One year ago, the Minnesota Vikings were embarking on a new era. Hiring Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell led the Vikings to a 13-win season. It also seemed to breed hope for a brighter future.
But as Daniel Jones and the New York Giants strutted off the field on Sunday afternoon, there was a familiar feeling in the air. All of the good vibes and comeback victories had disappeared, and the Vikings were the same team they were a year ago.
It goes back to the past two seasons. The Vikings were a mediocre team that believed they deserved a better fate. Their losses in one-score games piled up, and Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman paid the price.
After ownership fired the previous regime, Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell had the choice of going in one of two directions: blow it all up or run it back hoping for positive regression.
They chose the latter, dishing out big contracts to their aging stars. Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen got raises. Danielle Hunter got a fully guaranteed $18 million roster bonus. They made moves to win now, including signing Za’Darius Smith and trading back twice in the draft to acquire more picks, all tucked under the convenient narrative of a “competitive rebuild.”
To their credit, it worked. The Vikings won 13 games, their first division title since 2017, and rode the karma of eight comeback victories. Even as the front office traded for T.J. Hockenson, it seemed like they were building toward something special, whether it be this season or in 2023. But that was all window dressing for a team that wasn’t much different from 365 days ago.
It all played out on Sunday in a brilliant flameout at U.S. Bank Stadium. Cousins had become a locker room leader after escaping Zimmer’s wrath and showed a willingness to throw the ball downfield – even in risky situations.
Cousins was terrific for most of Sunday’s game, throwing for 273 yards and two touchdowns. But the moment of truth came on the final offensive play of the game. With the Vikings facing a fourth-and-eight and the season on the line, Cousins chose to take a three-yard dump-off to Hockenson, who was stopped woefully short of the sticks and sent the Vikings into the offseason.
To blame Cousins completely for the play would be ignoring the other flaws, such as O’Connell’s playcalling. There were moments during the regular season when O’Connell would dive into his bag of tricks, flirting with disaster as opposed to producing steady, consistent drives that would keep his defense off the field.
On Sunday, O’Connell’s galaxy brain got the better of him on multiple occasions. A third-and-one trick-play pass from Jefferson to Cousins didn’t pan out, and back-to-back screen plays forced a critical three-and-out as the Vikings were looking to tie the game in the fourth quarter. But as Kurt Warner pointed out, O’Connell’s play design had multiple flaws, eliminating options for Cousins and giving him Hockenson as the only viable choice.
Then there was the defense, which the Vikings had sunk so much money into keeping together. Eric Kendricks looked like he had cinder blocks for feet as he tried to chase Saquon Barkley down the field. Harrison Smith couldn’t contain his anger during the postgame press conference after playing coverage for the full 60 minutes. Even Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith were nowhere to be found, allowing the Giants to move up and down the field with little resistance.
It left the Vikings with a familiar result and an offseason with many needs to address. Minnesota needs a complete makeover on the defensive side of the ball. They also might want to find a quarterback of the future as Cousins enters next season with a $36.25 million cap hit. They also need to extend Jefferson, who will be looking for the largest receiver contract in NFL history. Impending free agents Patrick Peterson and Dalvin Tomlinson will be seeking new deals, and Hockenson could also look to cash in on a career year.
All of this needs to be done as the Vikings sit $19.3 million over the salary cap, meaning a lot of upgrades will need to come in the draft. But, even then, the Vikings only have four draft picks after making a series of aggressive deals that netted them Jalen Reagor and Hockenson. Even if the Vikings liked C.J. Stroud or Anthony Richardson, they don’t have the draft capital to make a trade, let alone find an impact player who could help their struggling defense.
With no money and no draft picks, the Vikings are in a new kind of football purgatory. That gets even hotter when you consider the rest of the NFC North landscape.
The Chicago Bears slogged through a 3-14 season, but they now have the No. 1-overall pick in the draft. If Bryce Young is even slightly comparable to Justin Fields, the Bears would be wise to take Young and use the $92 million in cap space to build a powerhouse roster.
Anyone who watched the Bears this year might think this is laughable. But Jalen Hurts, Brock Purdy, and Daniel Jones have all advanced to the divisional round with a roster propped up around their rookie contract.
The Detroit Lions are in a similar spot but with a roster that’s further down the road. Jared Goff could fall into the “paying for good, not great” category that the Vikings are in with Cousins, but they also have a homegrown roster that features Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, and Penei Sewell. With $15 million in cap space – and more to come after some financial gymnastics – the Lions can use free agency to bolster one of the few defenses that were worse than the Vikings’, leaving them as potential favorites to win the division in 2023.
The Green Bay Packers are in their own cap hell but at least seem resigned to the fact that they need to rebuild. On the other hand, the Vikings have been holding on to 2017 too long, with ownership imploring the front office to do everything they can to be “super competitive.”
In retrospect, 2022 accomplished that objective. It just didn’t get them any further from where they started. If the Vikings don’t realize this soon, they could be headed right back to where they were at the end of the Zimmer/Spielman era.