Every so often, a team goes through a stretch where the message and style of play get stale. As Vikings fans, we saw it with both Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier and we see it with other franchises all the time. Sometimes, regardless of how skilled the coach is, you just need to get a new voice in the room. This is exactly where the 2020 Vikings are sitting.
With only one week left to go, the Vikings are in quite a weird spot. After finishing last season 10-6 with a playoff victory, it was well known that the team needed a soft rebuild. Aging players were not living up to their contracts and in turn there were glaring holes opening up. Going into this season, it was well known amongst fans and pundits alike that this rendition of the Vikings would need to rely on both the offense and the expertise of a defensive mind to keep the defense good enough for the team to be competitive.
Moving forward, this should be the permanent direction of the franchise.
For as good as Mike Zimmer has been resurrecting the franchise from seemingly yearly underperformance and disappointment to regularly being talked about as a contender, it’s also obvious that he is to Minnesota as Tony Dungy was to Tampa Bay: a fixer. I will be forever grateful for what Zimmer did to fix the franchise, but the way he wants to win is outdated. This is no longer 1995 where drafting a star running back in the first round can change the fortunes of your franchise and defense truly wins championships. This is the NFL in 2020 where what truly matters in team building has passed this franchise by.
After the 2017 season, Zimmer has been trying to chase the formula that made that team so successful. During that season, the Vikings had a record-breaking defense, setting a record in third-down conversion percentage and dominating teams throughout the season with an offense that had a very successful running game and calculated, efficient passing attack. Unfortunately for him, that method of team building is nearly impossible to keep up. Trying to play ball control offensive football with an elite defense is something that can only continue to be successful with elite level drafting and players taking far less than market value to keep the core together. This is something that just cannot be counted on year in and year out. The 85 Bears, 00 Ravens, and 02 Buccaneers all peaked high but couldn’t sustain success because of many factors including injuries, losing coordinators to other teams, and the salary cap.
With the Vikings current roster construction, I believe they need fully shift their philosophy and lean into what this team is strong in: the offense. When you look at the Vikings moving forward, they have the personnel that can become a top 5 offense year in and year out. Even with all of his flaws, Kirk Cousins has shown the ability to be a top 10 quarterback, Dalvin Cook is arguably the best running back in football, two top receivers in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, and an emerging tight end in Irv Smith Jr. That is a fantastic group of position players that doesn’t get utilized nearly enough. When you look at some of the top teams in the league, they make a point to focus on their star players, which the Vikings have not done a great job in doing. Dalvin Cook is the focus of the offense which is one of the reasons the team struggles like it does. The play calling feels ancient and repetitive and when you get down by multiple scores, the team can’t figure out how to be successful. Another example is Justin Jefferson who is one of the best wide receivers in the league this season and will likely garner a few all-pro votes as well. He is 19th in targets in the NFL, over 40 less than the league leader Stefon Diggs. For comparison, the Kansas City Chiefs have their two best players in the top 10: Travis Kelce is 5th with 132 and Tyreek Hill is 8th with 129. Is it necessarily fair to compare the Vikings to the juggernaut that is the Chiefs? No, but it also provides the general blueprint for how this team can be its most successful self moving forward.
Outside of cloning Patrick Mahomes, the Vikings can never become the Chiefs, but they can become stylistically similar. The Chiefs have focused their teambuilding methods on starts at key positions. They have the most money invested in 6 players: Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce on offense and Frank Clark, Chris Jones, and Tyrann Matthieu on defense. The one element that links these guys together? They are all big-time playmakers and game-breakers. Not only did they pay them, but they also make them the primary focuses of their team. Along with the stars on offense, they have Steve Spagnuolo running the defense. While he doesn’t run the best unit when it comes to skill or talent, what he does is maximize the players he has and keeps the unit good enough to balance out the offense and keep games from getting out of hand. Focusing on the offense also has shown benefits when it comes to DVOA. Per Football Outsiders, the Chiefs rank 1st on offense and 17th on defense but it averages out to 3rd overall.
When the Vikings move on from Mike Zimmer and possibly Rick Spielman, their focus on the next regime needs to be on one man that I believe will help move us in the right direction: Eric Bienemy. Not only does he have the track record working under Andy Reid, but he has history working for the Minnesota Vikings, Rick Spielman, and the Wilf family. Why is that important? Bienemy unfortunately has a past with legal mishaps. They have been well documented and rumored to have hindered him from head coaching opportunities, but those likely aren’t nearly as big of an issue because he has worked for the organization.
Will the Wilfs finally pull the trigger and shoot for the moon (and the Super Bowl)? I honestly do not know, but I will say this. In order to win a Super Bowl, they need to do something different because this isn’t working