'Nothing' is off the table as Vikings rebuild, GM Rick Spielman says
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Following a 3-13 season that matched the worst in franchise history, the Minnesota Vikings are entering a critical offseason.
Rick Spielman has been promoted to general manager, with full control over football operations. Discussions about changes to Leslie Frazier's coaching staff are underway, too.
When it comes to the roster, is anything off the table?
"Nothing," Spielman said on Sunday.
He quickly added, "Adrian Peterson's off the table, if that's what you're asking."
But besides an All-Pro halfback who is recovering from a major knee injury, four months after receiving a contract that included $36 million in guarantees, Spielman said he has an open mind as the Vikings prepare for a series of big-picture personnel meetings this week.
"When you're coming off a 3-13 season," Spielman said, "you better have your vision wide open and look at everything that could potentially happen or what you could potentially do."
In a roughly 20-minute interview with Tom Pelissero and Jim Souhan on "Sunday Morning SportsTalk," Spielman also addressed potential staff and scheme changes, quarterback Christian Ponder's progress, possibilities with the No. 3 pick in April's NFL Draft and the plan he has put together for ownership about how the Vikings can return to contention.
The following is an edited transcript:
Years ago, another NFL personnel guy who became a general manager told me, 'It's pretty cool to put all the chess pieces where you want them.' Did you have some of that when you woke up this week?
Yeah. I'm very excited about the opportunity our ownership gave us, to give me the opportunity to get the players in here. I think we need to win. I'll work very closely with our coaching staff and with our scouts, but have a vision and I have a pretty good vision where we need to get next year and be very aggressive in going out and getting those pieces to help us win ballgames.
Offseason evaluations are ongoing. You're also getting ready for the Senior Bowl and entering a pretty important period of due diligence with the underclassmen right?
Yeah, we're in the process of all that. We've got a lot of balls in the air right now. But that's what makes the job fun. This is the exciting time of year for us, and getting the opportunity to coach (the North team) and be around those players at the Senior Bowl -- we need to take advantage of that opportunity, because we're going to have the insight of those kids as they're in meetings. Our coaches get a chance to work with them one-on-one out in practice. So, it gives you a pretty good advantage to those kids that are going to come out in the draft. Also, next week we'll be in our personnel meetings and evaluating where we need to go. Then, you're getting ready for your normal draft prep with the juniors coming out here pretty soon, so we can start their evaluations as well.
So, what truly changes with you in this role?
Right now, I've been working closely with Leslie. Leslie will have the ultimate authority on who's going to be on his coaching staff. But everything else, I'll have the authority to -- as we put this roster together, as we go into free agency, as we make trades, as we draft -- I'll have the final say on all of those other football matters. But working pretty close with Leslie right now on the coaching side of it.
Do you view this as a total makeover, a total rebuilding job, or do you feel you can fix a couple holes and be competitive?
Well, I think there's more than a few holes that we'll have to look at, and that'll be determined as we go through, because there are some very good young pieces in place. I know there are some young guys from this last year's draft that we're very excited about, but they're going to have to step it up. What you see a lot of times is guys are going to come in from their rookie year into their second year and how much they improve. You've seen that a little bit in the Toby Gerharts of the world, and we're expecting that from this last class going into next year, because a lot of those guys are going to have to play for us. And we're going to have to do a great job when we have this draft class, because right now I'm anticipating we'll have another 10 draft picks and maybe more by the time the draft is over. All those rookies coming in are going to have to contribute in some way, shape or form.
You interviewed Raheem Morris on Friday. Steve Spagnuolo, Mel Tucker and Mike Singletary reportedly have interviews lined up next. What's your timeline for going through the process of determining the direction of the defense?
My role in that area is to support Leslie, to do a lot of legwork and background check. I do a lot of my opinion on some of the coaches that we may potentially interview. But I'll let Leslie handle the names and things like that. But my role is basically, I've done a lot of research and study on potential candidates, where they ranked offensively, defensively, watching them on film, what kind of personnel they had, did they get the most out of their personnel. I put them in four buckets and try to get information in four different areas. It's similar to, I think, when you're doing that is what you do with players, is you try to gather the information, you try to gather all the different areas that you need to gather information to make those decisions.
Raheem has a Tampa-2 background but ran a bunch of stuff last year. Spagnuolo is more known for a blitz-heavy, 4-3 attack. Tucker has experience in multiple schemes, both 4-3 and 3-4. It seems you're exploring several different courses.
Yeah, and I think Coach Frazier's got to look at what we did defensively, got to look at not only from -- I know we had some personnel issues on the back end, especially when we lost a lot of players, but from a schematic standpoint, are there things that we can improve on from a schematic standpoint?
It's always more important to get the coordinator than pick a scheme, isn't it? Because I'd think at this level, you'd need someone who knows that defense inside and out, believes in it and can make players believe in it, too.
Right, and all different kinds of schemes work -- 4-3, 3-4, blitz-happy teams, teams that play a little bit more conservative. I think the coach has to be able to say, 'This is a scheme that I truly believe in. This is a scheme I think we can win with.' We have to do a good job of matching up personnel with that scheme, and then hopefully, that'll give us an opportunity to be successful.
Is Singletary a legitimate candidate to coordinate the defense, given he has zero experience doing that?
Again, that's a question for Coach Frazier.
You drafted Christian Ponder. Give me your final, end of the season assessment of his rookie year.
I think when you're going back and you look at it, and I've graded him every game and you see the ups and downs like you have with every rookie, even when you talked about the Cam Newtons of the world, who ended up having a good rookie year, you saw two rookies (Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates) play (Saturday) in the playoffs and you see a lot of the same struggles in all rookies. I went back and before we inserted Christian Ponder into that starting role, I looked at all the rookies since 1992 that came in and took over at some points during the season, and it's amazing -- the number of games won, the number of stats from quarterback rating to touchdowns to interceptions to (completion percentage) are almost identical.
I think where the difference is is when we did our prep last year, before we took Christian Ponder, the quarterbacks that were very high in the IQ, very high in the mental quickness scores and all the other things, and we compared all the successful quarterbacks that currently are playing right now, when they came out in the draft, where they graded in those areas as long as their physical skill set, and we felt very strongly that Christian Ponder matched up with that type of thing. Now, that'll be determined here. But what you want to see is -- you look at Matthew Stafford and look at his stats, what he did his rookie year, and he started the whole year, and where he was his rookie year to where he is now. I think those are the things that you have to do to try to get a feel for where you think your young quarterback is going to be, by doing your due diligence, by looking back at history, by looking back at statistical analysis and trying to predict where these guys are going to end up.
It looked to me that when he started having trouble, he was very willing to leave the pocket, to move off his spot. As an outside observer, it looked to me like he got very skittish, and that worried me. Does it worry you?
I think it's the more comfortable they get in those situations. We played against Drew Brees his rookie year when he was out in San Diego, and I saw even the struggles that he went through. What you see with these young quarterbacks, when they first come in, they don't know any better, so they just go out there and play. Then, all of a sudden, you see them starting to get whacked around in the pocket a little bit, and all of a sudden, they start looking at the rush and getting a little bit more concerned with that than keeping their eyes down the field. The other thing, when they start making some mistakes about throwing interceptions or turning the ball over, then they kind of come back a little bit and start worrying about not turning the ball over instead of playing loose. But I think all of that is the maturation process of these young quarterbacks.
Looking ahead to the draft, a philosophical question: you have a young quarterback. Does the young quarterback benefit more from better pass protection or having a big-time receiver?
Well, those will be some pretty interesting debates. I think that depends on the depth of the draft as well. Everybody's talking to us about a receiver or an offensive lineman (at No. 3 overall) -- I think those are the two areas that we're going to have to look at potentially offensively, and defensively, there may be a player or two on the defensive side of the ball that we look at. But those are, OK, if you have an offensive lineman and the next highest-rated offensive lineman you have is not until the second round, you better say, 'Do you take that offensive lineman now because he's that significant?' Do you look at a receiver, for example like you're saying, that receiver is pretty unique, but can you get more depth at receiver through the draft? Are there going to be other players that you think can help your ballclub? Those are the debates that we'll have. We'll have to see how all this shakes out, once the juniors officially all enter the draft and see where the depth is at each position.
However you do it, I would think balancing the perimeter speed has to be the priority.
Yeah, again, you want to have speed, and what you're seeing now in the NFL and even in our division, there's speed on the outside. But the other thing, you better have some corners and you better have some defensive backs to match up with the speed you're seeing at the receivers, too. This is a fast game, and you're seeing how successful some of these quarterbacks were and the numbers that these offenses are putting up -- I think New Orleans, did they throw up 600 (yards) again (Saturday)?
(Laughs) It's almost like college. When I go out and watch college games, sometimes it becomes like you're watching a basketball game the way they go up and down the field, and you see that in some of these bowl games. I think the evolution of the pro game is starting to reflect that a little bit -- because of the success of the offenses and because of the speed, so you better be ready to match up with that.
When Bill Musgrave was hired, it was explained the offense would be similar to Atlanta's -- it would run through a top running back. But if you look at the numbers, the Falcons have thrown the ball better this season. How do you evaluate, in terms of what your team needs to do to be playing in January, being able to do both sides of that?
I'd ask you guys this, and I don't know this for a fact, but when Bill was there and their offensive philosophy then was they had a rookie quarterback as well. I don't know, from the philosophy standpoint, they had a great running back in Michael Turner, put the ball in his hands and take some of the pressure off that rookie quarterback, and as Matt Ryan has evolved, maybe that becomes more of an evolution in their offense. That would be something maybe I'd look at.
Can you give us a window into what Zygi Wilf is like to work for and work with, how much he's around and how much you talk football with him?
Since this job, I've talked to him and Mark (Wilf) every day. (Laughs.)
And how's that go?
Both Mark and Zygi are very, very passionate owners. They want to win extremely bad. They want to do the right thing. They're always looking to how we can get better. 'What do you think of this? What do you think of that?' I wrote up a 30-page book on evaluating on where we're at as an organization on the football side and where I think we need to go and how we're going to get there. Not that you see them guys a lot, but from behind the scenes, they are as passionate of owners as I've ever been around.
We've seen them make impulsive moves before. We've also seen them show patience with some people. Where do you rate them on that scale? Are they capable of being patient through a long rebuilding process if that's what it takes?
I think they've grown and they've really learned the business from when I first got here and where we're at right now and I think they've really educated themselves and they work very hard at educating themselves on becoming very good owners, and they're excellent owners and they want to make sure they're doing everything they can from whatever way they can to get us a championship here.
How much of your job is managing expectations and making sure everyone understands what needs to happen for your team to get back to contention?
That's part of the process. As you put your game plan together, you have to explain what you anticipate, and that's why I love to go back. I'm a real big historian guy, I'm a real big statistical guy. We use a lot of that when we're evaluating players, but it's always going to come down to what you see on tape. So, we try to look at a lot of things from an objective standpoint. One thing I wanted to do is, make sure, even when Christian took over, what were the expectations of Christian Ponder? What is the normal history of rookie quarterbacks when they come in? Like Eli Manning, I think, went 0-7, I think, as a starter when he took over for Kurt Warner. He had one game where he had a zero quarterback rating. Look where he's at as a rookie. Look where he's at now. Even when we played (in 2007), I think he threw four interceptions against us, and then, for whatever reason, all of a sudden something clicked in him and they want on to win a Super Bowl that year. So, there is a point when these quarterbacks hit it.
It was Drew Brees as he went through his rookie year, his second year, and then they had some doubts on him there and they drafted Philip Rivers, as you remember. Then Drew Brees was a starter and had a Pro Bowl year and ended up in New Orleans, and now he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league. You look at Aaron Rodgers, where he sat for three years behind a Hall of Fame quarterback (Brett Favre) to learn and even his rookie year coming in (2008), I think they were 6-10 his first year, even though he had some pretty good stats. But you've got to be patient. You've got to know how long it takes or kind of anticipate how long it's going to take as this maturation process occurs.
Within the context of the lockout, taking over at midseason and really getting no reps before he took over because you guys were trying to get Donovan McNabb ready, what, if anything, have you seen to update the evaluation of Ponder you had coming out of college?
You knew everything you saw in college, but the one thing that really stuck out this year was the ability to move and what an athlete he is and how many times he made plays on his feet when he just was running, because you didn't see him do it as much in college. You knew he had some athletic skills. But when you have a quarterback -- and nowadays you have to have a quarterback that can not only throw and go through the progressions and do everything the successful quarterback has to do, but he also has to be able move and create and make plays on his feet, and that's something that you saw that Aaron Rodgers is doing right now, too.
When (Rodgers) first took over, he wasn't as patient in the pocket, but he did a great job creating and making things happen outside the pocket. He's becoming more and more patient the more familiar he gets with that offense, and now he has full command of the offense up in Green Bay, that he's patient, he knows where to go with the ball, the ball comes out of his hands quickly. But when you seen him that first year starting, sometimes, he started at the rush a little, especially when he got whacked around some. But he did some great things when he got outside the pocket. I think you've seen some of those flashes in some of the throws that Christian made on the move this year. You just kind of go, 'Wow, this kid has a chance to be pretty unique.'
Cam Newton had a spectacular season. Aaron Rodgers is an excellent athlete. Drew Brees moves very well. Has the game changed or have the players changed and made people's perceptions change because of that?
I think it goes back to what you're seeing in college and the speed of the game and the speed of these defensive linemen that are rushing and the athleticism that you're seeing now of these great athletes coming out of college. That's kind of the evolution of where the game is going.
You have a vision. I'm sure there are a number of players you consider at the center of that vision. But coming off a 3-13 season and you need to make significant adjustments to the roster, is anything off the table?
Nothing. Uh, Adrian Peterson's off the table if that's what you're asking.
I think he's still on the operating table right now.
(Laughs) No, when you're coming off a 3-13 season, you better have your vision wide open and look at everything that could potentially happen or what you could potentially do.
Do you have somebody you view as a mentor?
I've worked for a lot of very good guys. I came out of Detroit, when we were having success there with Kevin Colbert, who's the GM now in Pittsburgh, worked for him. Ron Hughes, who's their college director. Then, I had an opportunity to advance to Chicago and worked a little bit for Mark Hatley, where I learned a little bit more about the pro side and a little bit about trying to go up and look at guys in Canada and looking at other areas just beside the draft. Mark passed away a couple years ago. Kind of came up through those two trees. But it's amazing -- like a (Atlanta GM) Tommy Dimitroff, who when I was a BLESTO scout came in and took my spot in Detroit as a BLESTO scout. So, we got to be very close and worked very close together. So, as I learned things, and even when I worked for Nick Saban down in Miami and he came from the (Bill) Belichick tree and how they do things, we really kind of incorporated a lot of that stuff into what we're doing now as well.
Even if Leslie has control over the coaching staff -- and I certainly understand foisting an assistant coach on your head coach probably is going to be counterproductive -- ultimately, everything has to mesh with your vision and your philosophy as the GM.
Do you feel as though you're on the same page philosophically with Leslie?
Yeah, I really do. We've already had meetings this week, and we'll continue that. That vision -- and I have a vision, I know where we need to go, I know like in my mind what we want to get done so we're getting ready for the 2012 season -- and the most important thing is that the general manager and the head coach have that same vision.