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Updated: January 3rd, 2012 3:47pm
Q&A with the Wilfs: 'Things can turn' quickly despite Vikings' record

Q&A with the Wilfs: 'Things can turn' quickly despite Vikings' record

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Promoting Rick Spielman to general manager was a calculated move to stabilize the long-term future of the Minnesota Vikings football operation and allow Leslie Frazier to focus on his duties as head coach, owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf said on Tuesday.

The Vikings introduced Spielman as GM in a media conference early Tuesday afternoon, hours after announcing his promotion after five seasons as vice president of player personnel.

Later, during a roughly 25-minute session with a small group of media members in an upstairs office at the team's Winter Park headquarters, the Wilfs made clear they share Frazier's optimism in 2012 but felt they needed to mirror the structure of other NFL front offices to recover from a "gut-wrenching" 3-13 season.

"We've realized," Zygi Wilf said, "that the stability of the organization for the long term is paramount of importance so that you continue to have a situation in which everybody knows their responsibility and everyone's accountable for their actions."

The Wilfs declined to discuss the length or value of Spielman's new contract. But they did address the stadium situation, April's NFL draft, the team's free-agency plans, the future of Christian Ponder and expectations for next season.

The following is an edited transcript:

Mark Wilf: "We're very excited about moving forward with Rick as general manager. It's a situation where we really wanted to take a hard look at how we can be better and we wanted to establish a clear organizational structure and a consistency of purpose moving forward. We feel this is the structure and the move we needed to make to be better as a football team and win championships. We thought long and hard through the season and we feel this is the right way. Knowing Rick and his body of work, we're confident he's the man to do it.

What were the flaws of the previous structure?

Mark: "On the previous structure, we had a fair amount of success with it. We won two divisions in the past. But given this past year and the shortfalls we had in terms of on the field, we just felt this consistency of purpose would give everyone clear lines in terms of how to proceed forward and gives us the best opportunity to win championships and that's the model that's worked in the league and that's the model we feel can work here."

Zygi Wilf: "And most important, it's a long-term solution for the franchise. We've been successful in the past, but we felt like for the long-term progress and success of the ball club, the model that exists pretty much throughout the league for those successful teams is a model we would follow.

Did you look externally for candidates, or was Spielman the favorite?

Mark: "Well, we gave a lot of thought to the whole process, but knowing Rick and his body of work and working so closely with him throughout these years, we felt that he was the right person for this position. We're very confident that he and Leslie will bring us the goal that we all want and all the fans want and that's bringing championships."

Did you seriously consider other options?

Mark: "We gave thought to a lot of different options and people, but when it came down to the decision, which we made (Monday), we felt that Rick is the right person to take the helm."

How much did the trade for Donovan McNabb, on which there was a split opinion, factor into this decision?

Mark: "All the decisions we've made we've done together as an organization. Whatever system we've went through, we had some success with that. But we want to be better. We want to get the championships. It's not any one decision or one thing that turned it any way or another, except the fact that we were 3-13, and none of us, ownership on down through the entire organization and the fans, are happy with that or satisfied with that. We want to get better. This is how we want to go about doing that."

We sat in this same room one year ago and you made clear you felt you had the right people in place to make the old structure work. At what point did you realize it wasn't going to work out?

Mark: "It was a process over several months through the season. As we got toward the end of the year and looked at going forward to the future, looking at what's successful in the league and what we need to do to get better, there needs to be more of a consistency of purpose, an accountability that needs to be more clarified. So, I do think we have the right people. We sat together as an ownership and felt this structure needed to be clarified."

Will Leslie still have control over the coaching staff and scheme and Rick over personnel?

Mark: "Yes."

Who would make a decision on the head coach?

Mark: "Ownership, it stops (there) as far as head coach, general manager, those. Ultimately, it's our responsibility to have the right leadership for the football organization."

Zygi: "But to have the structure going forward, we realized, is of utmost importance for the long-term success of the ball club. After a season like we've had this past season, you tend to really look hard at what has to be done and we did that. During the years of success, you tend to look and see the success and not at what's needed. When you go through a season like this, those decisions are very important for the long-term success of our ballclub."

What did you see in Frazier to make you confident he is the right person to lead this team?

Mark: "We have full confidence in Leslie. It's his first year as the head coach. I think as the season went along, working together with his coaches, as the season went on, it's his first year. Obviously, he is as dissatisfied as anybody with the record. We have full confidence in him as the head coach and leader of our players. Again, in this league, things can flip. It happens quite often. We're confident we're going to be right back to where we want to be."

What gives you that optimism?

Mark: "I think you saw throughout the year as tough as the record was, our players fought through everything. They played hard. They played for (Frazier) hard. And again, we need to all get better, ownership on through. Players, coaches -- we have to totally improve and we felt this structure was the best opportunity for us to do that."

Zygi: "And the structure does allow Leslie to be a better head coach. It allows us to be better owners, because that responsibility, as you've seen through the success of the league, has to be in that one person, who's the general manager. I think it'll make a lot of the decisions that were placed on Leslie -- decisions which might look upon as minor decisions, but yet takes up a lot of his time -- is going to be the responsibility of Rick, and it'll allow Leslie to be that much of a better coach."

Mark: "We have a lot of draft picks coming up in 2012. We're going to be high on the waiver (priority) list. We're going to have a lot of new talent, free agency coming in, and like Zygi said, Coach will now be allowed to focus 100 percent on coaching, teaching, developing the players, getting his staff to that point as well. That's how you get better. That's the model that's worked in this league, and we need to get better."

In all of those good systems, GM or not, the coach and personnel guy have to work in unity. How confident are you these guys can work together under this system or any system?

Mark: "Very confident. They've worked well together for the past year and a half, and even before when Leslie was an assistant here. no questions about that."

Were there certain owners you talked to to come to this conclusion?

Zygi: "We've always been in contact. From years of ownership we've looked around the league and spoke to different owners and seen what is successful with ownerships that have been there a lot longer than we have. We've realized that the stability of the organization for the long term is paramount of importance so that you continue to have a situation in which everybody knows their responsibility and everyone's accountable for their actions. We've had success in the past many years, and we probably should have taken a harder look even through success. But a year like we had this year made us realize the long-term success of our ballclub is something that is of utmost importance. Speaking to other owners and learning from other teams and seeing how their systems have worked, we came to the conclusion that this is the way this has to work."

What was it like to go through this season, as competitors?

Zygi: "Gut-wrenching. Really gut-wrenching. We've been successful for the most part in growing and building and getting to the playoffs and getting very close and having the personnel the way that we have and going through a season like this made us understand that we had to make these changes to be successful in the long term. Our commitment has always been to have a world-class franchise and have the caliber of play that our fans can be proud of. A year like this year makes you really sit back and reevaluate what has to be done, because we as owners and the players and certainly our fans want to make sure we get back on track to where we were just a couple years ago. We're not far from it, and I think the structure goes a long way to establishing our goals and where the decisions have to be made."

Your familiarity with Rick played a big role in what's unfolded. What strengths of his do you foresee him bringing to this position?

Mark: "We feel that his approach to scouting, to personnel evaluation and, he alluded to it, but we feel on the whole, evaluation of personnel-wise, he does a very strong job and again he has a very good relationship with Leslie. And he's going to handle the operations in a certain way that's going to allow everyone else to focus on their job a little more effectively."

Zygi: "I think the general manager's role allows the franchise to look at goals, like I stated before, in a more longer-term vision. Because they realize that the long term puts the franchise on solid footing. I think that's the major aspect of having the structure is for the franchise to really give long-term stability to this organization as it's proven to be successful on a long-term basis for those teams that have been successful. That's where we want to go."

As you assess the long-term viability and make moves within the structure of the football operation to gear toward that, how much does the uncertainty of the franchise in the stadium issue play into your thinking, if at all?

Mark: "It does not play into our thinking at all. When it comes to the football field, the fans here, we're focusing on getting a winning championship team. As far as the stadium, obviously we're trying to work towards a solution, a stadium solution in Minnesota. But when it comes to the football, that's why the general manager and the coach are fully focused and our whole organization is focused on a championship. That's the number one goal of our ownership."

Zygi: "As you all know, the most important thing from our perspective is the franchise. The fans. Everyone and especially us and everyone involved want to make sure that the franchise is a world-class franchise with a tradition of winning. That's what we want to keep up. Our goal is to get world championships. We'll win divisions. That will always be our primary goal. On the stadium issue, it goes alongside the franchise, we want to make sure as many as the people we've met on the legislature, the governor, the fans, to establish a home that will ensure this franchise for generations to come. A home that we can be proud of, a home we can enjoy with our families and also to keep on the traditions of Minnesota Vikings football. They go hand in hand. So, I think the pride that we bring to the team will carry over towards our commitment to making sure that we ensure a new home for the Minnesota Vikings in Minnesota."

How imperative is it to get a deal done in the initial stages of the legislative session? Or are you willing to negotiate into the spring?

Zygi: "The upcoming session that's going to start, our goal is to making sure that we have a viable plan and we're working as we speak on a deal. We're working with the governor. Certainly he's been an advocate of getting this done. This morning we met with Senators (David) Senjem, now the majority leader, and Senator (Julie) Rosen. And they're very encouraged on the progress we're making. And we feel that a deal is going to be in the works shortly."

How do you think free agency will work? Does Leslie tell Rick what he needs? Or does Rick say, 'here's what I think we can get' and he presents it?

Mark: "Yes. Both. Yes. It's going to be a thorough process. Leslie sits down with his coaches and he's going to evaluate all of the players on our staff. Rick has the lay of the land for what's out there in free agency. They're going to sit and talk together, what our needs are, what's out there. Together, along with (vice president of football operations) Rob Brzezinski who handles contracts and things of that nature, they'll sit down with us and they'll lay out a plan in terms of how we approach free agency. But again, the ultimate call now, in terms of the structure, Rick will be the ultimate authority in terms of what kind of personnel we go with."

Zygi: "As you know, in the past, we've been always eager to make sure our team is better. We've been active since Day 1 in free agency. As important as the draft is and always will be and probably the primary importance we always felt each year to get our team better that it was imperative that we got involved to lend our full support towards getting those players that can better our team. Our record has shown that. We've reached out for that. Again, that's both a short-term solution. And it will also be a long-term solution. But we're going to rely on the draft and a little bit of free agency."

What makes you think you're not far from your goals?

Zygi: "We're not far from it because only a couple years ago we were very close to it, so you realize that in professional sports, especially profession football, and especially the way the system is set up, that the competitive balances are so close that, as you can see from this year, that eight to 10 games were decided by seven points. Things can change and things can turn. Again, we look back, not to make excuses, of course, the lockout that occurred really probably hurt our team more because of a new head coach and new quarterback. And to try to make decisions to try to get to that level is something that."

Mark: "What also gives us going forward a lot of reason to be optimistic is that we have 10 draft picks coming up potentially, compensatory picks. In the draft, high on the waiver list, so we're going to get a lot of good talent in here and you can't rest on your laurels or what happened yesterday in this league, like what was said before. It can flip in this league. We're saying it's going to be easier, but with this structure in this place and having a surplus of picks rather than a deficit of picks, I think we can get better in a hurry."

Zygi: "To answer your question more precisely, we have a core nucleus of players and leaders that will bring us back quicker. There's a lot of talent and it's a game that requires all hands to be on board. It's not some one star that's going to make it. We have a lot of great talent to make that comeback."

When did it all go wrong? When you sent those guys to Hattiesburg to pick up Brett Favre or ...

Mark: "We're not going to point to any one thing, but again, at times like this, when you've had a season like we've had and even a season before, when you have losing seasons, you have to tend to be able to evaluate the organization as whole and say, 'How can we give everyone the ability to be able to focus on their jobs and make us winners. We felt, even with the successes we had under the old structure, there needed to be that clarity. I think in this league, the margin of winning and losing is much closer than people expect. We can get there. We wanted to give everyone the maximum chance to get there."

Zygi: "We need to have a consistency of performance. I think this structure tends to address this long-term answer. We've had successes in the past. Many of those decisions might have been on more of a short-term basis to try to address needs right away, have the urgency because we were at that point. But we realized that it's so tough to get back to it that the only answer really is to establish that long-term structure that will allow the organization to be consistent and have a plan that everyone buys into, regardless of who's there so that we can be successful for the long term."

What are Rick's strengths?

Mark: "We feel that his approach to scouting, personnel evaluation and, he eluded to it, but we feel on the whole, evaluation of personnel-wise, he does a very strong job. Again, he has a good relationship with Leslie and he's going to handle the operations in a certain way that's going to allow everyone else to focus on their jobs a little more effectively."

Zygi: "I think the general manager's role allows the franchise to look at goals, like I stated before, in a more longer-term vision because they realize that the long-term puts the franchise on a solid footing. I think that's that the major aspect of having the structure for the franchise. To really give long-term stability to this organization, as has proven to be successful on a long-term basis for those teams that have been successful. That's where we want to go."

Do you anticipate being active in free agency?

Zygi: "We are always active in free agency."

Mark: "We'll do whatever it's going to take to get us to winning. If that's determined by Rick and Coach, if that's the path to take, and it fits, we're going to do it."

Zygi: "We've been that way in the past. I don't think that will change under the new structure. Everyone knows free agency helps us to get better, and if we have the room to do that, we will do that. As you know in the past, whoever came through here that we wanted, whether we got them or not, we were very active to making sure we got our best to bring them out to our ballclub. A lot of our success in the past has been through free agency, only because we didn't have the opportunity to get the drafts that we would like. This year will be the first year where we will have a full complement of draft choices and high draft choices. So, we're going to utilize both the draft and free agency to make our ballclub better."

The currency you refer to is the 10 draft picks?

Mark: "Yeah, the currency in terms of having more picks than Rams, I could say."

Will the roles of any of your other vice presidents change, specifically Rob's?

Mark: "Again, Rob's going to report to Rick in terms of the fact that he's in terms of football operations, but his role will pretty much be the same."

What was Rick like as he addressed the staff this morning?

Mark: "He was very emotional. He was very passionate about this football team. Very disappointed about our season, he takes full responsibility, as Coach has, in terms of the disappointment about the season."

Zygi: "And as we do also as owners."

Mark: "As we do as owners. He, going forward, is very excited about the opportunity. He wants championships. And he's got a burning desire to do that. One of the things we think highly of is his passion for the sport and wanting to win."

Did you look at Rick's entire track record, dating to his days in Miami?

Mark: "We took into account all information, all the composite of what's out there, as well as our own experience with him and with others, advice we've gotten from all sorts of sources."

Will you be in position to be active in free agency, salary cap-wise?

Mark: "Position-wise, we're fine. But again, it's going to depend on how Rick evaluates and coaches input in terms of what we need. Ultimately, you'd like to get your people better primarily through the draft. But if there's a need, a particular player they feel this is someone that fits, and this is someone who can make us better, than we're going to do whatever it takes."

And you'll have to cap room to do so?

Mark: "Yes."

Do you believe in Christian Ponder as the quarterback of the future?

Mark: "Again, I know Coach has confidence in him, I know Rick has confidence in him. They see him day-to-day. We also have full faith that he's going to be a fine player. What Rick said about rookie quarterbacks, some of the great ones in history have not had ..."

Zygi: "He's a committed young man who's dedicated to making sure he learns everything he can, he's in here all the time."

Mark: "He's quickly become one of our leaders in a very short time."

Zygi: "That's what you want to see in a leader and a quarterback. I think, given the first year is always a really tough year, he's disappointed of course, but I know that he's committed to making himself that much better in the offseason."

Mark: "Again, I think under Coach (Bill) Musgrave's system and our offensive scheme, and not having the OTAs and minicamps, having them this year with a new coach and a new quarterback ..."

Zygi: "Will help a lot."

Mark: "Having that now going into this year will be very helpful. Hopefully, we'll see some nice growth."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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