These are heady days for Vikings general manager Rick Spielman.
The clock is ticking down to the 2012 NFL season kicking into full gear with the NFL Scouting Combine this week and the start of free agency next month. For the first time in his tenure with the Vikings, Spielman has the wheel of the Vikings ship in both his hands.
Spielman had a role with the team back when he had a much longer title than general manager – vice president of player personnel – but Brad Childress was already dug in as the "shot-caller" on the team. Two words: Brett Favre. CSI team found Chilly's prints everywhere. The Triangle of Authority was more like the Tripod of Authority with one dominant leg and two subordinate legs. It's physics. It just is. Spielman had his role, but it seemed akin to Scottie Pippen's role with the Chicago Bulls. He may have been riding shotgun, but Chilly was doing the drivin'.
That has all changed. Spielman has played a significant role in the building of the Vikings as they currently stand – for better or worse. In 2009, the team caught lightning in a bottle – casual fans should be reminded of the electricity that provided. Sunday afternoon became Must-See TV. The last two years have transformed the team from lightning in a bottle to telling the bartender, "Leave the bottle."
In 2010, the Vikings were an NFL rarity. At this time two years ago, Vikings fans were still suffering the hangover of the heart-wrenching defeat in the NFC Championship Game, but, as the plan seemed entrenched, all 22 starters from 2009 were coming back. The plan was in place. Childress got his contract extended. The intent was that it would be a lot of the same for a lot of years.
The team played out its bizarre mathematical rise and fall – showing a consistent rise in wins from the time Childress took over (6-8-10-12) to doing a face-plant that halved the win total twice (12-6-3).
Good teams don't pick third in the draft. That was for the Rams, Browns, Bengals, Buccaneers and teams of their ilk – not the Vikings.
Spielman finds himself on the cusp of history – both for the franchise and himself. He heads to the combine this week knowing that players that impress him are going to be Vikings. It's a completely different dynamic than he has had in his tenure.
Based on his evaluations of the college talent, he can, for example, come up with his Plan A for offensive tackle and wide receiver in this year's draft crop and Plans B-D (knowing Spielman, it would be Plans B-Z – the guy goes deep on evaluations) in the works depending on how the dominoes fall on draft weekend.
It may well be his evaluations this week that determine the Vikings' future – short-term and long-term.
Spielman, if he chooses, can blow up the existing locker room and start to build the team in his own image. As it currently stands, the Vikings are under the salary cap by figures estimated between $9-11 million. Depending on Spielman's mood, he can "keep the band together" or fashion is a roster based on his view.
Expect the latter. The combine will be the litmus test, but free agency will be the acid test.
Spielman can open more than $21 million in cap space to spend in the free-agent market by releasing three players under contract – guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera and cornerback Cedric Griffin. In the big-term picture, the decision seems easy. But releasing both starting guards – although oft-injured the last two years – would be a dicey proposition with the unknowns of who could fill those spots. It would pose the question, "Do you think their injuries contributed to the drop in production?" If such a bold move is made in March, a plan needs to be in place. Unfortunately, the St. Louis Rams hold all the cards on draft day.
The conventional February wisdom has it that somebody is going to move up to the second pick to take QB Robert Griffin III – taking two QBs off the board and, in the minds of Vikings fans, giving the Vikings the first pick in the draft. The investment in Christian Ponder last year is still in the seed germination phase and it's too soon to dip the bucket back in the QB well.
As such, Spielman can release both Hutch and Herrera, convinced Matt Kalil is going to be his left tackle and Charlie Johnson can move inside to guard. A guard who perks Spielman's ears at the Combine can complete that piece of the puzzle in the middle rounds of the draft.
The reality of Spielman's promotion up the organizational depth chart is that he has sold the Wilfs on his ability to evaluate talent. Bottom line: Ponder was his guy. McNabb wasn't. That may be why he's heading to Indianapolis with the captain's hat on.
Historically speaking, when someone wants to build a team in his own image, he cleans house of the old system. Denny Green did it with shocking ferocity. Childress did it, too. Leslie Frazier has yet to flex the authority to impose his will.
If Spielman intends to rise or fall by putting "his team" on the field, this week in Indianapolis will be critical. Pippen isn't riding shotgun anymore. He's behind the wheel and this team – for better or worse, although you can't get much worse – is going to be his baby.
As a Minnesotan from the Iron Range once reminded us, the times they are a changin'. Those changes will take form this week in Indiana, as seeds are planted in hopes of pulling the Vikings out of the NFC North's cold, damp basement.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Spielman's roster-shaping starts this week
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