At first glance, it might appear that the reassignment of Rick Spielman from vice president of player personnel to general manager of the Vikings was little more than a title change. But, after five years of operating under the much-ridiculed “Triangle of Authority,” the Vikings have finally made a move to make one man responsible for the roster the team will put on the field –that man is now Spielman.
From the time Spielman took over, there have been many questions among fans and the media as to who exactly makes the key organizational decisions? In the way of a revisionist history lesson, when Mike Tice was fired following the 2005 season, the Vikings moved quickly on hiring Brad Childress, then an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles. The speed of the move (which came just one week after Tice was unceremoniously stripped of his power) surprised some, because it posed the question as to what authority a general manager would have when his hiring was at the behest of an owner and a new head coach. Typically, when an NFL regime is fired the process is done completely in the reverse – a general manager is hired first to oversee the hiring of a coaching staff and the assembling of a roster both through free agency and the draft. The head coach invariably defers to the general manager. It wasn’t done that way in Minnesota and the first decision made in regard to hiring a general manager was a colossal flop.
The Triangle of Authority was devised at that point, assigning power in an overlapping fashion between capologist Rob Brzezinski, Childress and the de facto general manager. The Vikings moved quickly to bring in what would be viewed as a general manager in Fran Foley, whose caustic personality over the 2006 draft weekend led to his quick and immediate dismissal three months after being hired. He was replaced with Spielman, who came into an existing situation in which Childress had already begun the process of monopolizing power and being in charge of the evaluation of free agents and draft picks.
To his credit, Spielman came out of the gate swinging. He was essentially handed Adrian Peterson in 2007 after the first six teams in the draft either had more pressing needs or were concerned about reports that Peterson may have a significant collarbone injury that could impede his early progress. Hindsight has told us that it shouldn’t have been as big a concern as it was, but Spielman determined Peterson’s talent was simply too great to pass up.
That same year, the Vikings drafted Sidney Rice in the second round, Brian Robison in the fourth round and Tyler Thigpen, who would prove to be a potentially seminal player in the Childress-Spielman division of power, in the seventh round.
Spielman followed that draft up with a 2008 version that was curtailed greatly (and rightly) when Jared Allen got into a war of words with Kansas City Chiefs G.M. Carl Peterson. Opportunities to get young elite talent like Allen are rare and the Vikings jumped at the opportunity, giving up a first-round pick, two third-rounder and an exchange of sixth-round picks to swing the trade to bring Allen to the Vikings. Clearly, nobody has questioned that move. Hamstrung with a lack of picks, the Vikings selected safety Tyrell Johnson in the second round – there isn’t a lot of support for that pick – as well as selecting DT Letroy Guion, obtained in a subsequent swap of second-round picks with Philadelphia, and center John Sullivan, who was drafted with the pick the Vikings got in return from the Chiefs. Much of that draft had to be graded to include Allen, which would make it an unquestioned success.
In 2009, the Vikings added two full-time starters in Percy Harvin and Phil Loadholt, as well as reserves Asher Allen and Jasper Brinkley. Harvin had slipped in the draft due to reports of a positive Combine test for marijuana, but his talent wasn’t missed on the Vikings. Loadholt was a plodding left tackle that the Vikings were convinced could develop into a dominating road grader on the right side of the line. Asher Allen and Brinkley have both shown flashes of the talent the Vikings believed they could have but haven’t stayed healthy.
The 2010 draft saw the Vikings trade their way out of the first round with mixed results. There is no questioning Chris Cook’s ability as a football player, but the Vikings ignored one of Spielman’s myriad of potential red flags for players (Cook had some issues with academics and a couple of violations of team rules while at Virginia) and made him the first pick of the second round. The team then swung a deal to move up to draft Toby Gerhart. While the move made little sense at the time, given that the Vikings had Peterson already in the fold, Gerhart has proved his worth. In the final day of the draft, the Vikings took a chance on Everson Griffen, who had been graded out as a late first- or second-round prospect, but fell to the fourth round because of red flags of his own. In the sixth round, the team drafted Joe Webb, who they planned to covert to a wide receiver until they saw him whistle the ball on the practice field and made the switch.
Last April, the Vikings finally addressed the quarterback position high in the draft (the first time since they took Daunte Culpepper in the first round of the 1999 draft) by selecting Christian Ponder with the 12th pick. They followed up that selection by taking Kyle Rudolph in the second round. Both are projected to be long-term starters. The jury is still out, as it always is, on the rest of the rookie class, but the team likes what it has seen in players like Christian Ballard (fourth round), Mistral Raymond (sixth round) and Brandon Fusco (sixth round).
Spielman’s drafting résumé is defendable. He has added talented player, especially with his first-round pick, with many more hits than misses when compared to previous Vikings decision-makers that spent a decade adding offensive talent, but by and large whiffing on critical high picks on defense. The inherent problem with the Triangle of Authority, however, was that it didn’t have a buck-stops-here guy.
As the Vikings sank into mediocrity and beyond the last two seasons, the lack of that lone voice came front and center. Childress, who had tenure over Spielman, took control of many personnel situations. In 2010, there was nobody to answer the pressing questions about the status of Brett Favre, who made the call on bringing in Randy Moss, who made the call on getting rid of him (Childress) and what role Spielman played in the hiring of Leslie Frazier. As a vice president of player personnel, he didn’t have his feet publicly put to the fire (for good decisions or bad) because, in most instances, while his was an important voice, it wasn’t the only voice.
The tipping point in the promotion of Spielman to G.M. may well have come from the Donovan McNabb debacle. The Winter Park whispers have it that the decision to bring in McNabb was strongly promoted by Frazier and not nearly as strongly as Spielman, who some have said wanted to bring back a young veteran with starting experience like Thigpen (his guy) via free agency, letting Webb (his guy) compete for the starting job immediately and develop Ponder (his guy). McNabb threw a wrench in that plan and, as everyone was able to see far too easily, he wasn’t the answer to the Vikings’ QB issues.
With his ascent to general manager, Spielman will be the final voice on how the Vikings’ roster is assembled. To date, in his role as the overseer of the draft, he has added players to the roster that have become not just contributors, but the backbone of the franchise moving forward. Now he’s is the chair and the buck stops with him. He will be measured on how quickly his vision can be implemented and how in translates into wins and losses.
At each of the last three pre-draft meetings, I’ve asked Spielman if he considers himself to be a general manager. Each time, to varying degrees, he said he did. Now there’s no debate. He is and his role in the organization will be put under the same microscope the players and coaches are under. He will rise or fall with his own track record as he becomes more of a face of the franchise as they attempt to re-tool a team in need of a significant overhaul. Be careful what you wish for, Rick. Now it’s here and it’s your chance to run with the ball and see how your Vikings legacy will play out.
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.