'Just wasn't safe for him to play': Spielman, Zimmer react to Vikings NT Michael Pierce opting out

Michael Pierce #97 of the Baltimore Ravens reacts to a play during the second half of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. ((Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images))

The Minnesota Vikings will play their 2020 season without Michael Pierce, and they’re just fine with that, knowing it’s in his best interest physically and mentally.

Pierce announced last week as players reported for Training Camp at TCO Performance Center that he was opting out of the 2020 season due to concerns with the Covid-19 pandemic. Pierce has asthma, and within the last few years had a bout with pneumonia.

Literally and figuratively, Pierce was the biggest free agent addition the Vikings made in the off-season. He’s 6 feet tall and 340 pounds, and reportedly signed a three-year, $27 million deal to come to Minnesota. He was poised to replace Linval Joseph, who left the team in free agency, at defensive tackle.

But he won’t put on a Vikings jersey until 2021. Pierce informed both Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer last week, and they both understood.

“I know that it was very difficult with Michael. What I told him when I talked to him in understanding he was put in the high risk category, I also understand that our organization puts the health and safety of our players first. We have always done that and we’ll always continue to do that,” Spielman said Monday. “With him opting out, I told him we respect your decision for that and we want to make sure that your health and safety always comes first.”

Zimmer understands that the decision is about more than football.

“It just wasn’t safe for him to play, and honestly if a player doesn’t think he’s safe and he should do this, I’m with him 100 percent. We’ll figure it out, we’ve got a plan and we’ll stick to it,” Zimmer said.

It’s the new realty for the Vikings and 31 other teams in the NFL. Pierce isn’t the first player to opt out, and won’t be the last, but he is the first Vikings player.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the Vikings within two weeks of players reporting. Before Tuesday, eight players were put on the Reserve/Covid-19 list, which means they either tested positive for the virus or are quarantined after coming in close contact with a carrier.

The list has included top draft choice Justin Jefferson and linebacker Anthony Barr. Both have since cleared testing, as has defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo. Even head trainer and Infection Control Officer Eric Sugarman, the man in charge of making sure the franchise follows Covid-19 protocols in everything they do, tested positive, as did his entire family.

Sugarman said before camp it’s not possible to avoid Covid-19, you just have to do your best to stop the spread.

One place they do ultimately feel safe is TCO Performance Center.

“I really truly believe that this building, we’ve done every step we can and beyond to make sure that this building is safe,” Spielman said.

It might be Zimmer’s most challenging time as he enters his seventh season as a head coach. He’ll likely come to practice daily not knowing who’s available and who’s healthy. He also has to prepare for an NFL season, like 31 other head coaches, without a preseason.

Covid-19 creates an uncertainty around football and sports that simply hasn’t existed previously.

“Like Coach Parcells told me when I first got the job, there’s going to be five things that cross your desk every day that you’re not prepared for. Being able to have flexibility, trying to figure out what is the best way to go about our days and try to be as productive as we possibly can is just part of it,” Zimmer said.

What we’ve seen so far in the return of sports is that bubbles work. Stay home, go to the stadium or facility, go home. If you’re on the road, stay in your hotel, go to the stadium and go right back to your hotel. Whenever that protocol hasn’t been followed, there’s been positive tests and outbreaks within teams.

Minnesota coaches have been consistent with their athletes in talking about accountability and responsibility to keep each other safe amid Covid-19, and the ability to stay on the field. Zimmer took his turn Monday.

“We have a responsibility to not only our families and ourselves, but to the rest of this football team. We have a responsibility to Kyle Rudolph’s family, we have a responsibility to Kirk Cousins’ family, to Dalvin Cook’s family. We all need to stay safe with one another,” Zimmer said.

It’s not ideal, but it’s what has to be done if there’s a chance to have football this year.