Let’s give it up for Trader Rick. Few men in this universe can say that they pull their suit pants up over their shoes and make 10-6 records. In his time with Minnesota, he’s attempted to set a world record for most seventh-round draft picks, pledged loyalty to a coach who abhors the forward pass, and handed $84 million to a man who drives a $350 van.
He’s a renaissance man — a true, red-blooded swindler.
In all seriousness, Rick Spielman has his merits as the general manager of the Minnesota Vikings. But in many ways, his fate seems tied to Mike Zimmer, the coach he hand-picked in 2014 to succeed Leslie Frasier. Both are in the final year of their contract, and conventional wisdom indicates that if the Wilfs move on from Zimmer this year, Spielman will be shown the door as well.
I’d contend that Spielman’s employment should be tethered to Kirk Cousins, the quarterback he handed a fully guaranteed contract to in 2018. Spielman has done well in the draft and fostered a culture where players are accountable and represent the organization well. But quarterback has always been his bugaboo, and a GM without a star quarterback will soon be looking for a new job.
It’s not necessary to explain the importance of quarterback play in the NFL, but it can create misperceptions about how well a team is managed. Bill Belichick’s poor drafting record didn’t become a talking point until Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. And Aaron Rodgers probably allowed Mike McCarthy to hang on an extra few years because his play covered McCarthy’s shortcomings as a coach.
Conversely, the Chicago Bears have one of the best defenses in the league and a coach who led them to a division championship in his first year. Still, they would never be considered a contender with Mitchell Trubisky under center. Similarly, Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement during a preseason game left a relatively well-constructed roster in the lurch. The Indianapolis Colts couldn’t have accounted for Luck’s retirement at age 29, but it’s still on the GM to replace him in short order, circumstances be damned.
Spielman’s long tenure with the Vikings makes assessing culpability difficult at times. He replaced Fran Foley as the Vice President of Player Personnel in 2006 and emerged from the triangle of power to become the general manager in 2012. Anyone who has been with a franchise that long will have their share of mishaps, and few will earn universal approval. But no GM survives without championship-level quarterback play, and Spielman has never been able to find his guy.
Everyone knows the details. Spielman inherits Christian Ponder. Drafts Teddy Bridgewater. Trades for Sam Bradford when Teddy blows out his knee. Watches Case Keenum take one of the best defensive teams ever to the NFC Championship. Signs Cousins.
What’s important to assess here is his judgment in evaluating the most critical position in football. He was around when Ponder was taken 12th overall in 2011 but was not the sole decision-maker. Bridgewater had a non-contact injury after practice, and Spielman’s decision to trade a first-round pick and a conditional fourth was the correct move at the time. It displayed the appropriate urgency. Keenum stepped up when Bradford got hurt.
I understand the frustration with Cousins, but we have to treat the original $84 million contract and the extension separately. Signing Cousins was akin to the Bradford deal. The Vikings were coming off a run to the NFC Championship. As we all know now, the defensive core wasn’t going to last forever, and Keenum never became a regular starter after leaving Minnesota. But extending Cousins created the situation they are in now where he has a $31 million cap hit this year and puts a $45 million dent in it next year, which is too much for a player who does not drive winning.
Tying Spielman’s fate to Zimmer almost lets him off the hook for the Cousins extension. Yes, Spielman hired a defense-first curmudgeon, an old-school sexagenarian who coached through an eye injury and hunts varmints on his Kentucky ranch. Sean McVay and Kliff Kingsbury he is not.
I’m not discounting that this is a pass-first league where young, innovative coaches compete with established guys like Belichick and Andy Reid. But Leslie Frasier was hired before Spielman had complete control, so Zimmer is the only coach he’s hired autonomously. Shouldn’t he be allowed to make a coaching change before he’s fired? Furthermore, why should another GM have to deal with Cousins’ $45 million cap hit next year?
Spielman has shown an aptitude for finding value in the draft. For every Laquon Treadwell, there’s a Justin Jefferson. For every Mike Hughes, a Xavier Rhodes. Nobody will hit on every pick, and he likely won’t ever top the 2015 draft where he took Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, and Stefon Diggs.
But he manipulates the draft board to his will, finding value in a league where the Green Bay Packers draft a backup for their receiver-deprived MVP quarterback at 26th overall, and the Seattle Seahawks took a third-round linebacker with the next pick. And Spielman just had a good draft. Jefferson broke Randy Moss’ rookie records. Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler were able to hold their own by the end of the season. Ezra Cleveland looks like a much-needed addition to an annually shoddy defensive line. That should buy him time.
He’s a modern-day GM with a retrograde coach and a vanilla quarterback.
The returns on Zimmer have been mixed. They had the 13-3 season in 2017 but have hovered around .500 since. He was a find in some ways. He was so uncertain he’d get the job that he almost didn’t show up for the interview. Other GMs have done worse.
Cousins looks like Spielman’s white elephant. He was supposed to be the player Washington never fully appreciated, a good ol’ Midwestern boy who would elevate a team with an elite defense that was on the doorstep of a Super Bowl berth. Instead, he’s been good enough to put up stats that poorly reflect his performance in meaningful games.
Spielman has backed Cousins every step of the way. Even last year, when the team was 1-5 and would have been justified in having a bye-week fire sale, Spielman gave a whole-hearted endorsement of his quarterback. We just don’t know if that’s because he believes in Cousins, or he knows that he has to say so publicly because he gave him an almost unmovable deal.
By tying Spielman to his coach, he’s going to be inclined to think like him. Win now. Play to Zimmer’s strengths. Sign Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson instead of patching up the offensive line. If he’s tied to Cousins, maybe he looks at the receiver market or emphasizes protection for him, knowing it can only make him better. Perhaps he pulls off a Cousins trade, convincing ownership that if he can move off that contract, he can trade up to take a quarterback and get out of cap hell.
The decision to tether Spielman to Zimmer will have ramifications for years to come. If this team struggles and the Wilfs fire Spielman and Zimmer, the next regime inherits Cousins’ $45 million hit, Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson on multi-year deals, and Dalvin Cook’s massive extension. They will take on a team built to run the ball and stop the run.
Instead, why not give Spielman a chance to rectify the Cousins situation by building him an offensive line and giving him more weapons next year? He’s already got a massive hit. Worst-case scenario, Cousins would be off the books by the time a new GM took over. It seems fitting that Spielman’s fate would be linked to Cousins. In some ways, it already is.