Q&A with Vikings GM Rick Spielman: 'A real bitter taste' from playoffs
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Rick Spielman says he's excited about the progress the Minnesota Vikings made from 3-13 to 10-6 in his first season as general manager.
But Spielman stressed on Thursday the Vikings are "still not where you want to be" after a 24-10 trouncing at Green Bay ended their season in the NFC wild-card playoffs.
"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," Spielman said.
"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. There are going to be a lot of decisions that have to be made.
"You're going to have to make some tough decisions as we go through our roster but we'll look and see what's the best thing to do for the ball club and how can we get better. Because to me, until you win a Super Bowl -- that's why you're in this business. That's what your ultimate goal is."
In a wide-ranging interview spanning more than a half-hour with about a dozen media members at Olympic Hills Golf Club, Spielman discussed a variety of topics regarding the season, the roster and the decisions that lie ahead.
The following is an edited Q&A of Spielman's first public comments since a similar session with reporters about two months ago:
With the steps forward you took this year, how do you guard against rushing things and make sure you stick with your building plan?
"When I took the job last year, my objective was that we're going to build this through the draft. 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. And looking at the potential, once we get all the juniors coming out, the potential talent that's coming out in this draft and identifying the needs that we have and how we're going to go ahead and put those pieces in places, how we're going to fill those needs and how we're going to get better, that's what's exciting. But I also know our expectations are to be better than we were last year. 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."
How would you assess the job Leslie Frazier did in his second year of coach?
"There was great improvement, even from the coaching side, from the development of our players, from how our players responded. When we went in that dip to where we went down to 6-6 (after a Dec. 2 loss at Green Bay) and to finish the season like we did, I mean, that's true qualities of a head football coach and a leader. We got some strong leadership down in our locker room. We're building our young guys as they come through our program.
"The idea is to get those high-character, strong-leader types that are good football players. And I think that gives you the best chance for success. But as I said during the bye when I talked to you guys, Leslie was doing an outstanding job. And I thought that even showed more when we did have that dip or that setback, that it didn't keep falling. We were able to come out of that rut and get ourselves in the playoffs, especially with the pressure that were in those last four games to have to win those four to get in."
What is the timeline for extending Frazier's contract?
"I've had talks with ownership and again until we ... when there's something to be announced, we'll announce it. But I'll keep that all internal."
But you see him as the long-term answer as your coach?
"I'm going to keep everything ... just like I'm not going to tell you if I see a player as a long-term, or a scout. My wife sees me as long-term right now. So far. It's been 25 years. I don't know if that's long-term. But anything from that. But I know everybody recognizes what Leslie Frazier has done as a football coach here in Minnesota."
Does Frazier have your endorsement?
"I just said Leslie has done an outstanding job. And again, I don't want to talk specifics, but I know our ownership group will discuss that, and when we have an announcement, we'll go from there."
This team went from 3-13 to 10-6. Was that a surprise at all to you?
"I've said this in the past: Every year, you go to training camp, you have those expectations of why you're going to training camp, why you do everything you do in the offseason. Your ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl every year. To me, that's what our expectations are. I know externally, it probably wasn't the same as it was internally. But our expectations every year -- and Coach Frazier has said it, too -- is to make the playoffs, win the division, get to the big game and win the big game. That's the only reason you're in this business."
Was there a particular game that mattered most to this run?
"I think -- and what I think I recall last year talking about -- it's going to be a process, because when we brought this team together, we knew it was going to be a young team. I honestly believed -- and I said this last year -- hopefully, we're going to be a better team from training camp to when we open up the regular season and then midway through the season. And I think, again, from Week 1 to where we ended up Week 16, not only did our players get better and our young players got better, but also, our team as a whole got better. And that's what you want to see. You want to see that progress.
"Now, where we're at, at the end of 16 (games) heading into next year, you have to definitely build off that and improve on that. That's the one thing I think, when you look at the global thing -- I know you guys judge on a weekly basis -- but when you think back and look at the whole picture, that's what you want to see. And the one thing is, as you got into, we struggled to win on the road, and we went to Detroit (on Sept. 30), which I thought was a big win for us in Detroit. And then to put consecutive road wins together, to go to St. Louis (on Dec. 16), to go to Houston (on Dec. 23) and do that, I think that showed signs of what a great job our coaching staff did, and how our team was maturing from that standpoint."
Why was the pass offense so bad?
"It's the philosophy, that when you have 28 (Adrian Peterson) in the backfield, the identity of our team is going to be tough, smart, physical, and you're not going to take the ball out of 28's hands. Our identity is playing good defense and being physical up front, utilizing Adrian Peterson. I mean, 15 years from now, I don't see Adrian Peterson doing what he's doing. He may, because he defies everything people say he can't. But I think that's what our identity is, and that's how our football team is built, and that's how we have success winning games."
Can that philosophy win you 12, 13 games? Division titles? Championships?
"I think teams have won running. But I also know, you have to make plays in the passing game. They're going to put eight, nine, 10 -- that last Green Bay game, it looked like there were 13 guys in the box. The coaches were out there, too. You still have to have that balance on offense, where you do have to make plays in the passing game. In those four games, you saw Christian (Ponder) develop and you saw our ability to make those kinds of plays."
Do you need to bring in, if not competition for Ponder, at least options for backup quarterbacks?
"We're going to go through that process starting next week. Again, we'll start evaluating each guy individually, and we start from our number one guy on our roster to the last practice squad guy on our roster. We have very thorough and unfiltered discussions on each guy, and where we see them at, and whether we see them as part of our (team) going forward. But those decisions have not been determined, because as we work through that, we'll be down at the Senior Bowl the following week, and then we work on free agency and the draft meetings. By the time we get to the combine (in late February), I have a pretty good idea of the overall plan and how we'll execute that."
How did you evaluate Ponder's first full season as the starter?
"I think you guys kind of know I look at stats, but go back and look at some of the second-year quarterbacks who are having success now, and I've told you that in the past I went and looked at Matt Ryan, where his stats were. I know he missed a couple games -- I think he only started 14 games that second year. But the Eli (Manning)s of the world, the Drew Brees of the world, and again, I think when I talked to you in the preseason or earlier I wrote down what his stats were probably going to be, and just looking at some of the stats of those guys as they progressed through their career. But you guys can do your research."
You said you were going to tell us your prediction after the season, whether you were right.
"I'm always right, whether you guys write it or not. At least in my mind." (laughs)
How much do you have to take into account the quality of your receivers when judging a quarterback's production?
"You have to judge all. You have to put all that in. You have to put in the stats of the quarterback. You're evaluating the quarterback on how he's running the offense and how he's managing the offense. Is he doing what the coaches are asking him to do? Are we built right now to say, 'Christian, go out there and throw the ball 55 times a game' and we're going to win ballgames that way? That's not how Coach Frazier's philosophy is and it's not going to be when we have 28 in our backfield either.
"But also, the quarterback does have to make some plays and the way he came through in those last four games, especially, off probably one of his worst performances in that first Green Bay game, even though he did start out strong. To see (Ponder) rebound mentally from that and to be able to perform the way he performed to get us in that four-game run -- again, a lot you have to contribute to what Adrian did and I know you guys write about 'Adrian is the offense,' but Christian had a big part of us going 10-6 and getting in the playoffs as well."
Can you place a grade on Ponder's performance?
"After three years. That's my rule."
What all went into the decision to place Percy Harvin on injured reserve with that ankle injury in early December?
"I'm not going to say anything that hasn't been said. It's something that we felt was best for Percy. We didn't want to ruin any long-term or longevity issues and put him out there if he wasn't going to be able to play and risk further injury."
Was he suspended for conduct detrimental to the team?
Did he fight the decision to put him on IR?
"Again, when we talk about that, Percy was, as any player, is so competitive that they want to play. Mentally, you may want to play, but physically, you may not be able to play. And then sometimes, when you make those decisions, you've got to make it in which you think is in the best interest of the football player for the long term, because ... he's right in the prime of his career. He's 24, 25 years old."
Who made the final decision?
"I think that's a decision how we work internally, just talking with Leslie and myself. Again, we're going to go off the medical. I think our medical staff is the best in the business in the NFL and (head athletic trainer) Eric Sugarman and our doctors, and we're going to listen to what they have to say and make the decisions from there."
Do you have any concerns about Harvin character-wise, attitude-wise, anything else?
"No. Percy comes to work every day. Everybody sees what Percy puts on the field. He plays the game as hard or harder than anyone else in the NFL, the effort that he puts up out there. So, we have no issues with Percy Harvin."
Would it be tough at all for Peterson and Harvin to coexist and get both enough touches to keep them happy?
"Yeah, I don't know if I wouldn't want both of those guys. They're both tremendously, very talented football players. Yeah, there's guys that are blue chip receivers and blue chip running backs that do coexist in this league. My job is to try to find those guys and get as many of those type players on the field for us as possible."
With the way Percy is built and the way he plays, can he stay healthy enough to have a long career in the NFL?
"Yeah, and Percy lays his body on the line, just like Adrian lays his body on the line. Sure, Percy's smaller, but Percy is pretty well strapped together now. He's not a skinny receiver. He's built like a smaller running back. He's not built like a typical, leaner receiver. We believe he does have the durability to do what he needs to do and to play 60 games in the NFL."
Has he been back through for his exit physical?
"I won't talk about when they're (coming). I know Leslie addressed who will be through."
Have you initiated talks for an extension?
"We're going to go through our process first before we make any decisions on any of our players, our UFAs, any extensions. All that stuff will be done over the next month here as we lay the game plan going forward."
Can you lay out some examples of why things worked out so well having a general manager this year?
"I just think we have a very unique group as a team working together, with our personnel, with our coaches, with my relationship with Leslie. To me, successful franchises in the league have that cohesiveness, where people aren't butting heads. There's a lot of very tough and difficult decisions, and you may have difficulty or not agree with someone, but it never becomes contentious or anything. We're always trying to work what's best for us going forward. I think the thing that helps a little bit is that I know that's my ultimate responsibility, and if things go good or things go bad, that's who the blame's going to come to. It's going to come to me. And that's what makes it exciting."
Antoine Winfield was able to thrive in a more regular role this year. Does age need to be taken off the table at all when you're looking at him?
"He's defied the odds. Antoine means so much to this football team, not only by how he plays the game and also what he does in that locker room as a leader and in the community, and there are guys that come through that somehow defy the odds. I have a study there on saying cornerbacks at 'X' age aren't going to be able to perform to their same level. But he's been an exception to that rule."
Was the impact of this year's rookie class a reflection of the new structure of the football operation?
"I think the biggest thing is the openness and the communication. ... Leslie had talked about it last year when we met as one big unit, when we met with all our coaches and all our scouts in one room and just, 'Let's go, let's get this straight and let's get what we need. ... You tell us exactly what each position is going to, from a specific standpoint or a skill standpoint ... is he going to be able to function? So, when you get into the draft and you get into free agency, you'll see names -- they'll say, 'Why, again, doesn't he, why did you pass on that guy? I had him rated' -- meaning you guys -- '15th in my mock draft. What the hell is the matter with those guys?'
"But when we can tailor it down to being a Viking fit, and that's what we really honed in on -- does this guy really fit with what the Minnesota Vikings want on all those fronts? Then that's when you have the best chance of success. Those guys have a better chance of coming in and having success because their skill set is going to fit the scheme. I think that's a huge, huge part of the process. Now, if I worked in a different organization with a different head coach in a different scheme, maybe our personnel decisions would be a lot different. But I have a true understanding of what type of player is needed to fit in this scheme offensively and defensively. It's our job to make sure we make sure we try to get those players."
Will you try to renegotiate contracts with some of your higher-paid veterans?
"We will look at everything because there are guys that are going to be coming up in (2014) as well. We've had a history of trying to lock guys in early before they get into the last year of their deal. Not only are we going to deal with our own unrestricted free agents, but we have to look at who is coming up in '14 and is there a possibility of maybe signing an extension to one or two of those guys if we go down that route, because as this roster evolves, and now these guys have been here three or four years that are playing pretty well for us, their contracts are going to be coming up. I truly believe the most success you have is if you're able to keep to your own because you know them the best. And if you can't keep your own or you make a mistake re-signing one of your own players, then that's your own fault because you're going to know them better than any other unrestricted free agent out there."
How does Harvin fit into that philosophy with one year left on his deal? Because he's not exactly a normal case.
"There's a lot of guys out of Percy's draft that are playing for us that are going into the final year of their deal. We go through every single guy on our roster, look at when their deals are coming up. Should we extend them or try to get it done a year early, how does that fit our work with (vice president of football operations) Rob Brzezinski, who is great at what he does keeping us straight on our cap situation and how we can keep a competitive roster. We're right now, I'm looking at the '14 and '15 roster, too, and potential guys that are coming up."
You guys had to go through some hoops just to get under the cap when the lockout ended in 2011. What's your level of satisfaction with how you've been able to get the cap back in good shape?
"Well, I said Rob's area of expertise is that cap and balancing the numbers and with all the new CBA and getting cash to cap and making sure we spend to where we spend, but also, there's a correlation there on cash and how much cash are you over your cap. There's a lot different things and I want to make sure that every year we can sit down and say we have what we need to make sure this roster is competitive. But I think when you can have successful drafts and bring those guys through that system and then extend those guys, those should be your top priorities."
Why are trades so much more difficult to execute in the NFL than other sports?
"Just because of the rules. For example, if someone wants to get rid of a high-priced player and they've given him a significant amount of guaranteed money and that guaranteed money accelerates into their cap that year. There's a lot of rules in place that prevent big time trades. It's a little bit different when guys are in the last year of their contract or guys -- like when Jared (Allen was acquired from Kansas City in 2008), Jared was franchised (and signed a new deal with the Vikings). Those are a lot different than a scenario of a guy under contract for the next three or four years, that team sometimes may want to trade him but they can't just because of how the cap works and the accounting works."
In past Decembers, you've locked up guys with extensions. That didn't happen this year. Was there a change in philosophy?
"We've talked to some agents. We've talked to some agents before the season and sometimes, we'll just say, 'Let's wait until the season ends.' I know as we get through this process, we'll be having a lot of meetings down at the combine on particular guys that we want to try to extend or either get redone. It will be a busy combine."
What was your level of satisfaction with what you got out of this year's free-agent signings?
"The philosophy we took this past year with the free agents ... we did make a commitment to (tight end John) Carlson and from the numbers standpoint, from the production numbers (it doesn't appear successful). But you can't always look at the production numbers. You have to look at some of the other things that don't show up in the stat sheet, because some of the things that he did from a blocking standpoint doesn't show up on a stat sheet, but he was excellent and had a specific role that helped us get there. I'm sure he would love to have more, big flashy numbers, but sometimes, that's not always the case. That doesn't mean that that player didn't perform just because he didn't have the particular stats.
"A lot of the guys that we signed were the second-tier guys after the big waves went through. We signed them to kind of one-year deals. I believe that when you did that, they come in and they're competing just like those rookie draft picks are coming in competing. You don't have a three of four year commitment to those guys. And we were able to carve out a (fullback) Jerome Felton out of that. Now, we'll look to get an extension done with him because of the type of season that we had. It also prevents you from, if you have rookies that are coming in that are talented, and you want to keep that rookie, you can say we don't have to keep that vet because we just gave him a four- or five-year deal. We can keep who's going to be best for our football team, not only this year, but also down through the future."
How did you feel about receiver Jerome Simpson?
"Jerome had the suspension and then the leg injury was pretty significant and then he started to get a lot better. I think Jerome, if we're able to look at potentially doing something with him, that he has the potential to really thrive if we were able to get something done with him."
Are you still interested in retaining him?
"We're interested in all our guys. We'd love to have them all back, whether that's realistic or not, we want all our guys back."
Does chemistry factor into that?
"That's part of the process of putting a football team together too. Those are the things that when you bring guys in, and we are with this young nucleus of players and the type of players they are, you want to try to blend that chemistry so it's the same coming in. How Chad Greenway evolved into where he's one of our core leaders, not only a great football player for us but a core leader. Now you look at (safety) Harrison Smith and some of these rookies ... (tight end) Rhett Ellison where he fits all those similar characteristics that we want to build this team with. I think because of that and that chemistry in the locker room, that can get you through when we did have our dip and went through that adversity during the season. It could very easily -- if you don't have all those high-character guys down in that locker room -- it could very easily have gone the other way."
Could you have envisioned this level of production from the rookies?
"I'll let you know three years from now, just so none of them are flash in the pans. I credit our coaches tremendously because there is a huge adjustment from playing collegiate to playing at the NFL level, and I thought our coaching staff did a great job. We had a developmental plan in place on how we were going to get these guys ready to play, because we knew we were going to have a young roster. Putting all of those pieces together, what types of physical characteristics fit the system? What type of character do we want this player to be? And then we'll develop him physically and get him going, and that's the thing that I think really helped this last draft class flourish."
How hard is it to weigh some of the intangibles you get from your veteran players against what could be declining production on the field?
"That's extremely hard, because there's a lot of value to that leadership and a lot of value to the character, especially to those two guys. And again, when you go through the whole process and start putting the pieces together, are there ways to keep them there? Should we keep them there? Do we try to renegotiate? Do you let them play out their deal? So, there are a lot of different ways, and those are the decisions that we are going to have to make. But you still have to go out there and perform and play."
How many picks do you have in April's draft?
"We're starting out with eight. I'll let you know once we get on the clock, because it's amazing how quick things happen."
What did you end up giving Arizona for cornerback A.J. Jefferson?
"It was just a flop of picks, in one through seven. There's a specific flop in there somewhere between one and seven."
How'd you hoodwink the Browns into making that trade in April anyway?
"It was a great deal for both teams. They needed that running back (Trent Richardson) who's extremely talented, and we needed as many draft picks as we possibly could get to help us re-tool -- or, as you guys say, rebuild -- to get this roster younger and more talented."
Where in Phil Loadholt right now in your eyes?
"Phil has been a very solid player for us. That's a true warrior-type player. There's no question that he's going to go and lay it on the line for you 16 games, hopefully more, 20 games a year. We'll go through the process as comparing him to the right tackles out there. I know we would love to have that unit together for a while, just because I think the offensive line, if you can get them playing together and how they played this year and to have that same group keep working together, especially at the age a lot of those guys are at, it really helps you solidify yourself up front."
Why did you sign punter T.J. Conley to a futures deal when you have Chris Kluwe under contract?
"It was one of our signings. We'll probably have a couple more signings that might be coming. We have a few more coming in for workouts. It's just part of the process of just not one particular position, but every position. A lot of these guys we've already worked out at some point during the season or through the season or over the last couple weeks that we'll sign and then give a chance to come in and compete. It's nothing out of the ordinary that we normally haven't done.
Did Kluwe's off-field interests bother you at all?
"I know Chris was very focused when we had to play and really played well down the stretch here for us too. He had some really good games and got us out of some deep holes with the way he's punted. Chris is a very, very talented punter."
Have you had any contact with Harvin since he left the team?
"I know Leslie has, again, usually handled players and I usually handle the agents until after the season and things like that when I talk to all our UFAs before they got out of the building. Usually, I'll handle him through the agent."
How do you feel about your cap position right now?
"Very excited. We'll have cap room. But again, you can have the cap room, but how are you going to utilize it? Are you going to utilize it to get your own guys done or you going to try to go into free agency? We're always going to try to use that to keep our own guys.
Do you expect to have the same approach in free agency as a year ago?
"Yep. Unless something unique out there happens. That, you never know. But we'll always have our radar up for anything unique that could eventually happen. But we'll take the same approach as we did last year."