Rick Spielman is getting some heat as the Vikings have another losing start to the season. He has changed coaching staffs for the third time in his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, moving from Brad Childress to Leslie Frazier to Mike Zimmer.
Back and forth the Vikings have gone, from a strict disciplinarian in Childress to a “players coach” in Leslie Frazier and back to a more regimented Zimmer. There are differences, of course, in Zimmer and Childress. Childress fancied himself an offensive guru whose offenses often struggled. Zimmer has a proven track record as a solid defensive coach whose current defense seems to be getting it nearing the halfway point of his first season.
But all along the way, the Vikings have had more losing seasons than winning ones. Two years after Childress arrived, he was given the free-agent gift of Jared Allen, who brought a pass-rushing presence the team lacked in numerous failed first- and second-round draft picks, from Derrick Alexander in 1995 to Erasmus James in 2005 and everything in between (Dimitrius Underwood, Michael Boireau, Kenechi Udeze).
The Vikings, with a new ownership group willing to make a free-agent splash, spent lavishly for Allen and he didn’t disappoint. But as Allen neared the end of his seven-year, $96.7 million contract and Frazier neared the end of Spielman’s rope, the general manager never seemed to flinch. He stuck with his philosophy to let older players like Allen walk and go with another younger version. The team considered Michael Johnson, who proved to be a solid pass rusher under Zimmer in Cincinnati, but the Vikings had their own homegrown talent whose contract was also up.
Would Zimmer bring in a player he was familiar with in Johnson or would Spielman’s faith in Everson Griffen, a former fourth-round draft pick who had never been a starter before, be the route?
Zimmer believes he knows defensive talent, but Spielman has made it clear that personnel decisions are ultimately made by him. That sets him up for criticism. In this case, Griffen is making Spielman look good, despite Griffen adjusting to life as a starter.
“This was my first year starting full-time and it’s a big adjustment, going from playing 25 plays a game to playing 67 or a high number,” Griffen said. “I’m getting comfortable within the scheme of our defense and listening to our coaches to put me in the right positions. And having fun out there with my teammates in the D-line.”
Many questioned the risk the Vikings were taking. Griffen’s five-year, $42.5 million contract was a big sum to spend for a player that had started one game in his career. But with an $8.2 million salary-cap number in 2014, it was still less than half of what Jared Allen made last year with the Vikings, when he needed a flurry of 7½ sacks in the final five games to reach double digits again.
Through seven games, and after a three-sack performance last week, Griffen has seven sacks, tied for second in the league. Allen, meanwhile, has 1½ sacks, tied for 98th in the league, for the Chicago Bears, who gave Allen a four-year, $32 million contract in March.
The Vikings’ decision to replace Allen with Griffen gave the fifth-year defensive end a shot of confidence.
“It does. I just want to live up to it and play my heart out each and every play and learn the game,” Griffen said. “This is my first year starting so I’m still learning how to be a full-time starter. It’s not easy in the NFL. I’m enjoying it and I’m loving each and every second of it. We’ve got a good team here. We’re going to fight back and you better believe that.”
The Vikings obviously believe in him, too. He has played 86.6 percent of the defensive snaps. Only Brian Robison has played more – one percent more – among the team’s defensive linemen. Zimmer has talked often about a strong defensive line rotation, but that’s been more prevalent with the interior linemen than with Griffen or Robison, and they are proving the coaching staff right.
Although Robison doesn’t have the sack numbers – only one so far – he is second in the league among 4-3 defensive ends with 19 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. Griffen, meanwhile is tied for 20th in that stat with 11, three behind Allen, who isn’t likely to play out his four-year deal that averages close to Griffen’s salary.
Last year, Allen had 11½ sacks. So far this year, Griffen is on pace for 16.
“I’m just out there playing my ball,” Griffen said when asked if he thinks about trying to live up Allen’s totals. “Everybody wants to be a Hall of Famer. I just want to take each day by each day. You really can’t look too far in the future. You’ve just got to do your job each and every play and then things should work out for you.”
So far, they have – for both Griffen and Spielman in a decision that wasn’t as cut and dried then as it might seem now.
Sunday slant: Griffen proving Vikings right
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