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Commentary: How good are the Vikings? ‘We’ll find out,’ says GM Rick Spielman

Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman watches a July practice at Vikings training camp at TCO Performance Center. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. - Rick Spielman was as surprised by that game against the Buffalo Bills as you were.

After rallying the week before for what should have been a victory at Green Bay, the Minnesota Vikings stumbled out of the gate against then-winless Buffalo on Sept. 23 at U.S. Bank Stadium and never recovered, turning the ball over three times and failing to get into Bills territory for the entire first half in a 27-6 loss.

“To be honest, the Buffalo game,” Spielman said Tuesday, “that’s not the Minnesota Vikings that played that game.”

It was one of many topics broached in the Vikings general manager’s annual midseason question-and-answer session with reporters.

With the Vikings heading into their bye week, Spielman met with about a dozen reporters at the team’s new headquarters in Eagan and addressed subjects such as that loss to the Bills, the place-kicking that cost them a win against the Packers in Green Bay and whether the Vikings still want to sign linebacker Anthony Barr to a long-term contract extension.

The Vikings have won four of their past five games, including last Sunday’s 24-9 victory over NFC North rival Detroit, which featured a franchise-record 10 sacks and pulled them to within a half-game of first-place Chicago, where they play their next game, Nov. 18 at Soldier Field.

“I’m pretty excited about the direction that we’re heading,” Spielman said.

After advancing to last season’s NFC Championship Game, the Vikings signed Cousins — the best quarterback to hit the free-agent market in years — and appeared to be ready to compete for the team’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1977. But the inexplicable loss to the Bills, and more understandable losses to New Orleans and the Los Angeles, have the Vikings sitting 5-3-1 heading to the final seven games of the regular season.

The Saints (7-1) and Rams (8-1), meanwhile, have emerged as the cream of the NFC, and the Bears (5-3) appear ready to challenge the defending champion Vikings for supremacy in the North.

“I think we have, if we can keep them all healthy, a talented roster. We have an excellent coaching staff, and that’s why we do this, that’s why we try to build this team as best we can in the offseason,” Spielman said. “That’s why we try to lock the guys in that we can lock in, to keep the continuity and try to win the Super Bowl year in and year out.”

Spielman, 55, has been with the Vikings since 2006, the past six as the team’s general manager. He answered questions for 34 minutes at TCO Performance Center; here are his responses to questions on a variety of topics abridged for length.

On what it will take to win the NFC North again …

Right now we’re worried about just Chicago. I mean, it’s a very competitive division. I know everybody’s within a game, half game, two games of each other. For us, the critical part of the season’s coming up because I know we have to play all those folks: we have to play Chicago twice, we have to play Detroit again, we have to play Green Bay again. So, that’s going to (determine) how successful we are this season.

On whether the Vikings were active participants in trade talks (they stood pat at the Oct. 30 deadline) …

Two things. Like everybody, you get a lot of calls and stuff. But I know with how we’ve built this roster and the contract extensions we’ve done, I think we – I told Rob (Brzezinski, executive vice president of football operations), I think we were finally at the time number one in least amount of cap room in the NFL, so we got that going for us. But the most important thing was getting those contracts done. The other thing, too, and I’ve made some mistakes when you make trades during the year, how quickly does that player coming in have an actual impact? How quickly, especially depending on the position, is it going to make a difference? But I think how we’ve structured our roster, how we’ve built it, the way we’ve done our contracts, that we’re always going to kind of do this from within if we can.

On the performance of first-year offensive coordinator John DiFilippo, who was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach last season …

He’s very high-energy. Very wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. … Extremely hard worker. He will take blame when he feels blame needs to be taken. He’s always, like I said, him and that whole offensive side, just like the defensive side, is trying to figure out ways. To be honest, the Buffalo game, that’s not the Minnesota Vikings that played that game. Came back and rallied, and now we learned from the mistakes we made, or why we did this or why we did that. I think he’s evolving now more as a play-caller as we go along, too.

On linebacker Anthony Barr, one of the few young defensive stars without a contract extension in place …

I thought he’s been playing, especially the last three weeks before he got hurt, at a very high level. I know it’s funny, we sit there and watch the tape with Zim in whatever schemes he’s going to come up with to create pressures. He had to get more creative because I think the offenses were always trying to account for where Anthony was. Without Anthony out there, and having an impact on how they’re going to slide their protections or do this or do that, Zim and the defensive staff, (coordinator) George Edwards and all them, they’ve gotten very creative on doing different ways and different combinations. … We want to keep everybody. I’ve always said that, and we’ll always try to do our best to keep all our players. Anthony, we drafted him, and he’s a very good football player for us, and we’ll always look at ways to keep our players the best we can.

On whether NFL leading receiver Adam Thielen deserves a restructured contract …

Every year we’re going to look at where we’re at. We’re always going to do the best we can with the guys we have who can help us win ballgames. … I’m not going to get any business questions.

On the special teams this season under longtime coordinator Mike Priefer …

It’s been some good and bad. I know coach Priefer is working extremely hard. I know we’re playing a lot of young guys. … I think what has happened some is a lot of those guys who were just playing special teams all of a sudden are playing a lot more offense and defense, so now he’s the one that has to try to shuffle all the pieces around to try to bridge this or bridge this. You know, I think, I looked at Anthony Harris’s snaps, I think he played 70 snaps on defense last week, and then the 18 snaps on special teams. That’s a pretty good day’s work. … I think the biggest Achilles heel has just been the kicker and punter, for whatever reason.

On the place-kicking, erratic since Blair Walsh missed the potential winning field goal in the 2015 playoffs …

“I don’t know what it is. I’ve talked to my counterparts around the league. I won’t mention the team, but … he says, ‘I don’t know what to do. We keep bringing guys in and out,’ and they’ve made another change, and it’s just trying to solidify that position. I wish I had an answer for that, because then it’d be resolved. It’s not only us. But I know making a move to get (Dan) Bailey in here was huge for us to try to solidify that.”

On whether he regrets trading two picks to draft Daniel Carlson, who missed three field goal attempts in a 29-29 tie at Green Bay and was released the next day …

“I’m never going to be perfect, but I’m always going to be aggressive, smart aggressive. We go down, we work ’em out, Priefer works ’em out. It’s a subjective thing. It’s not because (Carlson) doesn’t have leg strength, he doesn’t have the ability. For whatever reason, whether that mental thing comes in, I don’t know. I know … he’s kicking in Oakland right now. I think he’s going to be a good kicker in this league. I think it was critical that we did have to make a move, and ultimately as I make the final decision, we did have to move on after that game. I don’t know how he could’ve come back in after missing the three field goals and missing the one to win in Green Bay, which is a tough task to do up in Lambeau. Great kid … It’s just unfortunate what happened, and he understood when I spoke with him. So if you make mistakes, OK, how do you fix them? If we do make a mistake, we try to correct them and get the best solution.

On whether he is done drafting kickers …

No. If I can get someone that can kick until he’s – how long has (Sebastian) Janikowski been kicking? Who knows if you (can) hit a Janikowski in the draft? If you don’t take risks and you don’t take chances, you’ll never know.

On what happened against Buffalo …

I don’t know. … I’m a very big after-action reviewer, not to be a Monday morning quarterback, but actually go back. I’ve got pages and pages of notes of things we did good and things we did bad — all the time, not only on game days but what we do in scouting, what we do in everything. But that Buffalo game, I don’t know why it happened. It may seem silly, but we go three-and-out and then Linval Joseph gets a roughing-the-passer penalty and then Anthony Barr gets another penalty on that same drive. It never stopped from there. … We score right off the bat last week and then the defense ends up playing lights out, because I think they feed off each other. For whatever reason (against Buffalo), after that penalty we never got out of a spiral down hill.

On Everson Griffen’s return from a month-long leave of absence to begin mental health treatment …

Our ownership has never said no to trying to provide the best resources that we can, and Everson is in a very good spot now. But it’s not (just) OK today, it’s an ongoing thing. Everson is hell bent on being a success story, but I want to make sure as an organization, we put all the pieces in place to make sure that he has the best chance of success. … I’m not a mental health expert. I know that when you do see signs of some things — I’ll just say the ownership is going to provide the resources necessary, but at times it has to be the person, too, who has to be willing to go get the help. … I know players usually want to go get an ankle fixed if they can get it fixed. Sometimes people will, in general, they won’t want to be seen as weak, or, ‘OK, mental health issue,’ then they won’t go get the help and the resources necessary.

On whether the Vikings are as good as any team in the NFL …

We’ll find out. I know right now we’re going to have a tough task ahead of us.

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