The Minnesota Vikings had a lot of things going for them coming into the season. They kept many of the components from their 13-win team in place, even after several key veterans departed. After adding Brian Flores to save the defense, there was a good chance the Vikings could contend for another division title.
Some may wonder how the Vikings got themselves into this situation. But looking back on what happened this offseason, their rough start shouldn’t be a surprise.
It starts in the days following the playoff loss to the New York Giants. Everyone who watched that game knew that the Vikings had to make changes. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and his staff began to trim the fat in an effort to create a younger, more efficient team.
Eric Kendricks and Adam Thielen were the first veterans to go. Neither player’s absence has been a key reason for Minnesota’s struggles this offseason. But in Dalvin Cook and Za’Darius Smith‘s case, their departures turned into a standoff.
Cook delayed his release by getting surgery on his shoulder, which he originally injured in 2019. His agent screamed from the mountaintops that Cook’s bionic shoulder would increase his efficiency. However, the rest of the league saw a 28-year-old running back getting a surgically repaired shoulder.
The NFL’s dismissal of the running back position already made it tough for the Vikings to find a trade partner, and Cook’s decision to have his shoulder fixed straight-up nuked any possibility of a trade. Minnesota could have cut Cook and used the cap savings to bolster other areas of the roster. however, got into a staring contest and ultimately released him in June.
Meanwhile, Smith also did his best to reduce his trade value by saying goodbye in a post on X. His departure may have been imminent, but the Vikings reminded Smith that he was still under contract. They got into a similar standoff until netting what amounted to a late-round pick swap with the Cleveland Browns.
Who do the Vikings miss more? Smith is a resounding favorite. His replacement, Marcus Davenport, has only played four snaps due to an ankle injury. But this isn’t about the decision to let the veterans go. It’s about the weird vibes surrounding each of their departures.
The same could be said about the mountain of contract situations the Vikings dealt with this offseason. When the league year began, Minnesota had to decide on Kirk Cousins, T.J. Hockenson, and Justin Jefferson‘s long-term future. Many assumed these decisions, especially in Jefferson and Hockenson’s case, would be as simple as putting pen to paper. But once again, things got weird.
Cousins’ future was never certain. Still, it was a bit of a shock when the Vikings pushed more money into void years as opposed to either committing to him long-term or finding a quarterback in this year’s draft. When Cousins announced that any negotiations on a deal would wait until the spring of 2024, it created a strange dynamic. The 36-year-old quarterback is putting up big stats, but he’s not getting the wins to show for it.
Things got even weirder when Hockenson and Jefferson didn’t sign long-term deals before training camp. Hockenson’s contract was a little difficult considering he only played nine games with Minnesota. But Jefferson is the face of the franchise. They should have been able to re-sign him.
Both contracts hovered over Minnesota’s training camp. The result was a camp that felt like it was more about what was happening off the field than the preparation for the upcoming season.
Camp started with Danielle Hunter, who was embroiled in his own contract situation, signing a one-year, $20 million deal to stay in Minnesota. A few weeks later, Hockenson battled an ear infection and then a sore back that allowed him to stretch but strangely didn’t allow him to participate in contract drills until he signed the largest contract in NFL history.
But those storylines didn’t compare to what was going on with Jefferson. He showed up and participated in every drill before the season. However, he and the team never agreed to a contract extension. While fans waited for white smoke to bellow from TCO Performance Center, he never signed a contract, and it cast a long shadow when the season began.
With everything that happened off the field during camp, it shouldn’t be surprising that they came out flat in a Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nor should we be surprised that the Philadelphia Eagles pushed them around in Week 2. It’s even more understandable that Cousins looked discombobulated in the final minutes of a Week 3 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and revert to the form he was in when the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer at the end of the 2021 season.
Compare this to where the Vikings were one year ago. Kevin O’Connell united a team that was pulling in several directions under Zimmer. Even if they wanted to prove Zimmer wrong, the Vikings had common ground to stand on. It led to an 8-1 start, a division title, and a 13-win season.
That’s why so many fans pay attention to what happens in the offseason. An offseason representing a well-executed plan can breed success and help a team achieve more than what is expected. But a chaotic offseason can shake a foundation, leaving them to wonder whether they can recover from a lost year.