As general manager of the Vikings, Rick Spielman traded picks on draft day as if he worked on Wall Street as a broker.
His replacement literally held that job.
On Wednesday, the Vikings executed a perfect case study in the time-honored tradition of sports organizations hiring the opposite when searching for a new coach or executive. They replaced an old-school football guy with a forward-thinking non-football guy.
Back when it became apparent that Zygi and Mark Wilf needed a change in leadership, the working theory was that the owners might not have the stomach to break free of the insulated cocoon that Spielman provided the New Jersey real estate developers.
Not only did the Wilfs blow that theory to smithereens, Zygi and Mark made like Lewis and Clark with an unconventional hire. They picked a new frontier, for them and the NFL.
The owners entrusted their football operation to the care of someone who began his professional life on Wall Street trading energy derivatives and commodities.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah holds degrees in economics from Princeton and Stanford, which means he quite literally is the smartest guy in the room. His résumé would land him a job at any number of desirable destinations. Wall Street. Silicon Valley. Now the NFL.
This qualifies as a historic hire, a departure from the norm.
Adofo-Mensah, 40, has worked in the NFL only nine years. His background is in research and development, not scouting. Hiring an analytics guru as GM upsets the NFL’s ecosystem because the prescribed path to that top leadership position has forever been cookie-cutter — a GM needed to be a football lifer to fully understand the complexities of piecing together a roster as a talent evaluator.
A new door has swung open.
With anything in life, something different can be simultaneously exciting and unnerving. Adofo-Mensah’s arrival at such a pivotal moment for the organization is fascinating because his expertise is so unlike traditional hires and this move carries a high risk-reward factor.
That’s not a bad thing. Just different. This is what’s necessary, a different approach, a shake-up of the whole operation.
The Vikings need an unbiased set of eyes on their roster after years of the same-old, same-old. Adofo-Mensah brings no emotional attachment to personnel or the Vikings’ schemes or philosophies. Everything should be a blank canvas for him, starting with the head coach that he helps hire.
His tenure will be indelibly linked and compared to Ryan Poles’ time in Chicago since both were finalists for the Vikings’ job. Poles, who was the Chiefs’ executive director of player personnel, chose the Bears’ GM position rather than travel to Minnesota for an in-person interview.
That sparked speculation about whether the Vikings blew their opportunity to hire a candidate with a more traditional football background. Or whether Poles viewed the Bears’ roster and overall situation more favorably than the Vikings.
Whatever the reasoning, Poles took the Bears’ offer. Poles played football and spent a dozen years with the championship-winning Chiefs, so his résumé certainly looks like a safer choice, but that doesn’t mean he was the only qualified person for the job.
The fallout from the firings of Spielman and Mike Zimmer revealed a level of dysfunction inside the organization that was not healthy. People sounded worn out, including players.
We will hear a lot from Vikings leaders in the coming days about collaboration and connectivity and systems because those have become popular buzzwords in corporate America. That’s all fine, but the pile of work that Adofo-Mensah inherits is the same as Spielman left it. Difficult decisions and challenges will require savvy problem-solving skills.
How will he handle Kirk Cousins’ contract?
Can he find and develop a franchise quarterback, a question that has haunted the organization for years?
How will he manipulate a top-heavy roster that features aging veterans on bloated contracts and a defense that requires an overhaul?
And whom will he hire as head coach, the first major decision on his docket?
Hiring any new general manager represents a new beginning. Adofo-Mensah’s background makes this moment even more intriguing. Nobody knows how his tenure will turn out, but trying something bold and entirely different in the pursuit of being better is a risk worth taking.