General manager security isn’t what it used to be in the NFL. In years past, GMs were often longer-tenured positions, and they tended to outlast head coaches by a few cycles, often getting to hire at least two during their stays.
Recent history has shown those days might be history. A whopping five general managers were fired in 2017, and three more jobs opened up during this year’s cycle when New York Giants GM Jerry Reese was let go, Ted Thompson was moved into a new role for the Green Bay Packers and when Rick Smith stepped down from the Houston Texans’ post to care for his sick wife.
So that makes Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman one of the longer-tenured men at his post in the NFL. Considering that two other GMs (the Oakland Raiders’ Reggie McKenzie and the Rams’ Les Snead) were hired to their respective jobs in 2012, the same year Spielman was promoted, and that two team owners serve as de facto GMs (Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and Cincinnati Bengals’ Mike Brown), there are only nine true GMs who have served longer than he has.
Although Spielman — Pro Football Weekly’s selection for 2017 Executive of the Year, as voted on by an 18-person panel — has been building this Vikings team over the course of several years, one piece at a time, some of his best work was done this past offseason.
The Vikings lost eight of their final 11 games following a 5-0 start in 2016, but Spielman said he felt good about the foundation of the team when he spoke with his coaches and the scouting staff. This past offseason was less about overhaul and more about stabilizing the core with smart player additions.
“We had suffered a ton of injuries, and we lost Coach [Mike] Zimmer along the way,” Spielman told PFW on Wednesday. Zimmer suffered a detached retina in the Halloween loss to the Chicago Bears, and he had to suffer emergency eye surgery prior to the loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Added Spielman: “We learned that through all that adversity, if we ever faced those kinds of situations again, we just needed to be sure we were prepared for the worst case in every case. That’s how we approached it because we knew we had good talent.”
Adrian Peterson, the franchise’s rushing leader, was cut. Left tackle Matt Kalil and ace returner Cordarrelle Patterson left in free agency. The offensive line was a mess. And there was a shortage at quarterback, too, with only Sam Bradford (and his shaky medical history) returning and Teddy Bridgewater still a long way from returning.
“We knew Teddy was not going to start the season, and we knew Sam played all 16 games [in 2016], but Sam does have some durability history with the knee,” Spielman said. “We just wanted to be sure we [had] enough depth at the position. So we spent a lot of time working with [QB coach] Kevin Stefanski and [offensive coordinator] Pat Shurmur looking at [free agent quarterbacks].”
This led to perhaps the best $2 million the Vikings ever have spent. On April 3, the team announced the signing of QB Case Keenum. An afterthought at the time, all Keenum would go on to would be to start 14 games in place of an injured Bradford and have a hand in 11 of the Vikings’ 12 victories as they won the NFC North.
“We did a lot of film study on Case and felt like he might not have all the top physical traits as some of the top NFL quarterbacks, but he had the leadership, the competitiveness and the athleticism to fit in well for us.”
Spielman then chuckled and added: “I wish I could say I personally knew he’d be as good as he has been. Some guys get into their late 20s and just blossom, and he’s done just that.”
The OL reinforcements Spielman and the Vikings added this offseason — Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein — have been huge hits. RB Dalvin Cook was an inspired second-round pick before he suffered a torn ACL, and free-agent pickup Latavius Murray has helped pick up the slack. Other less publicized additions, such as fourth-round LB Ben Gedeon, have provided nice contributions.
What they had in common was they fit the profile of the type of players that Zimmer, Spielman and their staffs identified as the ones they wanted on their roster.
“The biggest thing our coaches and scouts, everybody, we meet to try to ID the needs every year but also get on the same page to have an understanding for what the coaches are looking for in terms of traits, chemistry and what skills they possess,” Spielman said. “The best thing about it here: Everyone is on [the] same page, no one has an ego, and everyone wants to work together on this thing.”
The Spielman-Zimmer connection was made in 2014, and since then they’ve built that trust and understanding so that the scouts know exactly what the coaches want. And it’s no surprise that the defense, which ranks in the top five this season in a number of categories, has thrived and taken on the identity of Zimmer, a long-time coordinator on that side of the ball. Seven starters on defense came through the draft, a crucial sign of that cohesion.
Spielman deserves a ton of credit for how he’s handled the salary cap to make it all work by signing defensive pillars Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph to contract extensions the past few years and giving themselves the flexibility to possibly retain two key free agents-to-be, LB Anthony Barr and WR Stefon Diggs.
They’ll also have to figure out how to handle quarterback, where all three — Keenum, Bradford and Bridgewater — are set for free agency in a few months. That all will be figured out once the Vikings’ playoff run ends, and besides: How foolish would it have been had the Vikings extended Bradford (who is making $18 million this year) only to watch Keenum thrive in his place?
The Vikings are in a great position now where they possibly might not have to play a playoff road game, even up through Super Bowl LII, which just so happens to be in Minnesota this year. All of that, Spielman said, stems from the communication between the coaches and scouts and knowing exactly what they want on the team.
“We have always had that philosophy of building through the draft and then implementing free agency later,” Spielman said “We’ve done both and we’ve done some trades. But you start with building your roster through the draft, and you hopefully go into knowing what you want. Finding players who fit what Zim wants … the right kind of guys.
“We’ve passed up some players who were more talented, more physically able to play. But if they were not what fit our mold, we didn’t draft them.”