Last week, I was listening to an episode of the Around The NFL Podcast, specifically a segment about ugly truths. One of the podcast members, Gregg Rosenthal, pointed out the likely futility of any move the Vikings made (or could have made) on the offensive line. While Reiff and Remmers are not the worst options on the market, they certainly left a lot to be desired, and can’t be expected to turn protection into a strength. But beyond that, he noted that there may not have been a better option on the table. Rosenthal has a point- the Vikings’ offensive line is such a mess, no move can fix it short of a long-term rebuild. By the time that is complete, problems will inevitably surface elsewhere on the team. If Super Bowl windows exist, the Vikings’ would be long gone.
So how did we get to this point? Offensive lines don’t deteriorate overnight. The Vikings spent the most on big uglies in the league in 2016, yet the unit was one of the worst. You could point to negligence in the draft, though, the highest pick the Vikings have had since 1985 went toward offensive line, and until last year, four of the five week 1 starters were draft picks. A confluence of several different factors, failures, and strokes of bad luck put us in the situation we see now, and it makes sense to lay it all out, blow by blow.
So we start our story at the height of the Vikings’ O-line. The 2012 unit blocked for Adrian Peterson’s 2,000 yard season, earning him an MVP. In 2012, the Vikings used the 4th overall pick to select pro-ready, elite prospect Matt Kalil. Charlie Johnson, 2011’s left tackle, kicked inside to guard. He played next John Sullivan, a standout center and solidified cornerstone. Right guard Geoff Schwartz had suffered a sports hernia, making way for Brandon Fusco to break out and steal the job. Phil Loadholt rounded out the line at right tackle, having developed from a 2009 draft pick into a capable starter.
You may argue that the group played better in 2013, though the team itself was not as successful. Most of the problems were pinned on the defense, and OL coach Jeff Davidson was able to bring the whole unit back for all of 2014. Brandon Fusco signed an extension after coming off a strong year, and Charlie Johnson re-signed to keep the unit together. The team also re-signed Joe Berger, a journeyman depth player who had only started in a couple of games in purple. At this point in Vikingland, the offensive line was seen as a strength on a team with many weaknesses. It’s during the 2014 season where the story of decline truly starts.
The 2014 season saw an uncommon number of unforeseen setbacks. Matt Kalil regressed, possibly due to injury or due to bad habits picked up during other undisclosed injuries. After the season he underwent knee surgery, so clearly something was amiss. Next to Kalil, Charlie Johnson had plenty of issues, and was released as a cap casualty. This was the first chink in the armor for a unit that had largely stayed together for three years. While John Sullivan remained healthy and capable, the right side was decimated. Brandon Fusco tore his pectoral in week 3, leaving journeyman backup Vladimir Ducasse to take the reigns. Ducasse played poorly, and was eventually replaced by Joe Berger. At right tackle, Loadholt played reasonably until tearing his own pectoral muscle, ending his season after 11 games. Mike Harris, a waiver claim from the offseason, filled in.
This is a mountain of problems to deal with from a unit that had stayed reasonably intact the two years prior. Suddenly four of five previously reliable players had uncertainty surrounding them. The Vikings had some decisions to make. Most pressingly, the Vikings had no starter at left guard. After attempting to sign Mike Iupati, who chose Arizona instead, the Vikings decided to address Johnson’s vacany by moving Brandon Fusco to left guard. The Vikings then resolved to fill their right guard position with competition between 5th round pick (and 3rd round prospect) David Yankey, 4th round pick (2nd round prospect) T.J. Clemmings, Berger, Ducasse, Harris, and others. There was hope that Fusco and Loadholt would come back healthy, and with a small potential weakness at right guard, the line would function normally.
Narrator: It did not function normally.
2015 started off with two devastating injuries. Phil Loadholt tore his Achilles in the second preseason game. John Sullivan suffered back spasms that would have killed the first half of his season, but a later setback ensured he’d miss the whole thing. The Achilles is a long way away from the pectoral, and Sullivan had a relatively healthy track record up to that point. They traded for Jeremiah Sirles, and later Nick Easton to re-load on depth.
The problems didn’t end there. Kalil improved, but not enough. Fusco failed at left guard. Joe Berger filled in at center, and while he played admirably, the right tackle position wasn’t so well-covered. T.J. Clemmings was an unmitigated disaster. Mike Harris ended up winning the right guard spot, and that gamble was the only one that paid off, earning him another contract. The Vikings entered the 2016 offseason with problems to address.
The Vikings started out by allowing Jeff Davidson to walk away, replacing him with lauded OL coach Tony Sparano. Moving Brandon Fusco to left guard didn’t work out, so the Vikings moved him back. They filled the left guard slot in the way they wanted to in 2015, with a free agent – Alex Boone from San Francisco. Joe Berger played well enough in 2015 to legitimately challenge John Sullivan, and Mike Harris was to compete with Brandon Fusco. Phil Loadholt would hopefully return from his Achilles injury, but just in case, the Vikings signed Andre Smith as a contingency plan. Matt Kalil’s situation was particularly unique – his 5th year option carried a heavy price tag, but alternatives were limited, and this led to the Vikings rolling with Kalil at LT.
2016’s problems started before the season did. Mike Harris suffered an undisclosed medical issue that kept him off the field for this season and the foreseeable future. Phil Loadholt suffered an injury unrelated to his Achilles that pushed him into retirement. Immediately, two projected camp competitions were decided by default. Berger won his competition, pushing the Vikings to cut John Sullivan after eight years. The Vikings entered the season with Kalil, Boone, Berger, Fusco and Smith up front. Kalil’s season ended up being only two weeks long after a hip injury, and Andre Smith ended up on IR two weeks later. T.J. Clemmings initially filled in for Kalil (it went as poorly as you’d expect), but when Smith went down, Clemmings moved to the right side and the Vikings signed Jake Long to play on the left. Jake Long only lasted four games before an Achilles injury (a ligament he’d never torn before) landed him on IR. Clemmings moved back to the left, with Jeremiah Sirles filling in on the right. Fusco struggled, also suffering two concussions over the course of the season. Sirles played at right guard in Fusco’s stead, also filling in intermittently at left guard during a minor Alex Boone injury. Joe Berger also suffered a concussion, with Nick Easton replacing him. 2016 threw one final punch when T.J. Clemmings left the season finale with an elbow injury.
With the release of Kalil and Fusco after the 2016 season, the formerly reliable 2013 unit had completely disbanded. Rick Spielman was left grasping for whatever talent he could talk himself into in hopes that a once-proud position group would be simply below average. It’s easy to take this entire mess and pin it on the general manager, but sorting out the bad decisions, the good decisions and the results requires a degree of hindsight-averse sobriety.
So… is all of this Spielman’s fault? Should we be lambasting him for overall negligence of the offensive line, poor evaluation, and putting him on the hot seat? Or is this mess more of a result of unlucky injuries, unforeseeable regression, and ultimately responsible decisions bouncing the wrong way?
Any way you slice it, Rick Spielman’s had a piss poor run of luck. Some injuries, like Harris’s mystery illness or Sullivan’s back issues, were just rolls of the dice gone awry. Replacing starters is never smooth, and often the best decision simply mitigates damage rather than fixes the problem outright. Even “injury prone” players weren’t aggravating existing injuries- Phil Loadholt’s pectoral has nothing to do with the structural integrity of his Achilles. The same goes for Kalil’s knees and hip, Jake Longs’ ACL and Achilles, and Fusco’s pectoral and concussions. No GM, under those circumstances, would have even an average line, let alone a good one.
It seems overly apologetic to blame the offensive line woes on luck alone, however. Spielman did make some critical mistakes that compounded an already impossible situation. Moving Fusco, who was already rusty, to left guard was inadvisable from the start. Even if that’s a coach’s decision, it stemmed from the refusal to settle for a 2nd-tier starter in 2015. It was also a mistake to enter 2015 with no clear answer at right guard, even though Mike Harris luckily thrived there. Remove hindsight, and that’s an unnecessary risk. Retaining Matt Kalil on his 5th year option was inevitable, but entering the 2016 season with no viable alternative is almost inexcusable. This was a problem before Kalil’s injury, and was only exacerbated by it.
It’s unwise to criticize GMs for what they *didn’t* do without providing an alternative. It’s hard to be too upset about losing out on tackles like Joe Barksdale or Marshall Newhouse in 2015, or Kelvin Beachum in 2016. Even sexier targets like Donald Penn would have required the Vikings to win an impossible bidding war with richer teams. Spielman has received heavy criticism for his OL drafting record, and considering that Kalil has been his only OL pick before day 3, it sticks. But in context, drafting OL before the 2015 draft never made sense. After 2012, the line had just enabled Adrian Peterson’s MVP season. 2013’s line wasn’t far behind, and Spielman had an entire defense to rebuild (not to mention a glaring QB problem). Only after the 2014 season (so the 2015 draft) did OL drafting make sense, and the Vikings also had pressing needs. To advocate drafting OL in the first two rounds, you need to give up CB and LB in 2015, or WR and CB in 2016. The only one with a reasonable alternative is the 2016 selection of Mackensie Alexander over OG Cody Whitehair. Even if you dislike the Waynes or Treadwell picks, their positions were still huge needs- Marcus Peters and Michael Thomas would be more realistic “hindsight” alternatives than additional linemen. It’s hard to accuse Rick of chronic negligence of a certain position group when you only have four high picks to allocate.
Spielman certainly has some transgressions to answer for, but Lady Luck had much more to do with the woes on the offensive line. Spielman has had several suspect moments over the course of this story that compounded unlucky breaks, but the state of the 2017 Vikings offensive line is more realistically another example of rotten Vikings luck. Further, Spielman would have had to make aggressively unwise decisions to avoid these problems, like signing expensive backups to seemingly reliable starters. Hindsight is a hell of a drug, and when you remove it, the offensive line mess we see now seems unavoidable.
Thanks for reading!