Vikings

Do We Actually Wish the Vikings Lost That Playoff Game In New Orleans?

Photo Credit: Chuck Cook (USA Today Sports)

It’s easy to look back now and wonder what if? What if Kyle Rudolph hadn’t, ahem, kinda sorta pushed off and caught that touchdown in overtime? What if the Minnesota Vikings had fired Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer afterwards, replacing them with George Paton and Kevin Stefanski? Spielman and Zimmer could have left the organization as collaborators rather than at loggerheads. The Vikings could have accelerated the organizational change they implemented this season.

That’s what we do here, right? Ask what if? Most people in other cities ask what if their team had won. In Minnesota, we’re so accustomed to losing that we ponder what if the Vikings had lost? Where did they get the audacity to win a playoff game on the road? Why didn’t they just let an NFC rival avenge the Minneapolis Miracle? Why couldn’t the Saints, that team that put a bounty on Brett Favre, have beaten the Purple in the playoffs again?

I get it. The San Francisco 49ers pummeled the Vikings 27-10 in the next round and went on to play in the Super Bowl. Minnesota finished 7-9 and 8-9 in the next two seasons, and ownership recently fired Spielman and Zimmer after a tumultuous year. Now we’ve witnessed Kevin O’Connell run upbeat, instructive organized team activities and minicamp. We’ve heard Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell talk about collaboration and culture. We know that O’Connell wants to unleash a modern offense with players who have been stuck in a ’90s system.

It’s fair to be excited to see what Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, and even, gasp, Kirk Cousins could do in a Sean McVay offense. Similarly, it’s hard not to be curious about what Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith look like in Ed Donatell’s 3-4 defense. The Vikings aren’t new, new. They didn’t burn it down. But they’ve got a fresh coat of purple paint, and it’s fair to wonder if ownership would have buffed them out if they had lost that playoff game in New Orleans.

That’s twisted logic, though. The progeny of a sick mind. Nihilistic nonsense. It’s what years of mediocrity does to the brain. Erodes it. Corrupts it. Trains it to seek pain and suffering.

But there’s no way we should be wondering what if the Vikings had lost that game in the Big Easy.

Paton may be a qualified executive. The Denver Broncos hired him in 2021, and he inherited a talented roster without a quarterback. In March, he traded for Russell Wilson, who, at 33, may be past his prime. Even if Wilson plays well into his 30s, Denver may end up being mediocre – albeit for a different reason than the Vikings. The Broncos play in the AL West, where they have to unseat Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and a Las Vegas Raiders team that just added Davante Adams.

Will Paton end up being a better executive than Adofo-Mensah? Maybe. But Adofo-Mensah is an analytics-driven, collaboration-focused executive who should have an easier time building a division winner. Aaron Rodgers, 38, contemplates retirement every year. It will probably take Dan Campbell‘s knee-biters and Justin FieldsBizzaro Vikings years to incubate – if they ever do. The NFC North is there for the taking.

You could even make an argument that Spielman deserved to try to manage the team without Zimmer. Would he have taken swings on Trae Waynes, Jeff Gladney, and Mike Hughes if he had an offense-minded coach? Maybe. But he might not have. Would he still have tried to hoard every pick in the seventh round? Probably. But who among us doesn’t succumb to our vices? The point is that the coaching change likely is creating Minnesota’s shift in culture, let alone the offensive strategy.

It’s hard not to love Kevin Stefanski. Brad Childress hired him in 2006, and he survived three coaching changes. Stefanski coached quarterbacks, running backs, and tight ends and was the offensive coordinator in 2018 and 2019. He was qualified to be a head coach, and the Cleveland Browns hired him 48 hours after the Niners beat the Vikings in the playoffs.

In 2020, Stefanski led the Browns to their first winning season since 2007, their first playoff berth since 2002, and they won their first playoff game since 1994. But Stefanski runs a play-action offense. There are merits to his system. He turned Baker Mayfield into a playoff quarterback. But O’Connell’s system is going to be far more exciting. It’s probably better suited to maximize Jefferson, and O’Connell will probably use Irv Smith Jr. and Cook more creatively.

It’s going to be more fun to watch an O’Connell-coached team.

After seeing the Vikings underachieve last year, it’s easy to speculate about what would have happened if they had lost in the Superdome three years ago. It’s hard not to wonder why Spielman could not replicate his 2015 draft magic or speculate about what a Stefanski-led Vikings team would look like. Still, it’s not worth the cost of losing to Minnesota’s biggest non-division rival in the postseason. Savor it, you purple people. It’s okay to look back fondly on a playoff victory without wondering what if?

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