Vikings' Spielman must stay the course
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Listen to the Minnesota Vikings and they will tell you they always had designs on making the playoffs and outperforming outside expectations based on their 3-13 record in 2011.
They can boldly claim they foresaw a turnaround that ended with a 10-6 regular-season record, a second-place finish in the strong NFC North and an unlikely playoff appearance.
But Minnesota's roster moves suggested otherwise.
Granted full control over personnel, general manager Rick Spielman culled the team's roster last offseason, parting ways with overpriced or underperforming veterans and replacing them with younger, cheaper players. More than a third of the roster turned over in less than one year. The Vikings entered the season with the seventh-youngest team in the NFL at an average of 25.72 years old. Minnesota had 12 rookie or first-year players on its opening day roster, tied for the seventh-most in the league.
Spielman, promoted to general manager in January 2012, had his plan and was sticking to it.
Focused on sustaining success, Spielman believes in a roster built through successful drafts and in augmenting the core of a young roster with only a selected few free agents. Now, after a seven-win improvement in which the Vikings surprised — at least externally — everyone, it isn't time for Spielman to sway from his philosophy.
"When I took the job last year, my objective was that we're going to build this through the draft," Spielman said Thursday. "And we're going to continue that same philosophy. And it's even more exciting this year because of the success I think we've had over the past two drafts."
Minnesota raised expectations this season — both inside and outside the organization — but Spielman has to guard against trying to accelerate the growth process, a process Spielman has mentioned several times since he was named general manager.
Even while meeting reporters for his season-ending press conference Thursday, Spielman noted a "sense of urgency" because of the quicker-than-expected playoff appearance.
"It's still not where you want to be," Spielman said. "It makes you -- heading into this offseason and when we go through our process on how we get this team better -- it even gives you a bigger sense of urgency because you got to the playoffs. But that defeat up in Green Bay, regardless of how it happened, still leaves a real bitter taste in your mouth. I know talking with our coaches and with our personnel, scouts and everybody, how excited everybody is to get ready to go through this offseason process and hopefully make the same strides that we were able to make last year."
Losing at Green Bay in the playoffs provided an interesting comparison. The Packers, with general manager Ted Thompson, have been the model organization for what Spielman is trying to build in Minnesota. Thompson has ensured long-term success in Green Bay by doing just what Spielman is trying to do — using the draft to build a team without the temptation to seek answers in free agency.
The Packers were expected to be in the playoffs because of the groundwork laid by Thompson. The Vikings were there earlier than expected, in part because of Spielman's drafts. After making it to the playoffs, Spielman must stick to his philosophy and not get caught up in trying to accelerate his initial timeline.
Minnesota has come away from the past two drafts with 18 players still on the roster. Spielman and his staff have seen tremendous return in the draft the past two years, and that's a big reason the team made the playoffs. The 2012 draft alone provided rookie starters left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith, Pro Bowl kicker Blair Walsh and other key ingredients to this season's success in cornerback Josh Robinson, receiver Jarius Wright and blocking tight end Rhett Ellison. Last year, starting quarterback Christian Ponder and tight end Kyle Rudolph were the first two picks of nine still on the roster.
Spielman cautions against grading this year's draft class and sticking with a three-year rule "so none of them are flash in the pans." But his philosophy is working. Now he must stick with it while also managing higher expectations and the fascination with a quick fix.
"I also know our expectations are to be better than we were last year," Spielman said. "And I'm going to put pressure on myself and I'm going to put pressure on my staff that we need to do better, too, as a group."
Just as long as it doesn't change the ideas he presented a year ago.
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