The Wilfs Must Balance Continuity and Culture With Their Next Hire

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings are a couple of good decisions away from being great. Unlike other teams with general manager and head coaching vacancies, they have the foundation of a winning team in place. Justin Jefferson is a transcendent superstar. Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, and Danielle Hunter give the defense something to build on. Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook have expensive contracts, but they give Minnesota’s next GM and coach veteran incumbents at two crucial spots.

Choose the right coach and GM, and the Vikings can join the league’s upper-echelon franchises. We’re talking the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Seattle Seahawks. The (gasp) Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints. Even the New England Patriots. But if the new GM misses on his coaching hire and gets nothing out of his first couple of drafts, Minnesota will remain in football purgatory. Or worse.

Continuity is what separates the NFL’s best organizations from the worst.

  • Bill Belichick has lorded over the Pats since the turn of the century.
  • Mickey Loomis has been the GM in New Orleans since 2002. Sean Payton has coached them since 2006.
  • Kevin Colbert has been the Steelers’ GM since 2000. Mike Tomlin has coached them since 2007.
  • Ozzie Newsome was the GM in Baltimore from 2002 to 2018. Eric DeCosta, their current GM, has been with the Ravens since 1996. John Harbaugh has coached them since 2008.
  • Ted Thompson started running the Packers in 2005, and Brian Gutekunst took over in 2018 after spending 20 years in the organization. They probably held onto Mike McCarthy too long and nailed the Matt LaFleur hire in 2019.
  • John Schneider and Pete Carroll have been together in Seattle since 2010.

Continuity often gets conflated with mediocrity. Nobody wants Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton; they want Zac Taylor and Joe Burrow. But an ownership group that seeks to have the same people in place are not settling for middling results. It’s a winning formula — but only if the people you have in place can win you a championship and you can be assured that your commitment to continuity doesn’t adversely affect the people you put in power.

Rick Spielman had been with the Vikings since 2006 and took over as general manager in 2012. Mike Zimmer has coached them since 2014. Continuity turned Spielman into a recluse and Zimmer into a tyrant. Spielman spoke to the media only when required to by the league, and Zimmer failed to greet his players in the hallways and engineered a “fear-based” culture.

Both of them had their merits, as well. Spielman knew how to read the draft board, and he found value with his late selections. Zimmer’s defenses were innovative, and he maximized great players like Smith, Anthony Barr, and Xavier Rhodes.

But their once-endearing quirks became vices over time.

Spielman understood late-round value but started hoarding a concerning amount of picks. Trading for Sam Bradford seemed like warranted urgency. The Yannick Ngakoue and Chris Herndon deals seemed reckless. By being more available to the public, he would have better explained how he values picks and why he feels the need to add players immediately before the season.

Similarly, Zimmer was initially embraced for his curmudgeonly behavior. Who doesn’t embrace a guy who uses his platform to flame-broil McDonald’s for shorting him a burger? He loves his players, but he doesn’t suffer fools! In Zim we trust! However, he eventually became difficult to play for, especially for younger players. That’s not a winning formula in a league where rookies are expected to make an immediate impact.

What made their behavior particularly difficult to explain is that they had more job security than almost anyone else in the league. Spielman could botch a trade or miss on a draft class, and Zimmer didn’t have to win 10 games every year. They both had money left on their contracts when the Wilfs dismissed them.

Ultimately, the Wilfs will benefit from their commitment to continuity, even if Spielman and Zimmer never built a contender. Not only have the Vikings been relevant most of the time they’ve owned the team, but they have trusted people within the organization who are helping them with their GM and coaching search. Chief among them is cap wiz Rob Brzezinski, who has been with the organization since 1999.

It looks like they’ve narrowed down their GM search to Ryan Poles and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. Whoever they choose will select the next coach. Maybe the Vikings will find their next Payton and Loomis or Tomlin and Colbert. But they might not.

The Wilfs aren’t football people, but they need to do two things. They need to ensure the people they have in place will take the Vikings to heights they never reached under Zimmer and Spielman. And they need to make sure that whoever they hire creates the culture they want and is transparent in their actions.

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