One year ago, the Carolina Panthers found themselves on the verge of a rebuild. After a season-ending injury to Cam Newton, the Panthers floundered to a 5-11 record. The campaign would spark an organizational overhaul that included a new general manager, head coach and philosophy on how things were done on and off the field.
As the Panthers head to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings find themselves in a similar situation. Although their roster isn’t in as dire of a situation as Carolina was last year, the Vikings were more in need of a rebuild than they anticipated. At 4-6, their playoff hopes are slim and if they end up stuck in the middle, something needs to change to get over the dreaded 10-6 hump.
With 2020 looking like a year where the Vikings take one step back to leap forward, they would be wise to pay attention to what their opponent has done to set up a foundation for future success.
How the Panthers are rebuilding
When the Panthers were floundering last season, they had a lot of work to be done. Ron Rivera had done great things for the organization, but his old-school way of thinking had run its course in Carolina.
This isn’t to say that Rivera is a bad coach. As he has shown in Washington, Rivera can come into an organization and set up a winning culture of his own. And because of the foundation he built in Carolina, Matt Rhule came into a solid landing spot before going to work implementing a different way to do things.
But another addition that Rhule made is finding the right staff to put around his team. One of the biggest hires was offensive coordinator Joe Brady. As the architect of the LSU offense that featured Justin Jefferson, Brady came in and put additional pieces (Robby Anderson, Teddy Bridgewater) around an offense that had strong weapons in D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel.
Bridgewater is the most interesting piece of this puzzle. By landing the Vikings’ former franchise savior, the Panthers at least had a steady hand under center who could play for multiple years under an affordable contract. This would help eliminate a scorched-earth scenario that Joe Burrow walked into with the Cincinnati Bengals or Trevor Lawrence may walk into with the New York Jets next season.
Leaning into the offense was the right strategy for Carolina because the defense needed plenty of work. With roughly $5 million in cap space, general manager Marty Hurney decided that the draft was the best place to enhance their talent that they could get under the salary cap.
Every pick the Panthers made in the 2020 NFL Draft was on the defensive side of the ball. While the jury is still out on some of the later round selections, defensive tackle Derrick Brown and edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos are two players who should be cornerstones down the road. Paired with 2019 first-rounder Brian Burns, and they are in the process of building a front-seven that can terrorize opposing offenses.
Carolina’s 4-7 record isn’t going to have this team ahead of schedule, but that was never the goal. Much like how Brian Flores established a culture with the Miami Dolphins, the Panthers were about enhancing their strengths and building a foundation for future success through new-school thinking.
Why the Vikings can learn from the Panthers
Whether Mike Zimmer will admit it or not, the offense remains the strength of his team. Dalvin Cook is the best running back in the NFL. Adam Thielen and Jefferson are two of the best receivers in the game. Most days, Kirk Cousins can do enough to help his team win.
But the Vikings’ brain trust of Zimmer and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak could be holding this team back. Throughout his tenure, Zimmer has made it clear that he wants his teams to be focused on establishing the run. It was not hard to think of the 1997-98 Denver Broncos teams that ran Terrell Davis to a pair of Super Bowl titles.
This team hasn’t had the same charm.
That’s because the Vikings refuse to lean into the strength of their team. Even with Stefon Diggs’ departure, the Vikings could have been an offensive-minded team with a couple of subtle additions. For example, instead of spending the savings created from Cousins’ extension on Michael Pierce, the Vikings could have used that money to pick up Anderson to give them a third receiving option they haven’t had since Jarius Wright left town.
Having a better offense is something that would take the pressure off a young defense, but Zimmer is still hell-bent on winning games 20-19. After losing plenty of key contributors on that side of the ball, they did the right thing by using draft capital to rebuild their defense. The problem is that they didn’t really start until selecting Cameron Dantzler in the third round.
Yes, the Vikings took Jeff Gladney in the first round, but he was the only top prospect on a defense that was devoid of them. Injuries have played a role, but even taking the Panthers’ approach by hitting the defensive side of the ball hard may have given the Vikings a better result or at least curbed the impact left by those departures.
This makes me wonder if the voices that are leading these groups are the right ones moving forward. The Vikings have had plenty of success with Zimmer — he’s led them to the brink of a Super Bowl appearance. Heck, if Zimmer were to be traded to Dallas, there’s a good chance the Cowboys would have a stranglehold on the NFC East. For all that success, however, it feels like the control he has over the team has begun to fray over the past couple of seasons.
How could the Vikings make the change?
A potential target here could be Brady, who is already familiar with one important cog of the Vikings’ offense in Jefferson. If Brady comes aboard and establishes a winning culture, it could be a movement that could push this team forward and into modern-day football.
This would be an interesting development on the offensive side of the ball as the Vikings already have the talent to be an elite offense. By making a subtle add, the Vikings could add the depth needed to make Minnesota the same “Here are the keys to the car” scenario that Carolina’s quarterback of the future will inherit.
More locally, think of it as Daunte Culpepper taking over for the Vikings back in 2000. They had spun the wheel with a variety of veteran quarterbacks over the 1990s but never had a franchise signal-caller. In the latter half of the 90s, they acquired talent such as Jake Reed, Robert Smith and Randy Moss to pair with Cris Carter. By the time Culpepper was ready, all he had to do was get the ball to his weapons and profit.
That scenario would do great for a defense that can still add pieces during that timeframe. With Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter expected back, this could be a team that rebounds quickly with newly-established depth behind it. Bring in a new voice and this defense could have a second life.
Is this the only way for the Vikings to rebuild their team? No. But is it one from which they can learn? They’ll have to decide for themselves on Sunday.