If not for a guy from La Cañada Flintridge, the Minnesota Vikings wouldn’t be as competitive as they have been this season.
As the team’s assistant general manager, George Paton had a big hand in helping construct a roster sturdy enough to weather key injuries and finish the regular season 13-3, earning a place in the National Football League’s divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Part of Paton’s job is evaluating players, gauging their height and weight — and their nature.
“There’s nothing like seeing a player live on game day,” Paton said by phone this week. “Seeing when the lights come on, how they respond. You can see things on tape, but you can’t see how he is at the end of a big play. Is the player tired? How was he on the bench? Was he yelling at his teammates? Was he involved?”
Basically, is he a competitor?
Paton grew up competing in LCF.
“We were always competing,” he said. “We played a lot of sports. Anytime you had free time, you were at the park or playing hoops. There were a lot of good friends, great people and great coaches.”
One of those good friends, Chris Rising, shared many of those moments — both of the pick-up variety and as a fellow member of the Loyola High School football team, which Paton quarterbacked to a CIF quarterfinal appearance before moving on to UCLA, where he played defensive back.
“He is a competitor through and through,” Rising wrote in an email. “He doesn’t give up. His success is all deserved because he has put in the hours to become an expert at what he does.
“No one outworks George Paton.”
Paton suggests that people in other professions work plenty hard, too. What’s great about his gig, he said, is that it’s a lot of fun.
“It doesn’t feel like work all the time,” he said. “Especially during the season, every day is different, it never gets stale. Every day, even though you may have the best plan, it can change. A player can get hurt, or a player may not be performing; we always have to be on call. I may be in negotiations, or watching tape, or traveling to go watch players. There’s a lot involved with the job.
“So we work hard,” he confirmed, “but we have fun.”
Especially now. The Vikings — who have never won a Super Bowl, but who could become the first team to host and play in the NFL’s championship game, have proved to be title contenders despite losing their starting quarterback and running back at the start of the season.
“If you’ve ever loved an underdog story, then you would love how this football tale played out in Minnesota,” said Erin Coscarelli, who also grew up in LCF and now co-hosts the league’s daily online highlights show, “NFL Blitz.” “[They have] a front office and coaching staff that never gave up, turning two undrafted players into offensive studs.”
Backup quarterback Case Keenum might have had more turnovers than touchdowns as a member of the L.A. Rams, but he has been effective in Minnesota since stepping in for injured starter Sam Bradford.
And wide receiver Adam Thielen, who was not drafted by any team, has become a breakout star for the Vikings, who gave him a chance when they invited him to their 2013 rookie minicamp.
“We knew we had some really good core players and also good character guys, a lot of winners in the locker room,” Paton said. “And we had depth this year. A lot of teams lose their quarterback and top running back and it ruins their season, but we had enough to keep on going.
“That’s our job, to try to build a decent roster,” Paton added. “It’s easy to get the first-round pick or pay the big money to a free agent. It’s hard to build the middle class and the bottom end, but we have good scouts, and I think that’s real important to sustaining and winning in this league.”
Paton grew up in a football family, the son of a coach, dreaming of a professional football career. Of course, back then he pictured himself on the field and not in the front office.
“It was the dream, but the dream was fading quickly,” said Paton, who played professionally for a season in Italy and another in Austria.
“Once I got to UCLA, I realized I was not as big and fast as [other players], so I figured I would get into coaching. And I did coach for a while, but I was fortunate to start to learn more about the front office. The more I learned about it, the more it was something I was really into.”
Paton joined Rick Spielman — currently the Vikings general manager — in his first front-office position with the Chicago Bears in 1997.
“I was as low as you can get on the totem pole,” Paton said. “I don’t even remember what my title was, but I was involved with everything. That first year, I learned more than I have since. A lot of people in that first year don’t last, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”
In 2001, Paton reunited with Spielman as a member of the Miami Dolphins front office. He stayed there until Spielman invited him, in 2010, to Minnesota, where he began as the director of player personnel.
Paton speaks fondly of Minnesota, which reminds him, he said, of where he was raised.
“The small-town feel is the same, and Minnesota has great schools, as does La Cañada,” said Paton, who attended La Cañada Elementary School, Foothill Intermediate School and went to La Cañada High School for a year before transferring to Loyola. “People out here in Minnesota are really warm and nice, and I think where I grew up, they were very friendly as well.”
There are differences, of course.
Temperatures dropped to -12 the other day, he said. And his 8-year-old son Beau’s favorite sport isn’t football, it’s hockey.
“It’s been good to me,” Paton said. “I’ve been fortunate to have good people to work with, in Rick and the coaches, the rest of the front office and scouts. We have great people in the building, and the owners are unbelievable. I couldn’t be with a better group.”
Even so, over the past couple seasons, Paton’s name has arisen in reporting indicating that other NFL teams — the 49ers, Colts, Dolphins, Jets and Bears — have been interested in offering him an opportunity to see how competitive he could be as a general manager.
“I’ve been at this a while, I’m used to it,” he said of such reports. “You just have to stay in the moment; you can’t get ahead of yourself.”
Especially not with the Saints awaiting Sunday.