In their schedule-reveal video, the Los Angeles Chargers had a little fun at the Minnesota Vikings’ expense. Upon informing their fans the Chargers would head to Minnesota to play the Vikings on the road in Week 3, they cut to a shot of anime Kirk Cousins standing in front of five fake banners inside US Bank Stadium. One read, “Justin Jefferson OROY (Runner Up).” Another said, “Mentioned in a Lizzo song.” But one in particular got the most attention.
“#1 NFLPA Team.”
Earlier this year, the Vikings ranked No. 1 among NFL teams in the NFL Players Association’s player satisfaction report cards. They received A’s across the board on the eight topics offered, including treatment of families, nutrition, and weight room. “One-hundred percent of the players feel like owner Zygi Wilf is willing to spend money to upgrade the facilities,” read the NFLPA release, in part, while also mentioning Kevin O’Connell’s player-friendly culture. “The Minnesota Vikings are a shining example of what is possible when a concerted effort is made in both staffing and facilities.”
The Wilfs have made considerable investments in the Vikings, including the TCO Performance Center, the roster, and player amenities. In turn, they expect the team to be competitive every year. They hired Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to replace Rick Spielman and O’Connell as head coach after he won the Super Bowl as the Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator. Adofo-Mensah immediately engaged in a “competitive rebuild” and has made it clear that he won’t intentionally lose. “People always take about, ‘Just tank,’” Adofo-Mensah said in early March. “In this sport, it’s kind of unconscionable to do it for what these players put on the line.”
NFL players regularly suffer catastrophic injuries and have short careers. Furthermore, they play in front of a packed stadium, no matter if they are winning or losing. Tanking basketball teams can get by nearly unnoticed in smaller or crowded markets, but almost every NFL team sells out their games. Still, the best teams often lost enough at one point to draft a great quarterback and fill out their roster with high-end talent. Conversely, there are well-run organizations that never have the skill at quarterback, edge rusher, or other vital positions because they never draft high.
Still, the Vikings have chosen nurture in the great nature vs. nurture debate. They will not bottom out to get the next star college quarterback. They won’t sell off every important player on their roster to load up on draft picks. Instead, Minnesota uses Wall Street strategies and scouting to maximize value in the draft and free agency. And they have committed personal trainers and nutritionists to keep their players healthy and develop sophisticated practice schedules to give them rest. It’s an idealistic strategy rooted in analytics and science. But it’s not guaranteed to work out. Life in the NFL is never fair.
The Washington Commanders were predictably the NFL’s worst-ranked team, but the players gave low scores to plenty of successful franchises. The Kansas City Chiefs (29) and Cincinnati Bengals (27) are two of the AFC’s best teams because they have Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. The Chargers ranked 30th, but they have a bright future with Justin Herbert. Even storied teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers (22) and New England Patriots (24) received low marks. Conversely, the Buffalo Bills (9) are the only team in the top 10 with an elite quarterback. In many cases, nature triumphs over nurture.
The NFLPA rankings aren’t gospel by any means. But consider this: The Bengals had five straight losing seasons before they reached the Super Bowl in 2021. They never got out of the first round in the 16 seasons Marvin Lewis coached them. Cincinnati’s last playoff win before 2021 was a 41-14 victory over the Houston Oilers in 1990. Burrow was born in 1996. The Bengals have parsimonious ownership, an old stadium that cost taxpayers a ton of money, and a track record of losing. It doesn’t matter, though, because they drafted Burrow and surrounded him with talent.
It’s not like the Vikings don’t have skilled players. Justin Jefferson is a transcendent receiver. They traded for T.J. Hockenson and should maximize him in an Andy Reid-style offense. Harrison Smith and Danielle Hunter still play crucial roles in Brian Flores’ defense. But they don’t have a quarterback like Mahomes, Burrow, or Herbert, and it’s hard to see the pathway to obtaining one. Teams will ruin their culture and make their fanbases suffer through losing seasons in search of a franchise quarterback. Minnesota isn’t going to do that. But until they hang a championship banner in the US Bank Stadium rafters, teams like the Chargers will have fun at their expense.