Combine'11: Minnesota's unenviable task
February, 25, 2011
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
US Presswire/Icon SMIWill the Minnesota Vikings position themselves to draft Auburn's Cam Newton, left, Washington's Jake Locker, center, or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert?INDIANAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings arrived at this week's scouting combine carrying the most intense personnel burden a team can face: They have no starting quarterback and no clear path for finding an obvious answer in the draft.
You've heard of the Scarlet Letter? In the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, Hester Prynne is forced to wear an "A" on her chest to signify a moral crime. So let's assign our own Scarlet Letter to the Vikings for putting themselves in this position. We'll slap them with a "B." Their cupboard is Barren at the most important position in professional sports, a hole that will swallow up their new coaching staff unless it is filled quickly and creatively this offseason.
"We're going to look at all avenues at the quarterback [position]," vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said at the NFL scouting combine, which he and his scouts are scouring for quarterback options. "... But you're hoping that by the time all the dust settles and we're getting ready to go into the season that we have that position pretty much resolved."
We've seen this act before, of course. Consider the first chart: The Vikings have been patching together this position for an extended period of their history, spanning multiple ownership regimes, personnel executives and coaching staffs.
In the 21 years since Tommy Kramer's final season, the Vikings have used 10 different primary starters. Most recently, they set themselves back with an indefensible plan to develop Tarvaris Jackson as their long-term answer. Jackson is a pending free agent and, with the departure of coach/benefactor Brad Childress, seems unlikely to return.
That leaves the Vikings with second-year player Joe Webb as the only returning player who has taken a snap with the team. Spielman said "we're very excited about what Joe Webb brings to the table," but it's hard to believe that new coach Leslie Frazier will open his first full season with a player as raw as Webb as his starter.
History has showed the Vikings can find a temporary solution. This year, it could be Donovan McNabb, Kyle Orton, Vince Young or some other passer whose previous team is willing to part ways. But more important to me is whether the Vikings will make the long-overdue plunge into planning their future at the position.
In their 50-year history, the Vikings have drafted only two quarterbacks in the first round: Kramer in 1977 and Daunte Culpepper in 1999. It only takes a look around the NFC North to realize that finding a long-term starter in the modern-day NFL usually requires a first-round commitment. That's how the Detroit Lions got Matthew Stafford (No. 1 overall). It's how the Chicago Bears acquired Jay Cutler (two first-round picks in a trade) and it's how the Green Bay Packers secured Aaron Rodgers (No. 24 overall).
Can the Vikings make a similar grab at No. 12 overall this year? Will they move up to ensure they can draft Auburn's Cam Newton or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, both of whom will likely be off the board at No. 12? Would Washington's Jake Locker make sense at that spot? Or would the Vikings identify a second-level prospect, perhaps Florida State's Christian Ponder, and maneuver to draft him in the second or third round?
That approach is how the Vikings landed Jackson in 2006, and Childress' insistence that Jackson would develop into a permanent starter held back the team from planning for the eventual retirement of Brett Favre. My understanding is that even last year, Childress' vision was for Jackson to take over whenever Favre retired.
That position caused considerable consternation within the Vikings' front office, which under Spielman had taken a proactive approach to planning for other veteran departures. Center John Sullivan, for example, was drafted in 2008 with the intent of replacing Matt Birk. The same was true for safety Tyrell Johnson, who took over for Darren Sharper in 2009.
Never in his career had Jackson demonstrated the aptitude to be a long-term starter. So why didn't the Vikings seek a successor to Favre as they had with Birk, Sharper and others? I asked Spielman that question Thursday, fully expecting to get the answer he provided.
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesQuarterback Joe Webb is the only returning player who has taken a snap with the Vikings.
"We're excited to move forward on everything," Spielman said through gritted teeth.
The real answer, of course, is that Childress had amassed enough internal power to serve as the Vikings' general manager when it came to quarterbacks. He plainly disapproved of Spielman's decision to acquire Sage Rosenfels two years ago and summarily buried him on the bench. And in the previous three years, the only quarterback the Vikings drafted was USC's John David Booty, a project who didn't make it past his rookie year.
Vikings fans should feel optimistic that Frazier agrees with Spielman on the state of the position. And in truth, the first offseason of a coaching regime can and should be a seminal moment at the quarterback position.
On Thursday, I sought out Lions coach Jim Schwartz to talk about the similar position he found himself in two years ago. The Lions had the No. 1 pick, of course, but Schwartz knew he wanted to build his program around the identity of his quarterback.
"[Drafting Stafford] allowed us to select personnel," Schwartz said. "You're not spinning your wheels. If you don't have a quarterback, you're drafting maybe a different kind of running back, maybe a different kind of offensive lineman, than if you have somebody. We had Calvin Johnson. But our ability to get Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson in free agency, to draft Brandon Pettigrew. Those pieces were because of the quarterback that we have. You're probably not going to run the ball 45 times per game when you have a quarterback that you want the ball in his hands.
"So in order to make progress, in order to fit guys to where they're going to be, in order to fit guys to a job description, you need to know what that job description is going to be. Having a quarterback settles a lot of that, knowing what that quarterback can do, knowing his ability to make throws, knowing his ability to process things, those kinds of things, it's all very important.
"The quarterback is the most important position on the team, and if you're strong at that position, you can overcome weaknesses at other positions."
Injuries have prevented Stafford from establishing himself as a franchise anchor, but the point is the Lions have built their team with a clear vision based on his presence. That's something the Vikings have done only rarely in their history.
As the second chart shows, they haven't had many opportunities. The Vikings' prospects for drafting a blue-chip passer at No. 12 overall are murky at best, but years of neglect and poor evaluations have left the Vikings in an unenviable spot.
No one wants their hand forced in a draft, but the Vikings are as close as they can be to that ultimatum. We've seen how far the Band-Aid solution can take them. They won't win a championship with someone else's quarterback. Even they now realize it's time to find one of their own.