The Vikings Are a 1990s Team Trapped in 2020

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings offense is flush with weapons. They have a current Pro Bowler, and most likely a future Pro Bowler in their wide receiver tandem. Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson aren’t just good, they’re already emerging as one of the best duos in the league. Dalvin Cook is in the MVP mix, and is undeniably a top running back in the NFL.

Their tight end stable includes a twilight of his prime, but still very good Kyle Rudolph, and the very-clear future of the position Irv Smith Jr. Even Kirk Cousins, who had an abysmal start to the year, is graded as the fifth-best quarterback by Pro Football Focus.

Yet this talented group often comes up short of expectations. They rank 13th in the league in points per game, and seem to lack a signature explosive punch. Some of this has to do with injuries, and some of it can be put on a difficult schedule that has pitted the Vikings against a few of the best teams in the league.

So where can we put the rest of it? Maybe, it’s that the Vikings are a 1990s team trapped in 2020.

How were offenses run in the 1990s?

To understand why the Vikings emphasize running the ball and defense, you have to go back and see how the game was played 30 years ago. Back then, Gary Kubiak and Mike Zimmer were high-profile assistants who experienced a lot of success. For both coaches, their ability to win games was built on pounding the ball on the ground and using their strong defense to sit on the lead.

Throughout the 1990s, teams didn’t score at the same rate, and there were even three seasons (1992-94) where they averaged under 20 points per game. While the way teams get their yardage hasn’t changed much, they are more aggressive and willing to spread it around in this era, resulting in the highest points per game clip in NFL history through Week 12.

1990-99 2020
Points Per Game 20.1 24.9
Pass Attempts Per Game 32.4 35.1
Passing Yards Per Game 204.2 240.6
Net Yards/Attempt 6.4 6.5
Rushing Attempts Per Game 27.8 27.0
Rushing Yards Per Game 109.5 116.6

One of the best ways for teams to get an advantage 30 years ago was by utilizing their running game. Teams were hell-bent on getting their best players the football, and at the time, one of those players was usually the running back.

Through 1990-99, the NFL saw an average of 12.9 players carry the ball 250 or more times over the course of the season. While this wasn’t as prevalent at the beginning of the decade, the trend grew exponentially in the latter half — there were four seasons where 15 or more players reached that plateau. This includes a 1998 season where a whopping 17 players reached 250 carries.

During that season, Kubiak was the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, who rode Terrell Davis heavily en route to the Super Bowl. The Hall of Famer put together a startling stretch from 1997-98, averaging just over 828 carries and collecting 121.2 yards per game on the ground. With a league-high 38 touchdowns in those two seasons, Davis was considered one of the best players in the league at the time.

Because running backs carried so much of the offense, passing attacks weren’t as vital. By running the ball, teams shortened the game and ran fewer plays, creating smaller deficits to overcome. With the lead usually held to single-digits, they were content running the ball and focusing on clock management.

This also limited the distribution of passing targets. Fewer attempts mean fewer targets to go around, and teams leaned on their star receivers in the passing game.

Using the late ’90s as a baseline, the Jacksonville Jaguars passing attack focused on two top-five receivers in 1999. Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell operated in one of the top offenses in the league with Smith averaging 10.8 targets per game and McCardell averaging 8.6. By comparison, the next target, Kyle Brady, averaged 2.8 targets per game.

That same season, the Vikings also utilized their top targets in a big way. Randy Moss and Cris Carter both averaged 8.5 targets per game that season, while Jake Reed was third with 4.8 per game. Even middle of the road teams gave their top receivers a majority of the targets. The Seattle Seahawks fed Sean Dawkins (7.1) and Derrick Mayes (6.4), but they only gave their secondary targets like Ricky Watters (3.8) the scraps.

How does this hurt the 2020 Vikings?

While the Vikings offense is effective compared to say, the New York Jets, there’s a feeling that they aren’t getting the most out of it.

This is especially true in the passing game. What Kubiak has tried to do is mesh his two philosophies together. While his top targets in Thielen and Jefferson should be getting a majority of the targets, defenses have adapted to become more able to shut down two options. Therefore, teams opt to spread defenses out and give secondaries more to worry about.

The Kansas City Chiefs are a good example. With Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, the Chiefs are a pass-first team that looks to cram in as many plays as possible. As a result, there are four different players that have over 40 targets on the season. What’s even more impressive is that Hill and Kelce are both in the top-nine in targets this season.

The Vikings don’t have the same level of talent as the Chiefs do, but they have enough to operate in a similar fashion. For all of his flaws, Cousins can get the ball to his receivers, but Thielen leads the team with 76 targets, good for 27th in the NFL. Jefferson isn’t far behind with 72. The next player, Kyle Rudolph has just 35.

There should be more opportunities for these players to eat, but the Vikings just aren’t willing to do it because of how they run their offense, which is built around Cook.

Much like Kubiak feeding Davis all he can handle in 1997-98, the Vikings have operated the same way with Cook. Looking at Davis and Cook side-by-side is a startling exercise, one that explains how Minnesota won four of its past five games coming out of the bye.

Dalvin Cook (2020) Terrell Davis (1997-98)
Carries Per Game 21.9 24.5
Rushing Yards Per Game 113.0 121.2
Receptions Per Game 2.9 2.1
Receiving Yards Per Game 25.5 16.3
Total Touchdowns 14 38 (19 per season)

But there’s a caveat to feeding Cook all of these touches. While giving running backs the rock was all the rage back in the 1990s, a heavy workload for a running back today is as fashionable as a fanny pack today.

While 17 running backs amassed 250 carries in 1998, only eight did so last season. Of those eight, only Cook, Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry are on pace to reach that number this season and the ninth, Marlon Mack suffered a torn Achilles in Week 1.

2019 Carries Projected 2020 Carries Reason
Derrick Henry 303 372 N/A
Ezekiel Elliott 301 263 N/A
Nick Chubb 298 197 Injury
Christian McCaffrey 287 157 Injury
Chris Carson 278 132 Injury
Joe Mixon 278 119 Injury/Currently on IR
Leonard Fournette 265 104 Released by Jacksonville
Dalvin Cook 250 329 N/A

Even back in 1998, many of the running backs that eclipsed that 250-carry mark weren’t set up for long careers. Jamal Anderson led the NFL with 410 carries in 1998 but suffered a torn ACL two games into the 1999 season. Although he returned to the field, he never had the same form that carried the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl.

The same thing could happen to Cook if they’re not careful. During the Vikings’ recent stretch, Cook has taken big hits on his carries and hasn’t been afraid of contact. Last Sunday, Cook limped off the field with what looked to be a serious ankle injury only to return to the field and get in a head-on collision with a linebacker. As with many running backs, one hit could be too many and cut Cook’s career shorter than it needs to be.

There’s also a point to be made that running backs don’t have the same impact on the game that they did in the 90s. Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers reached the Super Bowl with two starting running backs who were UDFAs. While Damien Williams and Raheem Mostert played pivotal roles in the game, both players were affordable, which allowed the team to stock up on weapons elsewhere.

The biggest piece of evidence is the Vikings’ victory over the Green Bay Packers in Week 8. Cook was brilliant in the win, compiling 252 yards and four touchdowns. This helped the Vikings cruise to a six-point victory in which Aaron Rodgers was driving for the game-winning score. Wait, they only won by six points? After that?

It’s food for thought in today’s NFL. While fans still love running backs due to the importance on their fantasy football team, they don’t play as big of a role in most offenses. No rushing champion has won the Super Bowl since Davis did it in 1998, and it’s a risky bet that Cook could do the same in today’s NFL.

What are the long term effects?

The effects of running a team like Bill Parcells in the ’90s also has its effects in the locker room. If there’s an example to be made, it can come from this past offseason where Zimmer presumably butted heads with Stefon Diggs.

When Zimmer made the decision to fire John DeFilippo, it was met with approval from most of the locker room. When new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski went to work on crafting his own offense, it was predicated on taking responsibility off Cousins’ shoulders, which also decreased the workload of the wide receivers.

Diggs was not having any of this and opted to skip some the team’s OTAs prior to the 2019 season. After a brief scuffle, Diggs reported to training camp on time and played the first four games before an outburst in Chicago.

This is a point where a more modern approach would be to talk with the player and allow his input. The Carolina Panthers are an example of this where Ron Rivera‘s old school philosophy was replaced by Matt Rhule’s more democratic approach, which has made Carolina a better team than they were a year ago.

While it shouldn’t be afforded to everyone on the roster, Diggs is a special case thanks to his status on the team. Even just sitting down with Diggs and figuring out more targets could have potentially defused the situation. Instead, Zimmer reportedly stood up in front of the entire team and told them they didn’t need Diggs.

That situation led to Diggs being traded to the Buffalo Bills in a deal that helped the Vikings acquire Jefferson. The deal looks like a win now, but it might not matter if the Vikings don’t try to get Jefferson more involved down the line. Jefferson is happy now as a rookie getting his first taste of stardom, but like Diggs, that could change as he gets fed up with only receiving five targets a game.

But Jefferson isn’t the only player that could be leaving once they’ve heard enough ass-chewings from Zimmer. Prior to this season, the Vikings suffered a mass exodus on the defensive side of the ball. Part of this was fueled by a need to create salary cap space, but several free agents such as Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander decided to leave. Even Xavier Rhodes and Everson Griffen, who were pillars of Zimmer’s defense, ultimately chose to go somewhere else even when the Vikings tried to re-sign them at a lower cost.

Things may be happy and cheery now, but what happens when Zimmer’s style of coaching has bared down on them for multiple years? Could players such as Jefferson, Jeff Gladney and D.J. Wonnum have enough and leave on their own merit?

This doesn’t even account for the coaching staff, which had a major shake-up as well. Kevin Stefanski left to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns, but George Edwards opted to step down from his defensive coordinator position to become a linebackers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray also left to take the same position with the Packers. Coaches bolting within the division? That’s a major warning sign.

How can the Vikings adapt?

The Vikings are getting by on their 1990s offense as they sit in the middle of the NFC playoff picture. At 5-6, Zimmer likely believes his offensive approach is working and Kubiak is more than eager to carry it out. But if the Vikings want to move forward, there has to be some sort of evolution.

Jefferson and Thielen are two of the best receivers in the game, but they don’t nearly see as many targets as their peers. While force-feeding them in the same way that teams in the 1990s did (and ignoring everyone else) would be effective, it would only do so for a limited time until defenses adapted — think how Thielen and Diggs were bracketed in the 2018 season.

While there isn’t much established depth in the Vikings receiver room, there’s more to say for getting the tight ends involved. Rudolph has become a modern-day Jason Witten, but the Vikings drafted Irv Smith Jr. for a reason. With 23 targets on the year, Smith could be a third receiving option in the same way that Shannon Sharpe was with that 1998 Broncos team with 107 targets.

By getting more of the passing game weapons involved, the Vikings can keep Cook fresh and even increase his efficiency, which has waned in the second half of the 2019 and 2020 season. For a team that just handed Cook a $63 million extension prior to this season, the idea of having Cook for more than a 9-7 run in 2020 should be enticing.

Odds are none of this will happen as long as Zimmer is the head coach. With a mindset that his defense can hold teams to 20 points per game, he’ll continue to play the clock and hope that his best player can withstand the punishment of a 400-touch season. If nothing changes, the Vikings may be doing themselves more harm than good.

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Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

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