At his end-of-season press conference last Wednesday, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah repeatedly said that the Minnesota Vikings are trying to establish a “championship standard” this offseason. He used it when describing the “talent threshold” he wanted to establish on the roster. Adofo-Mensah also used that phrase when discussing what he wanted from the draft and team culture. Kevin O’Connell also repeated it during the press conference and used the phrase a day later in his statement about firing Ed Donatell.
Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell’s repeated use of “championship standard” felt like a hackneyed statement that any team would make. Of course they want to win a championship. Every team does. But it would have made more sense if they had beaten the New York Giants in the first round and lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the second. The Giants are not a championship-caliber team, and Minnesota lost a game Vegas had them favored in. But the Niners could win it all this year, and Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell’s championship standards would have been more relevant immediately following a loss in Santa Clara.
We indirectly learned a lot about the Vikings this weekend. Minnesota played four of the NFL’s final eight teams this year. They beat the Giants in the regular season and lost to them in the playoffs. The Philadelphia Eagles routed New York, 38-7. The Dallas Cowboys blew out Minnesota 40-3, handing the Vikings their only home loss of the season. The Niners beat Dallas 19-12 in a hard-fought game – Minnesota didn’t stand a chance against either team in the playoffs. The Vikings beat the Buffalo Bills, 33-30, in the only game they won as an underdog all year; the Cincinnati Bengals stomped the Bills 27-10 in Buffalo.
“We talk about culture, meaning process, and the way we do things, but it’s also just the people,” Adofo-Mensah said in his season’s-end press conference. “How they relate, how they show up and set a standard. That group of people, it’s going to be foundational in that element. So, we’ve got to consider those things, also, in addition to the production on the field. But really, at the end of the day, we’re trying to meet the talent threshold, a way of playing, for this team that’s a championship standard.”
That sentiment rang a little hollow after the Giants beat Minnesota. But it would have felt more pertinent if the Niners put one on the Vikings like they did in 2019. Minnesota had a great season. After finishing around .500 in the past two years, the Vikings won 13 games, and O’Connell unlocked Justin Jefferson in ways Mike Zimmer would never have. But 2022 ultimately became more about the journey than the destination.
Minnesota never looked like a championship team, but they pulled off a miracle in Buffalo, topped the New England Patriots on a short week, and engineered a historic comeback over the Indianapolis Colts. We’ll remember Jefferson’s improbable catch, O’Connell outwitting Bill Belichick, and Dalvin Cook bursting down the sidelines on a screen pass to tie the Colts game long after we forget how the season ended. In some ways, it was a fitting coda to the Zimmer core that suffered through a team on edge at the end of the Zimmer era.
“To me, my favorite thing about it is the connections and the relationships you make,” said Jordan Hicks, who was on the Arizona Cardinals team that beat the Vikings 34-33 after Greg Joseph missed a 37-yard field goal as time expired. “I’ve been on the outside looking in on this team for a long time, obviously, and seeing guys like Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, Adam Thielen, seeing the success they have, and always, especially Eric, always admiring his game.
“And I said it since the first day I talked to you guys, he was a big part of why I came here, the ability to play with him, and the opportunity that that held. You create bonds with guys, you create relationships with the people in this locker room that really outlast wins and losses. When we go on our way, we’ll really be able to look back on those memories and see all that we accomplished together.”
The issue is that the previous regime created that culture, and that core only won two playoff games. Rick Spielman emphasized character when building his roster, and many players praised the culture in Minnesota before everything fell apart in 2021. But many of the core veterans Hicks mentioned are no longer in their prime and could be on another team next year, Hicks included. The Vikings’ cap situation isn’t as dire as it seems at first glance.
They can keep many of their veterans if they want to. But hard decisions are coming. Everyone making big money has to be capable of driving winning for a championship-caliber team. The Vikings can offer Jefferson a massive extension this year, they are going to have to pay T.J. Hockenson, and Kirk Cousins is making starting-quarterback money. Minnesota is going to have to make cuts somewhere to make this work. They also need to ensure there is enough playing time for young, developing players who are the future of this franchise.
Ultimately, a team that constantly found ways to lose close games in 2021 created improbable ways to win all season – until the playoffs, that is. They set expectations that this team will win, but their play in 2022 isn’t a championship standard. Adofo-Mensah worked on Wall Street before working in the NFL and has to know how unlikely it is that the Vikings will pull that off again. They played a relatively easy schedule and still had all of their wins come down to the wire. Next year, they’ll face a tougher schedule and need to create more margin of victory to build off this season.
“We talked about being situational masters,” Adofo-Mensah said regarding Minnesota’s 11-1 record in one-score games this year. “If you look at the results, end of half, end of game, year after year, those are the things that we planned to be better at, and we did. So I think those things are repeatable, but when you talk about one-score games versus not, I don’t always necessarily look at that because [in] a one-score game that you have the ball and could have scored or something like that, those things end up being a little bit different. We can very easily play in less one-score games and have the same record next year, right?”
To do so, they have to establish a championship standard, meaning they have coaches and players capable of beating inferior teams by multiple scores and upsetting favored opponents. It means that Adofo-Mensah’s first two draft classes must produce reliable stars, and O’Connell needs to hire the right defensive coordinator. They must keep finding ways to enable Jefferson and ensure they have a kicker who can deliver in the clutch. The Vikings had a successful first season, but they were far away from competing with championship-caliber teams. They’ve set a lofty standard to meet this offseason.