves. Harvey has only seven sacks in two-plus seasons and is now a reserve. Groves was equally unimpressive and traded to Oakland in the offseason. These decisions helped cost general manager James “Shack” Harris his job, usurped head coach Jack Del Rio of personnel power and set the franchise back so far that Jacksonville missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Del Rio recently told the Florida Times-Union that the wise move would have been using the draft picks on replacements for an aging defense.

“We probably had underrated the number of players we had that were getting up in years, that weren't going to continue playing for a long time,” Del Rio said. “That’s absolutely something we have to admit looking back, that to package that many picks and try and move thinking you’re that close, that’s really not the sound way to do things.”

The Vikings have made a combination of these errors in a league where success can be fleeting from one year to the next.

Concerned that Favre would follow through on his preseason threat to retire, Wilf authorized increasing his base salary from $13 million to $16 million for 2010. That $3 million could have gone toward signing a pending free agent to a new contract like outside linebacker Chad Greenway, wide receiver Sidney Rice or defensive end Ray Edwards. The Favre restructuring also pushed Minnesota’s payroll to roughly $143 million, which is a particularly high figure for a team that ranks in the NFL basement in stadium-generated revenue.

Wilf later directly encouraged his front office to pursue a trade for wide receiver Randy Moss, who had fallen out of grace with New England. Minnesota acquired him for a 2011 third-round pick — only to have Childress tell Vikings players he was waiving Moss less than a month later without first receiving approval from Wilf.

Minnesota does benefit from having a strong personnel department that has enjoyed consistent draft success. But there are massive holes that will need filling in 2011. Fortifying the roster with younger players will take time, especially if Wilf decides to curtail his spending during the rebuilding process.

On paper entering the season, Minnesota didn’t look much different from the roster that was edged by New Orleans in overtime of last season’s NFC Championship game. But for a variety of reasons – notably the 41-year-old Favre’s sharp decline, unexpected defensive struggles and widespread locker-room animosity toward Childress – the 2010 Vikings have never shown earmarks of being a championship contender.

In the end, it was money for nothing.

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