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.
I have a confession to make: Every time I see an article that ranks football stuff, I click on it. And yes, the first thing I do is scroll down to find out where the Minnesota Vikings are ranked.
Earlier this week, I checked in on an ESPN piece on the NFL’s strongest rosters and the Vikings were sitting in ninth. The only NFC teams ahead of them were Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Los Angeles and Dallas.
Now if we take a minute to think about those clubs, something really sticks out: Every one of them has something that could completely take them apart. If Tom Brady’s age finally catches up to him or if Aaron Rodgers doesn’t play or if the Rams repeat the 2018 Vikings with Matthew Stafford or if Mike McCarthy is simply bad at coaching, all of those franchises could end up with disappointing years.
The teams close behind the Vikings like San Francisco, Washington and Seattle have their problems too. The 49ers and Football Team have uncertainty at QB and Seattle has uncertainty at everything except QB.
Unless the Bucs and Packers remain juggernauts, it’s hard to look at the NFC and say that anyone should run away with the conference, which feels like an open door for the Vikings to bounce back from a 7-9 2020 season and get right into the mix as a legitimate contender.
Of course there are always things that can derail that notion because, after all, we’re talking about the Vikings here. Still it’s fair for fans to look around at the opposition and then look at the rebuilt defense and star power on offense and set the expectation bar high.
It feels like asking where expectations should be set and what Vikings fans want to see out of their squad in 2021 are two very different questions. Expectations come with reasonable calculation. You look at what the betting market thinks of your team (the Vikings are less than 50% chance to make the playoffs by DK Sportsbook) and you add up the past histories of the players and coach and you decide what’s fair. That’s not exactly the same as looking at what the fan base needs out of a team that’s gone 8-7-1, 10-6 and 7-9 over the last three years.
What I’m getting at is: Vikings fans need this team to be very good.
You could argue that to be true for every franchise but it isn’t really. The Jets and Jaguars don’t need their team to be great this year to have a good time. The Bucs don’t either. They’re basking in Super Bowl glow. Chiefs fans would be sad if Mahomes had a down year but they got their ring too. Nobody in New England should cry if they go through a down stretch post Brady.
But Vikings fans have felt the anguish of either poor or mediocre seasons in nine of the last 11 seasons despite running out Adrian Peterson in his prime and then top-ranked defenses, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and now Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson. Since Favre’s infamous interception in the SuperDome, they have played exactly 176 regular season games and won 88 -- exactly half. Their point differential during that entire stretch is plus-39 points. Or basically even.
So when you’re sliding around your expectation bar, you might think, well, 10 wins would make for a reasonable number. They should make the playoffs, right? If they do end up with the ninth best roster in the league, that puts them squarely in the mix as long as they make a few key field goals.
When it comes to what Vikings fans need out of 2021, it’s something that returns the belief that they are going somewhere. Even when things were ugly in 2014, you could see the bones of something good. In 2015 there was reason to believe they were going to be a serious contender for years to come. When the 2016 season collapsed, it didn’t crush the idea that they could still be a great team and 2017 proved that belief to be correct. Since about Week 3 of the 2018 season, there’s been a much more skeptical feeling that the Vikings missed their chance and won’t get back to another NFC Championship game for a long time. A burst of excitement in 2019 with a victory over New Orleans was quickly doused with cold water the next week in Santa Clara.
A 10-7 season in 2021 would be alright. It would give returning fans to US Bank Stadium some thrills and that probably means the revamped defense worked and Kirk Cousins played like Kirk Cousins and Mike Zimmer coached the group pretty well and it would mean getting excited for a playoff game. If we’re being honest, it can be way worse than 88-86-2 over the last 10 years, just ask the 54-124 Jaguars. But it would also leave everyone with a sense of emptiness and confusion (relative to sports, that is).
Would you celebrate being meh again when the team is much more under the win-now than building-for-the-future category? Does that mean running it all back again in 2022?
It feels like we’ve reached a point where they either have to be great or have it all blow up like Independence Day or the entire year will have Vikings fans in the same malaise they spent last year drifting in.
So is it OK to toss aside rankings and over/unders in favor of what the fan base needs to see from their team? Normally you’d say no -- live in reality, right? In this case, though, it deserves an exception. When they signed Cousins, it was a promise to be more than just OK. They could have been OK with Case Keenum. And by spending millions on the defense to instantly repair it rather than slowly put the pieces back together, it was a promise to return to winning with defense behind Zimmer.
In an OK season, we can say that everyone played/coached up to what they were capable of doing and it wasn’t quite enough to go deep in the playoffs. That would be fine for a team like Jacksonville that’s been struggling for a long time. But maybe expectations and fan needs should be closer together for this team because another dip in the middling pool won’t be enough for fans to want to stay the course.
Plus, who wants ranking season to be the only time of the year that your team is in the mix with the best teams?