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There seems to be a sentiment fluttering around Vikings land that the Minnesota Vikings were close to being contenders last year — that they were only a couple of miscues away from being neck-and-neck with the best of ‘em.

But while they certainly played a lot of tight games, the accumulation of the Vikings’ season was well behind the best teams in the NFL. They finished the season with a negative point differential, more than 80 points behind the two teams playing for the Super Bowl and ranked 22nd in total yardage differential. The Vikings had an inconsistent offense that finished 14th in scoring and a defense that was 24th in points and 30th in yards allowed. Playing close games does not make a team close to excellence.

Furthermore, what they did last year no longer matters. How close they are to contention going forward is about the current landscape of the team, not whether a field goal against Arizona went through the uprights. The Vikings have holes all over their roster and a messy salary cap situation that has them $13 million in the hole to start the offseason (per OverTheCap.com). They have difficult decisions with star players, some of whom it would be more savvy to part ways with. They have a call to make at quarterback in which the right direction might be to roll the dice in the draft.

These are the signs of a team that needs to view themselves as “rebuilding.” Understandably, fans and ownership are afraid of using that word. Nobody wants to be bad. Though, what would you call the last two years?

The Vikings have enough talent remaining on the offensive side that they can remain competitive in 2022 while still putting the long term future of the squad ahead of trying to chase a Super Bowl next year. All the teams who went deep in the playoffs built their rosters over a number of years, some by being very bad i.e. Cincinnati and some by building over a number of years i.e. the Rams.

Side note: Don’t mistake the Rams for being a team that suddenly popped up, signed a bunch of players and went to the Super Bowl. OverTheCap’s Jason Fitzgerald pointed out on Twitter that L.A. is sixth in homegrown players.

Also the Rams won a playoff game in 2020 and went to the Super Bowl in 2018. They didn’t build this core group from scratch last year.

The best teams usually grow until it’s their time to strike and then they go all-in with moves to get them over the top. Cincinnati knew that Joe Burrow’s second year opened the door to a big step forward in his development and a chance to do something special, so they signed a bunch of players this offseason, including star edge rusher Trey Hendrickson.

Buffalo did this with the acquisition of Stefon Diggs. San Francisco picked seventh, third, ninth and second overall in a four year span and developed superstars Deebo Samuel and Fred Warner.

So there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a middling team like the Vikings should build with new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah over the next year and then go after free agents when a deep playoff run is within shouting distance.

Can they do that with Jim Harbaugh in charge?

On Monday evening, it was reported that the Vikings will fly in Harbaugh for an in-person interview on Wednesday. You don’t fly in Jim Harbaugh to pick his brain about khakis or get some scouting reports on Michigan’s draft class. You fly him in to hire him and give him the keys to your franchise.

Once upon a time, Harbaugh’s winning San Francisco clubs came along slowly under the regime before he arrived with several years of drafting players like Vernon Davis, Joe Staley, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick in order to set him up to win right away in The Bay.

The Vikings have not drafted like that in recent years. Their 2018 first-round pick played for the Chiefs last weekend. Their 2019 first-round pick got benched this year. One of their 2020 first-rounders got cut after a domestic violence arrest.

That’s not to say they have nothing to work with. Christian Darrisaw and Justin Jefferson are rookie-contract cornerstones. But the route to being much better doesn’t seem to go through reliance on the young players on the roster right now.

Would that mean Harbaugh would want to restructure contracts galore and try to scoop up free agents in order to improve in short order? Didn’t the Vikings just try that last year?

And, of course, there’s the biggest question: Would he believe that sticking with Kirk Cousins at an expensive price tag is the right way to go or would he be willing to develop a quarterback?

Now, in San Francisco, he did just that with Kaepernick. The 49ers benched Alex Smith despite his winning record and rolled with Kaepernick all the way to the Super Bowl.

Maybe Harbaugh would want that. He could watch all the QBs coming out in the next draft, pick his favorite and make that fella his best buddy. That’s what the Vikings should be looking for anyway — a head coach and quarterback who can actually get along.

If he thinks he can take Cousins deep into the playoffs with his expensive and glued-together roster, you might ask how that worked out for the last guy. Much has been made of Harbaugh’s 44-14-1 record in San Francisco but Mike Zimmer was 39-25 before 2018. Sean McVay, Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak all got pretty much the same results with Cousins taking up 15% of their salary cap.

It stands to reason that potential first-time coaches like finalists Kevin O’Connell or Patrick Graham would be more patient and willing to take the role of the tortoise rather than the hare. Would the antsy Harbaugh have the same restraint?

If Harbaugh is cool with the practical approach of stacking talent and building around a rookie QB contract, the Vikings might just land something special. Or at least until Harbaugh becomes disenchanted with whatever roster moves he doesn’t like, as he did with the 49ers.

The Vikings have made mistakes in recent years when they were wowed by flashy things. Keeping Adrian Peterson in 2015. Signing Cousins as a free agent in 2018. Signing him to an extension after a wild card weekend win.

Now they want one of the most lightning-rod coaches in football.

That doesn’t mean it can’t work. But only if everyone is on the same page with taking the proven route to real contention. Not No. 6 seed contention. Not if-we-only-made-a-field-goal-against-the-Cardinals contention. The type where you enter every season with a chance to win the Super Bowl. That’s what the Vikings should be aiming for, not repeating history with a better dressed version of the same thing.

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