Rick Spielman refers to himself as the “COVID police” nowadays. During his 25-minute press conference Monday — shortly after the announced a multi-year contract extension for their longtime general manager — Spielman removed his face covering and talked as much about bubbles, masks and virus tests as he did about football.
For a GM who operates in minutiae — whether it’s scouring draft profiles for potential UDFAs, rigging his home with elaborate fail-safes in case April’s virtual draft went awry or taking scrupulous notes while he watches each rep of training camp practice — the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic requires the detail-oriented approach to which Spielman is accustomed. There is a lot on his plate as the Vikings’ truncated training camp gets rolling. Much of it has little to do with football, and the elements that do require an adaptable, creative mindset.
The sum of the parts sets up a trying year for the Vikings’ chief decision-maker, but the team demonstrated its faith in Spielman by doling out the extension that will tie him to the franchise for the next several seasons. But any pressure that fans may feel is taken off Spielman by the new contract is likely offset by the increased pressure of having to navigate the harrowing waters of 2020.
“I think we really believe in the systems that we have in place,” Spielman said. “Everybody works together going in one direction. There’s no political or B.S. going on. Everybody just wants to pitch in and help in whatever areas they can. You’re always going to have an evolution of a roster, and we knew going into this year that there were going to be some changes made, so the point of emphasis was getting a lot of these young guys in and Coach Zimmer and his staff coming up with a great plan on how we’re going to have a lot of these guys step up and compete.
“I know we’re going to go through some growing pains here, but just having full belief in Coach Zim and the coaching staff on developing these guys.”
Piecing together a 53-man roster and expanded 16-man practice squad will be challenging enough with only a few weeks of practices, but all 32 teams will have to contend with the perpetual threat of COVID-19 removing players on any given day. Before the Vikings held their first walkthrough, they were forced to place nearly a tenth of their 87-man roster on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, not including starting nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out of the season. Five of the eight who were initially placed on the list remain there as they quarantine away from the team facility. That group includes rookie first-round pick Justin Jefferson.
Because of the potential for increased roster movement, Spielman and Co. will need to rely on their practice squad to backfill any spots left open by unexpected positive tests. It will be harder to bring in free agent tryouts midseason since all prospective players must go through a five-day “pre-entry phase” before they can get on the field.
A significant outbreak at the wrong time could doom a team’s season, so keeping the team healthy will be Step 1 in keeping the team competitive. That will require buy-in to the strict protocols. Spielman, for instance, reportedly quarantined for a month so he wouldn’t be sick during the draft. But the general manager will have to trust his roster to make the right decisions off the field to prevent any outbreaks like the ones currently affecting Major League Baseball. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have been forced to postpone numerous games due to outbreaks in their locker room.
“Everybody from the staff to the players, when you go home you have to have just as much responsibility outside the building as you do inside the building,” Spielman said. “I think our guys understand how important it is, because the team that’s able to probably stay the healthiest, and control what they can control, may have the best competitive advantage, especially going through this year.”
Zimmer and Spielman’s influence will be key as they evangelize the message about player safety to a large roster. But as the diagnosis of infection control officer Eric Sugarman showed, the virus can find even the most cautious of people. Roster management will be fluid throughout the season, forcing the Vikings, perhaps, to hit the field without vital talent.
“At some positions, we’re pretty young,” Zimmer said. “But honestly, that doesn’t bother me. Today we were out there at the walk-through, and we had some second-year players out there, and they seem like they’ve grown up quite a bit. Like I said before, I feel refreshed. We’ve got a job that we have to do, no matter who’s out there – whether it’s young guys, old guys, whoever it is – so it’s kind of refreshing.”
There will be plenty of distractions for the Vikings to deal with this season, though the extensions given to Spielman and Zimmer squashed one of them. Now the two most visible Vikings leaders will have to earn their money.