Facing a rebuilding effort that extends from the roster to the stadium, the Vikings added to their off-season questions
This is an article from the May 9, 2011 issue
Nothing about Steve Maki makes you do a double take. In his slacks and button-down shirt, the director of facilities and engineering for the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission in Minneapolis looks like the quintessential Midwestern businessman. Then Maki slips on a hard hat and a large black harness fitted with heavy metal clasps, and he climbs onto the roof of the Metrodome—or what's left of it—to oversee repairs.
On a dark December morning last year, during a massive snowstorm, three of the 106 panels in the stadium's air-supported roof collapsed, an event captured live by Fox cameras set up for a game that day: The fiberglass fabric panels sag from the weight of the snow that accumulated on the roof, then rip open, allowing tons of powder to cascade onto the empty field below, followed moments later by the crash of giant speakers. Maki has spent much of the last four months surveying the damage, security cables snapped to his harness. He is responsible for overseeing the replacement of every panel, and last week he insisted that the facility would reopen by Aug. 1. Less certain is whether the renovation will be as swift in the nearby suburb of Eden Prairie.
That's where the Vikings's staff is trying to rebuild, retool, rebound—supply your own word—after a head-shaking 2010 season which concluded with iconic quarterback Brett Favre's presumably final retirement. You have to wonder whether vice president Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier face a tougher job than Maki. They have holes on both lines and, depending on the labor situation, could lose at least two key veterans, wide receiver Sidney Rice and defensive tackle Pat Williams, to free agency.
Most important, Minnesota lacks an elite quarterback; without one, an NFL team has essentially no chance of even making noise in the postseason. That's why, with free agency and trades in limbo, three QBs were drafted in the top 10 last week for the first time since 1999, and why seven went in the first three rounds. Were they all deserving? No. But desperate teams—ones that, say, finish 6--10 and have gray skies peeking through the openings of their stadium's roof—do desperate things.
Spielman's selection of Christian Ponder at No. 12 caused gasps around the league. The 6'2", 229-pound Florida State grad, who is working on his second master's degree, was highly regarded for his football intellect, but scouts questioned his arm strength and durability. (He missed four games in '09 with a separated shoulder.) The Vikings began breaking down college passers in December, identifying nine prospects and putting them under the microscope. Ultimately they winnowed the list to a group thought to have included (in order) Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Ponder. On the eve of the draft Spielman, Frazier, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson, director of college scouting Scott Studwell and director of player personnel George Paton spent 3½ hours reviewing their findings and presenting their opinions for the final time. They figured Newton and Gabbert would be gone by the time they were on the clock, but that Locker, the four-year starter from Washington, would be there.
He wasn't. The Titans, shockingly, selected Locker eighth. The Jaguars then traded up to 10 to get Gabbert. At that point Minnesota, knowing the Texans weren't going to take a QB at 11, attempted to trade down a spot or two to at least regain the third-round pick they'd lost in the ill-conceived deal for Randy Moss last fall. Still, they believed Ponder wouldn't last past No. 15 (Dolphins) or 16 (Redskins), so they "reached" for the Seminoles' passer. At which point fans at the party the team was hosting in its practice facility erupted in boos.
Spielman said before the draft that he expected to face a dilemma: whether to stick to his board or make a move for a QB who might not be the top player available. Afterward, however, he insisted the Ponder pick was a no-brainer. Ponder started for three years in a pro-style offense, and his acumen was attractive because the lockout might prevent teams from having a full off-season with their rookies.
Moreover, Frazier believes the Vikings can win even if his QB is just sound rather than spectacular, limiting mistakes and putting the ball in the hands of established playmakers like All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson and wideout Percy Harvin. Frazier also has an experienced staff that should take the pressure off Ponder. Musgrave, the new coordinator, played a key role in the development of Matt Ryan, who led the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie starter; Johnson was Vince Young's position coach when Young was voted offensive rookie of the year in '06 and led Tennessee to the playoffs in '07. "Those guys are two of the best at what they do," Frazier said two days before the draft. "If we choose a young quarterback, I'm confident we can get him to where we want him to be."
Minnesota hasn't ruled out acquiring a veteran quarterback when the labor situation clears, but Spielman implied last Saturday that it might be as a backup and not as a starter. Donovan McNabb, who lost his starting job with Washington last season, has been rumored as a potential pickup, but there's no way the Vikings would want his current contract, which calls for him to make roughly $16 million in salary and bonuses in 2011. So it's back to Ponder, who would compete with Joe Webb (two career starts, 0 TDs, three INTs), Rhett Bomar (zero career pass attempts) and journeyman Patrick Ramsey.
The Vikings would love to see Ponder become the face of their campaign for a new stadium—another layer in their off-season of intrigue. Their Metrodome lease expires after 2011, and the club has let it be known it will not sign an extension without a commitment for a new indoor stadium. Lester Bagley, the team's vice president of public affairs and stadium development, says the Vikings hope this week to announce an agreement with a local partner who would contribute a third of the funding toward a $900 million facility. The team would pay another third and is asking the state to contribute the final $300 million. Minnesota is struggling with a $5 billion budget deficit, but there's no way the project will get done without state funding.
To believe otherwise would be as foolish as walking the Metrodome roof without a hard hat and a harness—or, possibly, as putting the football and the fate of the franchise in the hands of a rookie quarterback who is supposed to make fans instantly forget their gray-stubbled gunslinger.