The Alexander Mattison Experiment Validated the Skeptics

Photo Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota sports fans, and Minnesota Vikings fans in particular, tend to be skeptical. (We have our reasons. Let’s not bring any of that up and spoil a pleasantly mild winter.) But even reasonable impulses can become kneejerk responses over time. Assuming the worst and being slightly relieved at a less-than-terrible outcome is a trauma response, but it’s no way to run a football team.

So the wave of skepticism that greeted Kevin O’Connell’s announcement that the Vikings would head into the 2023 season with Alexander Mattison as their RB1 seemed almost suspicious. There was too much harmony in that chorus of woe. Conventional wisdom holds true until it doesn’t. Maybe KOC and his staff knew something we didn’t. Maybe all this doubt about Mattison was the result of groupthink from a group trained to think the worst.

The good news is, we can at least remain confident in our skepticism because the team officially validated it on Thursday when they informed Mattison they would release him following a disappointing season.

Mattison still has one year left on his contract, including $2.75 million in guaranteed money that Minnesota will be responsible for, minus whatever money he potentially earns with another team next year.

Mike Florio explained that the Vikings likely released Mattison fairly early so he’d have plenty of time to explore the market — and hopefully recoup a nice chunk of the money elsewhere, which they will owe him if he does not.

If the late-Thursday timing of the announcement was surprising, not too much else about it was, neither in the short nor the long term. The back half of 2023 had fans getting excessively excited about Ty Chandler while consoling themselves with the thought that, based on the New York Jets games, at least Minnesota didn’t let Dalvin Cook slip away before his prime was over.

But this is also exactly what so many fans and analysts predicted. Luke Braun pointed it out not in the spring of 2023 but all the way back in October 2021, during a spate of games when Mattison was filling in for an injured Cook. Braun breaks down all the numbers, but perhaps more importantly, he concludes that Mattison’s style is ill-suited for him trying to be a lead back-breaking big plays, in a Zone Coverage article unambiguously titled “No, Alexander Mattison Cannot Replace Dalvin Cook.”

Running backs come in many styles in the NFL. You can be a short, shifty scat back. You can be a one-cut-and-burst sprinter. Mattison is a physical back. His game is predicated on bashing tacklers to fall forward for extra yards or hurdling them altogether. So when Mattison tries to embody the style of his teammates, it can turn reasonable gains into failed plays.

Whatever goodwill Mattison accrued as Cook’s backup seemed destined not to last, largely because he was put in a bad position. His straight-ahead power-back style always seemed to lack the sufficient power to bowl defenders over for huge plays; he wasn’t a backup because he was physically dominant yet had immature decision-making or poor ball-handling skills. He was solid in a pretty specific niche as a Leroy HoardIf you need one-yard” type.

Alas, even that declined precipitously in 2023. The Vikings had plenty of struggles in the red zone last season, including sometimes bizarre play-calling inside the five-yard line. Regardless, you simply cannot argue for your value, even as just a short-yardage power back with zero rushing touchdowns on the season. Mattison ranked 30th among all running backs in rushing yardage last season, and that’s largely on him.

But the bigger disappointment is in the obvious mismanagement of putting him in that situation in the first place when the error seemed so obvious. Like watching a slow-motion car crash, the result caused fan frustration to boil over to such unconscionably toxic levels that it became a national news story. It was an incredibly sour ending for a player who had been a solid contributor to his team for several years.

The Vikings thrust Alexander Mattison into an untenable position for someone of his significant but not quite superstar abilities. Did the team suffer for it? Yes. But certainly no one suffered from it more than Mattison, who was out there taking the hits on the field and then taking them off it, bearing the brunt of the fans’ ire because he was the face of a poor management decision.

Hopefully, some good can come out of all of this. Perhaps the Vikings front office can reconsider their valuation of running backs, and perhaps fans at large can take this as a lesson that athletes are also just people who deserve some grace — and certainly in no way deserve bigotry or harassment — when they struggle.

But alas, it seems destined that Vikings fans will take another, perhaps unfortunate lesson from this, which is that you’re probably not wrong when you feel that dark cloud of skepticism fall over you.

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