The remaining five weeks of the regular season — and potentially the playoff games — will be a critical phase in the Minnesota Vikings’ competitive rebuild. At 6-6, they currently occupy the sixth playoff spot in the NFC. If the season ended today, Minnesota would travel to face off against the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card round. Through their actions at the trade deadline, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and the powers that be at TCO Performance Center told us that any move that could potentially jeopardize their future posed too big of a risk.
Unlike former general manager Rick Spielman, who was prone to mortgaging the future with hasty win-now trades for Sam Bradford and Yannick Ngakoue, Adofo-Mensah exercised the proper amount of restraint when injury misfortune struck his ball club. And while Skoldiers with a little more urgency running through their veins might disagree, standing pat (aside from parting with Day 3 draft picks for Cam Akers and Josh Dobbs) and prioritizing the long game was the correct decision.
Ultimately, the Vikings face an opportunity over these next few weeks to evaluate their franchise’s critical short-term and long-term components. Although no one wants to hear that a team in the thick of the playoff race in December is in “evaluation mode,” the Vikings are at a crossroads, with franchise-altering decisions looming this offseason. On the bright side, what better way to evaluate whether or not your team has “the goods” than in meaningful football games with the postseason on the line?
The most obvious question that the team will answer — in one way or another — is whether or not this offense is still capable of being one of the better units in the league with Justin Jefferson but without Kirk Cousins.
There’s no sugarcoating it. Dobbs was atrocious in Week 12’s loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. The NFL has always been a What have you done for me lately? conglomerate. For all the wrong reasons, Dobbs has earned the questions surrounding his status as this team’s starting quarterback going forward. Still, Dobbs isn’t the only quarterback who has put up a disastrous stinker without Jefferson in recent years.
In Week 2 of the 2020 season, the Vikings played the Indianapolis Colts on the road. At the time, Jefferson was still operating as the Vikings’ WR3 behind Adam Thielen and Olabisi Johnson, which is still pretty comical three years later. Without having the luxury of Jefferson to throw to, Cousins was awful. Minnesota lost 28-11 and didn’t reach the end zone until a garbage-time touchdown from Dalvin Cook with five minutes remaining.
Cousins’ afternoon looked like this:
- 113 passing yards
- 0 touchdowns
- 3 interceptions
- 15.9 passer rating
To make matters worse, Cousins allowed a safety courtesy of DeForest Buckner in the second quarter. But the offense came to life when Jefferson debuted in the starting lineup a week later.
It should go without saying, but Dobbs isn’t the same caliber of quarterback as Cousins. It also needs to be said that one godawful performance shouldn’t define a player’s value, especially when there have been considerably more positives than negatives. But Jefferson’s return and how the offense functions with him will be paramount in determining whether or not the Vikings need Cousins in 2024. In the here and now, the Vikings appear to be going with the quarterback who gives the offense the best opportunity to feature Jefferson.
During last Tuesday’s morning press conference following the Bears defeat, O’Connell said:
We’re going to make sure that whoever is playing quarterback is aware and understands the intent behind plays where either Justin is the primary [target], or based upon coverage, based upon the defensive look, how to quickly and efficiently get to the right place to go with the football.
Putting aside my personal viewpoints on evaluating a four-game sample size of Dobbs with one major clunker mixed in, the Vikings have to unapologetically lean into the process behind O’Connell’s quote from last week. Jefferson is one of the biggest stars in professional sports, and the franchise is wildly fortunate to have him. Not only that, he’s still arguably the individual who most drives winning with O’Connell’s Vikings.
Let’s not forget that one of the biggest reasons why O’Connell and the Vikings were such a mutual fit in February 2022 was that O’Connell’s 11-personnel aerial offense he picked up from Sean McVay was going to help Minnesota win a lot of football games by turning Jefferson from a great receiver to the Best Receiver In the Game. And the mission was certainly accomplished in Year 1, despite going one-and-done in the playoffs.
Adofo-Mensah preaches process more than most other NFL GMs. There’s an argument to be made that, since he and O’Connell stepped into TCO Performance Center together, their process behind building a sustainable, winning franchise involves no other player more than Jefferson. Although The Passtronaut saga has been one of the more fun and memorable stretches in recent franchise history, it can’t get in the way of the big-picture evaluation. Whether or not Dobbs gets the nod going forward, the Vikings have to go with the signal caller who gives them the most confidence in getting the ball to Jefferson early and often.
The Vikings undoubtedly brought O’Connell in to win football games. They also brought him in to do so by maximizing Jefferson more than any other coach who was on the open market following the 2021 season. And Minnesota must find out, once and for all, if O’Connell’s scheme can still do it for Jefferson without one of the better quarterbacks in the game today with Cousins. If they can demonstrate that their offense is still capable of teetering on elite without No. 8, that opens up many doors to re-allocate some of those financial resources to other areas of the roster.