Justin Jefferson wasn’t sure how he made that catch against the Buffalo Bills last Sunday. You know the one. The Odell Beckham Jr.-like grab, except it was fourth-and-19, and Jefferson had a defender right behind him. Even after seeing a video of it in the locker room after the game, Jefferson couldn’t explain it.
“I don’t know how to even answer that question,” he said when I asked him how he made the catch after Minnesota’s 33-30 overtime win in Buffalo. “God, honestly.” Then he searched a little and came up with a practical explanation. “Putting my hand in the right position,” he continued. “Kirk [Cousins] giving me that [opportunity] to go up and make a play for the team. I guess all the strengthening the hand workouts kinda worked out.”
Jefferson laughed at himself when he said the last part. But his practical explanation is hardly more believable than the celestial one. Hand-strengthening exercises probably marginally helped him hang on to the ball, but it’s not like you or I could do what Jefferson did after a few squeezes of a Gripmaster.
His first answer is probably the right one. Not just because Jefferson is likely referencing his God-given ability but because divine intervention is often an explanation for the unknown. Before scientific knowledge became ubiquitous, the Greeks had a god for many of the world’s wonders. Why does lightning strike during a storm? Zeus is upset, of course. Where did that hurricane come from? Poseidon spun one up.
Some Greek gods lorded over territory that remains perplexing to this day. Aphrodite is the goddess of love; Hades controls the underworld. Dionysus seemed like the best hang. He’s the god of wine, and why shouldn’t there be a god of wine? How is it that those sour little grapes turn into a sweet social lubricant after people stomp on them, and they sit in a barrel for a while? Fortunately, oenologists have solved that riddle.
As scientific understanding has proliferated among the population that isn’t on dying social media platforms, religious explanation has increasingly been relegated to the big questions. The weatherman has replaced Zeus and Poseidon. Dionysus is probably a sommelier now. But Aphrodite and Hades still have some job security.
In a football context, teams study their opponent all week and come up with a game plan. The quarterback diagnoses the defense at the line, then in real-time as he drops back and evades pressure. In the Mike Zimmer era, Cousins often was over-judicious in his decision-making. He’s conservative by nature, and Zimmer was often critical of him. Cousins also had the weight of an $84 million contract on his back. He was trying to be the difference-maker who would put the Vikings over the top. Instead, he just checked down a lot.
Still, nobody wants to watch Jameis Winston play 500 on Sundays. As exciting as some of his downfield throws are, he will create turnovers more often than highlight-reel plays. But the Vikings can’t win if they don’t get their best players involved. It’s not just Jefferson. T.J. Hockenson only needed four days to turn himself into an impact player in Washington. Adam Thielen has pedigree, and K.J. Osborn broke out last year. Dalvin Cook is still a running threat, evidenced by his 81-yard scamper in Buffalo.
But Jefferson is the star. He drives winning. Jefferson is the guy you throw the ball to on fourth-and-19 with the game on the line. Cousins hilariously, but perhaps predictably, offered self-criticism on his throw. He said it could have been shorter to give Jefferson a better shot at catching it. And, sure, Bills corner Cam Lewis could have knocked it down. Still, Cousins was throwing into tight coverage in a precarious spot. All he could do was give Jefferson a chance because that was all Jefferson needed. There’s no perfect throw there.
The tougher questions is where the Vikings go from here. They have three challenging games coming up. The Dallas Cowboys have beaten them in Minneapolis two years in a row and are favored on Sunday. Then Minnesota plays Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots and the upstart New York Jets, two good defensive teams. The Cowboys are one of the only teams that has slowed Jefferson down. He had three catches for 86 yards in a 31-28 loss during his rookie season, but Jefferson only had two catches for 21 yards in their 20-16 nightmare loss to Cooper Rush last year.
How do the Vikings avoid another fiasco this year? It’s not as simple as just wantonly throwing it to Jefferson.
Ironically, Cousins was over-aggressive in Minnesota’s only loss this season. The defense is responsible for allowing the Philadelphia Eagles to rack up a 24-7 lead at halftime, but they held Philly scoreless in the second half. However, the offense couldn’t take advantage of good field position in the final 30 minutes, largely because Cousins forgot how to counter the blitz.
Instead of throwing to his hot route, typically a running back or tight end, Cousins threw off-base downfield. Jefferson messed up the route on one of the interceptions, but Cousins forced a back-foot pass in the face of pressure on the other. Chucking up a prayer on fourth-and-19? That’s always okay. But creating turnovers after the defense puts you near the red zone late in a game against a contender? That can’t happen.
Jefferson said he wanted to eclipse 2,000 yards entering this season. He is on pace for 2,002 yards this year and says he can meet his goal despite playing three good defensive teams in the next three games. “Yeah. I mean, I’m always going to have that goal in the back of my head until the last game I play,” he said. “But we definitely play some tough defenses; pretty sure they’re going to try to play me different ways. But that goal is still there, and I’m definitely trying to strive for [it].”
For him to meet that goal, Cousins will have to trust him in situations where he wouldn’t trust other receivers. But he also needs to utilize the other threats on the field so defenses can’t exclusively focus on Jefferson. Furthermore, beyond Jefferson’s individual goals, the Vikings need to lean on him to beat opponents like the Cowboys. It’s a quixotic task, given that Jefferson can do things no other player can do. How does Minnesota push the upper limits of his abilities without falling into the Philly trap?
Their success this season depends largely on if they can answer that question.