A little over a decade ago, so-called “super teams” began forming in the NBA. Three superstars would join forces together in an effort to win championships. This philosophy has been mostly successful, as franchises like the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors have each captured multiple championships on the backs of multiple superstars on the roster.
Football and basketball differ in many more ways than they are similar. But there are a few key similarities between the two sports, and they help explain the NFL’s shift to a higher passing frequency over the last several years. Both in the NBA and the NFL, most coaches would agree that getting the ball to the most efficient playmakers on the team is the first step to an explosive offense.
The Minnesota Vikings offense has exceeded the expectations of most in the 2020 season, ranking sixth in the NFL in net yards per passing attempt and fifth in rushing yards per attempt. Overall, the Vikings are No. 4 in the NFL in yards per play. This offense is extremely efficient, and perhaps criticizing it is nitpicking. But a quick look at the opportunities being given to the best playmakers on the team suggests Minnesota may be leaving even more efficiency on the table. Head coach Mike Zimmer has made it clear that he prefers a run-heavy offense that prioritizes controlling the clock as the method of winning games.
This mantra takes away from the high efficiency of the passing game. After a tough start to the season, Minnesota’s passing offense led by quarterback Kirk Cousins has rebounded to become one of the best in the NFL. Aside from Cousins, carrying this passing attack are standout receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
Minnesota’s “Big 3” features Thielen, Jefferson and running back Dalvin Cook. The Vikings have been pretty good about getting all three involved to provide opportunities. After all, Cook is currently No. 2 in the NFL in rushing, Thielen is No. 3 in receiving touchdowns, and Jefferson is No. 7 in receiving yards.
Cook has been the least efficient of the three players, however, despite receiving far and away the most opportunities. Cook is averaging 5.4 yards per touch in 2020, including all rushes and receptions. This is a pretty darn good number in the context of the running back position. This isn’t to take away from Cook’s ball-carrying ability, which is among the best in the NFL. It’s simply more efficient for the Vikings to throw the ball to Thielen or Jefferson — or pretty much any player for that matter.
Thielen is averaging 8.4 yards per target on the season, which ranks 46th in the NFL. That’s a full three yards more per touch than Cook. Meanwhile, Jefferson is actually leading the NFL in yards per target this season at 11.7. Using this metric, Jefferson has been the most efficient wide receiver in the NFL this season. Despite this, Jefferson ranks 21st in the NFL in targets for the season. Thielen is 25th in the NFL in targets.
Conversely, Cook is No. 2 in the NFL in rushing attempts.
Context is important to consider here, of course. Does Cook’s presence on the ground open up better opportunities for Thielen and Jefferson? Sure. The play-action game is propping up both Thielen and Jefferson. But who’s to say a pass-heavy attack focused on Thielen and Jefferson couldn’t open up better opportunities for Cook? This is an issue of philosophy, which likely won’t change for Zimmer or offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak any time soon.
It’s disheartening, however, to take a look at some of the NFL’s best passing offenses like the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills and see how heavily these teams target their star receivers and think about how much better the Vikings offense could be.
Travis Kelce (120 targets) and Tyreek Hill (119 targets) spearhead the Chiefs offense ranking No. 6 and No. 7 in the NFL in targets, respectively, this season. Davante Adams (121 targets) is No. 4 in the league in targets leading the way for Green Bay. D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett (106 targets each) carry the torch for the Seahawks and Russell Wilson. And of course, Stefon Diggs (134 targets) is No. 2 in the NFL in targets this season, seemingly getting what he wanted after being traded to Buffalo this offseason.
For reference, Thielen and Jefferson have 91 and 92 targets for the season, respectively.
The Vikings coaching staff is providing a disproportionately high amount of opportunities to the least efficient of the “Big 3” on offense. Again, Cook is arguably one of the best running backs in the NFL. But at the end of the day, Cook’s efficiency isn’t in the same ballpark as Thielen and not even in the same stratosphere as Jefferson.
In what has become a passing league, the Vikings have managed to find an efficient formula while sticking to an old-school philosophy heavily focused on the run game. However, it’s clear there are opportunities being missed here. There’s no reason the NFL’s most efficient receiver should be just 21st in targets for the season.
The Vikings have three regular-season games remaining in the 2020 season. In order to maximize the offense, it would be wise for Zimmer and Kubiak to allow their most efficient offensive players to carry a larger load.