Coller: Can the Vikings prove to the world they aren't stuck in the middle?

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
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Kirk Cousins

Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

Ah, yes, it’s ranking season in the NFL.

Once free agency and the draft have come to an end, we reach that point in the summer months where all the entities that cover football start producing predictions and lists.

Anyone who claims that they do not care about these lists is lying to you. We all open up power rankings and odds and QB lists to see where the Minnesota Vikings land.

Here’s an unfortunate spoiler from all of this year’s lists: The Vikings are in the middle.

DraftKings sportsbook puts the Vikings at 8.5 wins, 16th most in the NFL. The same book has 16 teams with higher Super Bowl odds.

Westgate sportsbook favors the Vikings in nine games.

ESPN power ranked the Vikings as the 13th best team in the NFL and seventh best in the NFC.

Pro Football Focus ranked all the quarterbacks in the league and Kirk Cousins ended up 14th on their list.

As more and more lists come out, you can expect this to continue to be the case. Expectations are neither high nor low. And no, that isn’t because the “national media” is disrespecting your team. It’s because this is who the Vikings have been.

Since signing Cousins in 2018, the Vikings average eight wins per year. In the Mike Zimmer era, they average nine wins per season. Since 2001, 10 of the Vikings’ 20 seasons have been somewhere between 7-9 and 10-6. If we extend those to 6-10/11-5, it makes for 70% of the last two decades. They have had two seasons of more than 11 wins since 1998.

Along the way the Vikings had a case for having the best receiver in the NFL and an argument for the best running back in the league after that. Brett Favre was darn close to the best quarterback in the NFL for a year and they had the best defense in the league in 2017. Lately they have been known for sporting the top receiving duo in the sport.

But there’s always been something in the way keeping them from being a consistently elite team. The most notable of those things was probably Daunte Culpepper and Teddy Bridgewater’s career-altering injuries.

The struggle to elevate beyond mid pack has always been connected to quarterback uncertainty. The Vikings have had 11 different leading passers during that 20 year span. Cousins has provided the most stable QB situation since Culpepper but the team’s failure to shake the shackles of the middle has put its quarterback in the spotlight. The Vikings drafting Kellen Mond in the third round of the draft signaled that they may see the third most expensive QB cap hit as hindering their ability to build a roster that can win 12 or more games.

So here are the questions that come to mind from all of this: How do the Vikings snap out of it? Can they get past the barriers and land themselves in a true Super Bowl window or will they be forever trapped in a one-great-team-per-decade cycle? And what happens if they do not start that process this year?

If anyone truly knew the answers to questions No. 1 and 2, they would get paid very handsomely for that information. It seems to be the nature of the NFL beast. We see plenty of teams that do not have bad/rookie QBs or Tom Brady/Patrick Mahomes ending up sustaining average play for long periods of time and hitting the occasional peak. Since 2001, the only NFC team to go to back-to-back Super Bowls was the 2013 and 2014 Seattle Seahawks.

Since 2001, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees quarterbacked 32 seasons of 12 wins or more. The entire league combined for 40 more 12-plus win seasons.

The strategy for everyone who doesn’t have Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Peyton Manning has to be to aim for a once-a-decade shot at a Super Bowl and then hope that everything clicks as it did for the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles. The Vikings simply haven’t had one of their best chances at reaching the Super Bowl end up clicking.

The other question is how badly the Vikings need this year to be that year.

With Cousins set to cost $45 million on the cap in 2022 and Zimmer registering two playoff wins in seven years, it feels like a breaking point. If the Vikings do not achieve more success than the list makers are suggesting, there could be significant changes.

Is that the right way to go? If the Vikings end up going 9-7-1 (as Westgate has them), should they make moves or does patience get rewarded?

Well, it can be hard to find teams that stuck with QBs and coaches that hung around in the middle for long periods of time without changes being made. The Lions never found that final piece with Matthew Stafford in place. The Falcons were rewarded for sticking with Matt Ryan with a Super Bowl appearance. Chicago reached an NFC title game with Jay Cutler. The Chargers went eight years without double-digit wins before popping up with a 12-win season in 2018. The Raiders haven’t seen 10-plus wins since Derek Carr was on his rookie deal.

So history isn’t particularly kind to those who wait.

One thing we do know is that there’s less reason for fear of changing the QB than there has been in past years. We’ve seen veteran QBs around the league change places regularly and teams be willing to trade quarterbacks. It also appears more quality young QBs are coming out of college these days nearly ready to play.

So if the Vikings do land in the middle in 2021, your guess is as good as theirs on whether they should make major changes. What we do know is that they have the capability to be better than OK this year. PFF named the Vikings’ receiving duo the best in the NFL. They also poured significant money into improving the defense. And during the lead up to the 2017 season, most people picked them to be in the middle, too.

So Vikings fans are again asked to put their hopes into having a pop-up season. But, hey, they’re not alone in that. 

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