When the Minnesota Vikings traded Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills, it appears that both teams got what they wanted. Diggs has become a top target for the Bills while the Vikings used the deal to acquire Justin Jefferson and several young draft picks to help with an inevitable rebuild.
At first glance, the benefits for both teams make this a win-win deal, but just when analysis of the trade was getting put to rest, another layer popped up that spawned another debate.
Diggs spoke to ESPN earlier this week and among several topics was his departure from Minnesota. Most of the reports that had surfaced since the trade were confirmed by Diggs with the key notes being that the Vikings “were not in his best interest” and may have been untruthful about their desire to center the offense around the running game.
For a fan base that loves their hard-working, blue-collar players, these comments may not sit well with Vikings fans. However, they can’t deny that Diggs was right about Mike Zimmer’s offense.
Coming into Week 15, Diggs leads the NFL with 100 catches. As the top target on a team that relies on John Brown, Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis as secondary options, Diggs has gotten his wish to become a pure alpha receiver, which could be read as he cares about his stats more than the team.
From that lens, there’s no reason any Vikings fans should be upset about this trade. Even in the Vikings’ run-first offense, Jefferson and Adam Thielen have put up Pro Bowl numbers with Jefferson chasing Anquan Boldin’s rookie receiving record and Thielen having 12 touchdowns on the season.
Even in Kevin Stefanski’s run-first offense, Diggs put up a then career-high 1,130 yards and 17.9 yards per reception in 2018. Even with fewer opportunities, Diggs was still a Pro Bowl player, which could make Vikings fans believe he should shut up and collect his money.
But this is a trade that goes beyond the stats. Although Diggs put up monster numbers (even without Thielen in the lineup), the Vikings were still reluctant to air it out when they needed to. This left Diggs with 55 fewer targets than he saw in 2018 and had him questioning whether he was utilized in the best way to help his team win.
Sunday’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have been the game that validates Diggs’ main point. Minnesota came out defiant against the Bucs’ top-ranked run defense and made sure Dalvin Cook became the first running back to top 70 yards against Tampa Bay this season. In fact, Cook wound up with 102 yards, which means the Vikings’ initial game plan worked perfectly.
Such an approach will work well when the Vikings are playing bad teams. When Cook has gone over 100 yards against a sub-.500 team this season, the Vikings have gone 3-1. This is what Zimmer would probably write on his grease board to defend this approach, but when the Vikings have played a team over .500, the Vikings have gone 1-2 when Cook has gone over 100 yards.
If the goal is to produce as much on the ground as possible, why have the Vikings barely inched above .500 when Cook has done his job? Better yet, why have the Vikings not performed better against playoff teams when Cook has turned in a spectacular performance? It goes back to Diggs’ original point.
The passing game isn’t something that Diggs wants to use to get personal stats. Instead, he believes it was the best chance for the Vikings to win football games. They have plenty of weapons available and even swapping out Diggs for Jefferson, Kirk Cousins has averaged 8.2 yards per attempt in 2020 — the fourth-best mark behind Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott.
By comparison, the Vikings have been blessed with Cook’s five yards per carry this season, but that ranks seventh in the NFL. If you’re not good at math, this also means that they have averaged over three more yards per play when they throw the ball.
But the efficient passing numbers haven’t led to a less conservative approach. With the Vikings hell-bent on establishing the run, Gary Kubiak ordered a slow, methodical drive with down 17 points in the second half. They took nearly nine minutes off the clock and inadvertently helped close out the game.
There were other factors, such as a relentless pass rush that pounded Cousins into the turf, but the Vikings shot themselves in the foot by being so determined to run the ball, and it wound up costing them. This is especially true on second-and-long where the Vikings have the highest run rate in the league for a play that sets them up with a 3rd and 5 rather than a 3rd and 2.
Going back to last season, the same stubbornness nearly cost them a Wild Card win against the New Orleans Saints. With the Vikings holding a 10-point lead going into the fourth quarter, they decided to try to run the clock out than opting to go for the win. The decision to play not to lose allowed the Saints to get back into the game and force overtime until Minnesota won a coin flip that gave them the ball to start overtime. One big pass play to Thielen and a fade to Rudolph and the Vikings had their first road playoff victory since 2005.
But this doesn’t just apply to holding on against a good team. It also can benefit the Vikings while playing against a bad team.
During their recent hot stretch, they’ve had one possession victories against the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, but also dropped another one-possession game to the Dallas Cowboys. All of these games were closer because the Vikings were so run-heavy early and only allowed the passing game to take off when it absolutely had to. Minnesota went 2-1 in these games, but again, none of it was easy.
With the Vikings hosting the Chicago Bears this week, it’s possible this debate could come up again. The Bears are ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA metric but the Vikings will likely try to run the ball anyway, which in turn will keep Chicago in the game because they’ll be down by seven rather than multiple scores against a more explosive offense.
This is a key reason why the Bills have enjoyed a 10-3 record after giving Diggs the keys to the offense and the Vikings are fighting for a playoff spot at 6-7. Should the Vikings opt to start using their passing offense more, it should help them become more effective elsewhere. Unfortunately, that’s about as likely as Zimmer and Diggs getting coffee in the near future.