Vikings GM Spielman optimistic about a bounce-back season
EAGAN, Minn. — Rick Spielman liked how the retooled Minnesota Vikings played this spring in shorts. Soon, he’ll find out how they do in full gear.
The general manager spent the offseason tinkering mostly with the offense after the Vikings finished a disappointing 8-7-1 and failed to make the NFL playoffs last year. Training camp began Tuesday at the TCO Performance Center in Eagan with 37 rookies and select veterans who were allowed to report early. The first full-squad workout will be Friday, with Sunday scheduled to be the first session in pads.
“We’re excited about how we ended the offseason, the progress that was made, the guys learning a new (offensive) system from what they did last year,” Spielman said. “But that was all done in shorts. Now, we get the opportunity to get started in pads.”
The Vikings began last season with Super Bowl aspirations after reaching the NFC championship game in 2017. But in the first year with quarterback Kirk Cousins, they failed to return to the playoffs, getting eliminated in a disappointing 24-10 home loss to the Chicago Bears in the regular-season finale.
Spielman expects Cousins, who was on hand for Tuesday’s first practice, to be better in his second season with the team. The Vikings shook up their coaching staff, naming Kevin Stefanski offensive coordinator after he held that role on an interim basis for the final three games of 2018, and hiring Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach and offensive adviser and Rick Dennison as offensive line coach and run-game coordinator.
A primary focus was to rebuild a shaky offensive line. Josh Kline was signed as a free agent and is in line to start at right guard. Garrett Bradbury was drafted with the No. 18 pick to start at center, with Pat Elflein shifting from center to left guard.
“I know last year was disappointing because of where we felt we were and where we ended up,” Spielman said. “I know we did a lot of things to try and correct those areas that we needed to address in the offseason, and I think we’ve accomplished that so far.”
So is there a sense of urgency in 2019 for the Vikings to show improvement?
“If you come into a season without a sense of urgency, you’re probably in the wrong business,” Spielman said. “I think every year, if you talk to 31 other teams going into (training camp), everyone expects to go out there and win a championship, or else you shouldn’t be in this business.”
Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer both were entering a final contract year until receiving one-year extensions over the winter. But both could be gone in 2020 if the Vikings miss the playoffs again.
Minnesota’s defense is mostly the same from a unit that was ranked No. 1 in the NFL in 2017 and fourth in 2018. Zimmer, though, did spend the offseason fidgeting with his defense, and he plans to use different personnel groupings, alignments and blitzes.
Zimmer has talked in the past about possibly turning play calling over to defensive coordinator George Edwards in order to focus more on other aspects of the game. He was mum on that Tuesday, including whether Edwards might call plays in a preseason game.
“I don’t know,” Zimmer said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Zimmer dismissed using last year’s disappointing record for motivation as training camp begins.
“We’ve moved on from last year,” he said. “Every year’s a new year, and we go from there. We’ve talked about things that we need to do better in the spring, but now it’s all about moving forward and where we’ve got to go and how we have to approach things.”
Spielman is counting on a better season from Cousins, who, along with all quarterbacks, can participate in three practices before most veterans first take the field Friday. Cousins passed for 4,298 yards and a career-high 30 touchdowns but was intercepted 10 times and tied for the NFL lead with seven lost fumbles.
“I know just watching him from an evaluation standpoint through (spring drills) and stuff, it was totally different than him coming in last year and trying to learn a whole new system and his comfort level and him understanding what’s being asked of him to do,” Spielman said.
Helping Cousins has been an offensive system more familiar to what he ran during his days as Washington’s starting quarterback from 2015-17. Helping install the system has been Kubiak, who seems quite content in a support role four years after he won Super Bowl 50 as Denver’s head coach.
“The one thing that’s going to detail our success this year is that there’s no egos up there,” Spielman said of the revamped offensive coaching staff. “Everybody contributes, everybody has opinions, everybody’s opinions are heard.”