Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
When the Minnesota Vikings traded Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, you would have thought he was being sent off to Siberia.
Vikings fans rationalized his exit.
“The Vikings received a lot in return!”
“He didn’t want to be here anyway!”
Throughout the season, Vikings faithful have mostly been able to tune out Diggs. After all, the noise of Justin Jefferson taking over as the team’s receiver of the future has been enough to drown out a lot of things.
But on Sunday, Diggs was too loud to ignore. During the ESPN pregame show, he was the subject of an ESPN The Magazine feature in which he opened up about his exit from Minnesota, revealing that he was frustrated by the team neglecting to hear him out concerning his role in the offense.
“Once you don’t have trust with the person, it’s hard to do business,” Diggs said.
Twelve hours after the piece aired, Diggs wrapped up a 10-catch, 130-yard performance in a Buffalo win over Pittsburgh, who came in with the best defense in the NFL. His 10th reception of the night put him at 100 catches and atop the entire NFL in catches. It also bumped Diggs’ new team to the AFC’s second best record at 10-3.
Even for the folks looking through the deepest shade of purple glasses, there was no denying the juxtaposition of Diggs proving that he was right all along about what he could do for the offense versus a few hours earlier when the Vikings only threw four passes to Justin Jefferson in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Weird, Diggs didn’t throw his helmet on Sunday night. He probably would have if he was in Jefferson’s shoes.
Certainly Vikings fans can be happy with the player their team landed in the draft. Jefferson is a monster. If he’s not Offensive Rookie of the Year, a crime has been committed. He’s fast, strong and catches everything. And at the moment, he’s pretty happy to break some records held by Randy Moss.
But the Vikings haven’t changed any of the things that bothered Diggs. Their opening drive against Tampa Bay didn’t have a single target to Adam Thielen or Justin Jefferson as they opted to focus on the running game. They didn’t take risks downfield when trailing 24-6, instead running the clock on themselves with short passes. And they lost a big game because the offensive line -- built to block the run -- was unable to protect Kirk Cousins.
At the moment, it’s all’s well that ends well with the Diggs trade -- but let’s see if it ends well. If you think a national champion, first-round pick who is unstoppable by any human cornerback is going to remain happy-go-lucky watching his team lead the league in second-and-long runs next year when 2021 has high expectations, you may have another thing coming.
And if Jefferson someday wants to express opinions about his role in the offense, it won’t go particularly well if he’s tuned out.
Vikings fans may want to paint Diggs as selfish or a malcontent in order to sooth the feelings of frustration that the team was forced to trade a franchise-altering receiver. They may want to tweet at Bills fans claiming that he’ll turn on them someday and wrap themselves in the We’ve Got Jefferson Now blanket. But what’s lurking in the background is the fact that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.
Another that should be tough to shake for Vikings fans is how gosh darn right Diggs was about passing games driving success. The past 10 teams to reach the Super Bowl have ranked in the top five in passing Expected Points Added. The Vikings are one of the most efficient passing teams in yards per pass attempt but only rank 17th in EPA. Last year they were ninth. Maybe they would have been higher if they took the Bills’ approach and threw it to their unstoppable receiver all the time.
Of course, winning in the NFL isn’t as simple as passing on every play. The Vikings are right to run a high rate of play-action throws and set up those plays with the running game. They’re right to give the ball to Dalvin Cook often because he’s one of the three best running backs in the game.
But the margins are thin in the NFL. Teams understand efficiency better than they ever have before. You don’t have to look far for the evidence. The average team is throwing for 240 yards per game and gaining 7.2 yards per attempt this year. Ten years ago teams gained 221 yards per game and 6.5 per attempt. Twenty years ago, when the Baltimore Ravens won with an all-time great defense and Trent Dilfer at the helm, the average team only passed for 206 yards per game and 6.1 yards per attempt.
Last year when the 49ers reached the Super Bowl, folks fawned over their running game and defense and overlooked that they were fourth in passing EPA and second in the NFL in points.
It’s a different game. Diggs knew it. Jefferson knows it. You wonder if Cousins is thinking it when the Vikings wait until the third quarter and they’re down two scores to let him throw downfield to Jefferson.
Overall the Vikings have a bright future. They have a talented roster, stable quarterback situation and weapons who can keep them in the playoff race even when they rank 24th in points allowed on defense. But nobody plays to stay in the hunt. They play to win division titles and earn first-round byes. Will the Vikings be able to do that in the near future if other teams are targeting their top receivers 10 times per game on average (like the Packers with Davante Adams)?
It doesn’t appear that’s how they want to play. They might stick to their guns and aim to build another No. 1 defense. Like Pittsburgh. The team that Diggs roasted.