Matthew Coller is a published author and football writer who covers the Vikings. He also writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, in addition to hosting a livestream on the Bring Me The News YouTube and Facebook pages every Tuesday. You can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
When you look at the Minnesota Vikings’ roster and the individual performances over the first five games of the 2021 season, it’s hard not to be impressed.
Kirk Cousins ranks as Pro Football Focus’s fourth best quarterback. Justin Jefferson is their second best receiver. Brian O’Neill has given up zero sacks. Adam Thielen is tied for second in touchdown catches. Danielle Hunter is fourth in QB pressures. Dalvin Tomlinson is PFF’s 13th highest graded defensive tackle.
But the bigger picture stats are less flattering. The Vikings are 19th in points per game. They rank ninth in points allowed but sit 17th in yards allowed. ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks them 14th. PFF’s overall grades have the Vikings 12th. They have scored on the exact same percentage of drives (37.5%) as they have given up points.
Their record is 2-3. If you think they’ve gotten all the bad breaks and should have a much better place in the standings, well, Pro-Football Reference’s “Expected Win-Loss” has them at 2.6-2.4. That means they aren’t a 5-0 team in a 2-3 team’s pajamas.
In a lot of ways, it feels like they should be. The Vikings have nice things. Expensive quarterback with great numbers, unstoppable receivers, multiple beastly running backs, high draft picks on the offensive line, two top-notch edge rushers and two other All-Pros on defense and a defensive wizard head coach whose defense ranks fourth in third down percentage.
When you look at the other 2-3 teams in the NFL, they all have big problems. New England is playing a rookie QB, Pittsburgh’s QB is ancient, Kansas City has turned the ball over like crazy and can’t play defense, Atlanta’s QB is also ancient and Seattle and San Francisco’s QBs are hurt. The Vikings haven’t had anything major go wrong that would derail them in the same way. Yet they enter Sunday’s game 10th in the conference standings.
The way things went sideways in Cincinnati and Arizona made it seem like they were a couple breaks away from being a top NFC contender. The way things went against Cleveland and Detroit made it seem like they have no business printing playoff tickets.
So which is closer to the truth?
Probably both. This has been the Vikings’ truth for the last four years. In 2020, they started off 1-5 and needed to win five-of-six to get back in the playoff race. They were 6-2 at one point in 2019 and finished with just four wins the rest of the way. In 2018 the Vikings hovered around .500 for the entire season.
We always look at the team with a microscope in search of solutions. If they only had a better left guard. If Player X didn’t get hurt. If the kicker had made this one or that one. If they only had the right offensive coordinator. But the bigger sample of the last four years comes down to a 27-25-1 record. And here we are again with fans hoping their team can win to get to 3-3.
In that way, it doesn’t feel like they’re one or two players or one or two breaks away. It feels like they have climbed as far up the mountain as they can go and won’t get any farther without a jetpack.
You especially feel that way watching the Buffalo Bills or Los Angeles Chargers. The NFL’s two best non-Tom-Brady-having teams are savvy in their front office moves, progressive in their offensive approaches and have mammoth quarterbacks with arms that could heave William Shatner into space.
The Vikings have ranked above 11th in scoring just once (eighth in 2019) since 2014 while every team that’s reached the Super Bowl since 2016 has been in the top six. Last year’s 11th ranking felt like they were almost there. However, the difference between ranking 11th and sixth was 43 points. The difference between 11th and first was 79 points.
Having two better guards this year hasn’t resulted in the offense pacing toward 40-80 points better because it seems like a never ending game of whack-a-mole on that side of the ball. The interior O-line is better but the left tackle is worse. The quarterback is playing well but one of his favorite targets, tight end Irv Smith Jr., is out for the year, leaving them with one fewer target to find in key spots.
And that is the crux of the thing. Without a quarterback who can make bad play calls good or make ferocious pass rushers look like kittens, everything else has to be rock solid. Dalvin Cook can’t miss time with an ankle injury. The play caller can’t dial up a bunch of runs on second-and-10 and be inexperienced and overwhelmed by second half adjustments by the defense. The receivers can’t drop passes. The left tackle can’t be picked up and tossed in the backfield.
From that perspective, the Vikings don’t look all that close to the NFL’s best despite having a lot of talent being far better than the NFL’s worst.
But the season is far from over. Heading to Carolina, they have an opportunity to hit a reset button on the year and make their way back into the playoff race. They’d also be at .500 for the first time since January 2019.
Maybe the bye week gives them a chance to change something. Maybe it’s more explosive plays or more targets for Jefferson and Thielen or more risk taking on fourth down or pretty much anything that says, “we can’t keep doing the same things forever.”
If they lose, we may never know if they would have done something like that.
By the way, it became obvious from loud boos at US Bank Stadium last week that there’s desire from fans to not exist in this so-close-yet-so-far-away space anymore. Whether some new button is pushed next week or months from now it’s not so clear. It’s possible something is there for coaches and players to change. It’s also possible there’s no more stops on this path to finishing in the middle.