Just 14 days into the regular season, it feels like all hope is gone for the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings came off a 13-win season and were expected to contend for an NFC North title. After losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings enter a must-win game with the Los Angeles Chargers to begin a tough five-week gauntlet that includes the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs.
Dating back to 1990, only 31 of 270 teams have made the playoffs after losing their first two games of the season. With an 11.5% success rate, many Vikings fans may decide to pack up their Justin Jefferson jerseys.
But there is a glimmer of hope, because one of those teams happened to be the 2008 Vikings. When comparing that group to this team, there’s a path that can lead the 2023 Vikings to the playoffs. However, there’s also a more common path that could be more beneficial to this team.
Before we do that, let’s go back to the fall of 2008. Tim Brewster was leading the Gophers, Flo Rida and T-Pain’s “Low” was an absolute banger and the Vikings were entering the second year of Adrian Peterson’s career. Expectations were high for Brad Childress’ team after they narrowly missed the playoffs in 2007. However, after losses to the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota was in the dreaded 0-2 hole.
The Vikings would grind out a victory in Week 3 over the Carolina Panthers before losing on the road to the Tennessee Titans the following week. But Minnesota hit its stride soon after, going 9-3 in their final 12 games and winning five of their last six games to make the playoffs.
When looking at that team, there are a lot of things that weren’t in their favor – especially on offense.
The Vikings entered the season with Tarvaris Jackson as their starter. However, his early season struggles led Childress to start Gus Frerotte in Week 3. Childress rode Frerotte, 37, until going back to Jackson for the final three games of the regular season.
Frerotte and Jackson also had limited weapons to work with in the passing game. It was still one year before Sidney Rice enjoyed his Brett Favre-fueled breakout in 2009. With Rice still developing, the Vikings turned to free-agent acquisition Bernard Berrian, who led the Vikings with 964 yards and seven touchdowns, and Bobby Wade, who was second on the team with 645 yards and two touchdowns.
That meant the offensive line headlined by Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson, and John Sullivan led the way. Peterson was the transcendent talent. He rushed for 1,760 yards and 10 touchdowns to keep things afloat for one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Pat Williams and Kevin Williams formed the Williams Wall to create a legendary run defense while the back end of the defense featured Antoine Winfield Jr. and Chad Greenway. The addition of Jared Allen jumpstarted the Vikings pass rush. With Brian Robison and Ray Edwards mixing in, the Vikings had just enough to fight out of their early hole and become a contender.
When looking at this year’s team, you can make the argument that they have significantly more talent than that 2008 team did.
Cousins has more talent than Frerotte and Jackson, and he’s off to a blazing start. Cousins has thrown for 708 yards and six touchdowns. Even with four turnovers (three fumbles, one interception), Cousins is playing some of the best football of his career through two games. The Vikings have also blessed him with weapons.
It’s not a stretch to say that Jefferson is the same transcendent talent that Peterson was. However, he also has more help with the Jordan Addison‘s breakout and T.J. Hockenson‘s consistent intermediate threat.
The offensive line and backfield are a step down from where they were a year ago. However, with the NFL geared toward the passing game more than it was 15 years ago, Minnesota’s offense can be the engine of this team much like the defense was in 2008.
That begs the question of who could pick up the slack defensively. Danielle Hunter is an intriguing candidate after racking up four sacks in his first two games. But the correct answer may be Brian Flores, the Vikings have tasked with turning an underwhelming group into a functional unit.
Vikings fans may still be upset after watching Philadelphia push the front seven around on Thursday night. However, Minnesota won’t be running into the Eagles’ offensive line until at least January, and the Vikings still rank eighth (4.7 yards allowed) per play and ninth in passing yards allowed.
If Flores can continue to get the most out of his defense, the offense can pick up the slack and help the Vikings get back into the NFC North. With the seven-team playoff field and a division that might only require 10 wins to take home the title, Minnesota’s hole might not be as deep as it was for that 2008 team.
But that’s the optimistic outcome. We all know that Minnesota’s history is usually more sordid than that. In 2013, an 0-2 start led to a major change for the path of the franchise.
The 2013 team also had high expectations coming off a surprising playoff appearance in 2012. They had plenty of ascending talent. Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, and Everson Griffen were would go on to lead the 2017 team. However, they were experiencing a learning curve – especially with Christian Ponder at quarterback.
Ponder had successfully managed to ride shotgun during Peterson’s MVP campaign in 2012. But after trading Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason, the Vikings got off to a slow start, losing their first two games on the road at Detroit and Chicago.
The Vikings returned to the Metrodome the following week for a winnable matchup with the Cleveland Browns, but Josh Gordon had other ideas. After catching 10 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown, Gordon and the Browns earned a shocking 31-27 victory and sent Minnesota into a tailspin.
The Vikings went on to start the season at 1-7. They benched Ponder for Matt Cassel after the loss to the Browns. The defense completely went off the rails, setting franchise records for points (480) and yards (6,362) allowed. The Vikings went 5-10-1 in their final season at the Metrodome.
That season sparked an important turning point for the franchise. Minnesota fired Leslie Frazier and replaced him with Mike Zimmer. He had his flaws as a head coach, but Zimmer ultimately did what he set out to accomplish. He built the Vikings into an elite defense and led them to the NFC Championship Game in 2017.
The Vikings also selected Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater, two franchise cornerstones, in the following draft. Barr went on to become one of the key cogs of that 2017 defense. Bridgewater could have had a bigger impact as a franchise quarterback if he hadn’t suffered a major knee injury before the 2016 season.
Looking back, the 2013 season that inspired enough change to turn the Vikings into legitimate contenders, and they could be looking at the same situation on Sunday.
The Chargers aren’t as pitiful as the 2013 Browns, but they look like the perfect shot of dopamine for a struggling team. LA often snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. They’ve done it so much that they had to invent a new word (Chargering) to describe it.
The Vikings should beat this team at home on Sunday. Still, there’s just as good of a chance they don’t. If that happens, that could send Minnesota to 0-3 and lead them down a dark path considering what lies ahead on the schedule. However, such a path could also inspire similar change to what happened in 2014. The Vikings could set out to find a new quarterback in a loaded draft class and use their mountain of cap space to quickly fix the deficiencies of this year’s team.
Both the 2008 and 2013 Vikings represent reasonable outcomes for what the Vikings could be this season, and Sunday’s game against the Chargers could go a long way in determining which path they could take.