How The Vikings Won the North after 5 Years
In Week 15 of the 2017 season, the Minnesota Vikings won the North after a 34-7 victory against the Bengals. 1828 days later, the Vikings won the North after a 39-36 victory against the Colts. Oddly enough, those games are exactly 5 years apart (both were on December 17th). The point here is not to analyze how the team won the division this year – at least not now -, but to remember everything that happened in the 5 years of the Kirk Cousins era in Minnesota.
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This is the season that, if you really think about it, never should’ve happened. Forced to play with a backup journeyman in Case Keenum after Sam Bradford hurt his knee during Week 1, two backup running backs when Dalvin Cook tore his ACL and a new offensive coordinator in Pat Shurmur.
But, somehow, Shurmur designed an efficient offense, Keenum had the best season of his life, Diggs and Thielen proved to be the best wide receiver tandem in the league, and McKinnon and Murray did a very good job running the football. All of this behind one of the best defenses in NFL history helped the team to a 13-win season and the Vikings won the North for the second time in 3 seasons.
The 2018 season marks the beginning of the Cousins era in Minnesota, and, when he signed, everyone thought that he was the missing piece for the Vikings to win their first Super Bowl. But, as almost always happens to this team, the Murphy Law came into place. For those not familiar with it, this law states that everything that can go wrong will go wrong and in the worst way possible.
Before the season even begins, the Vikings had the tragic loss of offensive line coach Tony Sparano, who suddenly passed away. His loss took a toll on Zimmer, who had Sparano as an important assistant and close friend, and the team. Pat Shurmur left to be the New York Giants’ head coach and John DeFilippo came from the recent champions Eagles to replace him as OC. It’s fair to say that DeFilippo and Zimmer didn’t see eye-to-eye and, after a very bad job, the former was fired mid-season.
The defense took a step back – which was expected – and couldn’t carry the team to the playoffs. Cook had another injury, playing in only 11 games. After a good year in 2017, kicker Kai Forbath lost the training camp battle to 5th-round rookie Daniel Carlson, who got cut after missing 3 field goals in Week 2 against the Packers.
So, after going 13-3 in 2017 and paying 84 million dollars to Cousins hoping that he’d be the final piece of the puzzle, the whole team fell apart and the Vikings finished with an 8-7-1 record, missing the playoffs altogether and watching the Mitchell Trubisky-led Bears winning the division.
But it wasn’t all bad news in 2018 though. Both Thielen and Diggs crossed the 1000-yard receiving mark, being the first Vikings duo to do that since Randy Moss and Cris Carter in 2000. Also, with the firing of John DeFilippo, Kevin Stefanski was promoted to interim OC and would be the de facto coordinator the next season.
Although the Vikings didn’t win the division, they returned to the playoffs in 2019, with a more balanced team than in 2017. The defense wasn’t the dominant unit that they were in 2017 but still was highly effective, being top 15 in yards, 4th in takeaways, 5th in sacks, 2nd in missed tackles (one behind the leading Patriots), and 2nd in RedZone defense.
The offense that before was only there to complement the defense had a huge improvement under Kevin Stefanski, having the 6th best rushing attack, 6th in sacks allowed, 9th in 3rd down conversions, and 10th in RedZone offense.
The 2019 season was clearly a step in the right direction for the organization, and both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman received contract extensions after the season. The problem was that, again, an offensive coordinator would leave the team to be a head coach, with Stefanski headed to the Cleveland Browns.
At the same time that hopes were up after managing to not only get to the playoffs in 2019 but to beat the Saints in a huge way, there were some worries as well. As said earlier, Stefanski left to Cleveland, making Gary Kubiak, who was an assistant/consultant in 2019, the 7th offensive coordinator in 7 years with Zimmer as HC.
Right after the season, news got out that Stefon Diggs wanted a trade, so Spielman sent him to Buffalo. He then used the pick on Justin Jefferson, a “slot-only” wide receiver out of LSU that would break a ton of records.
The cornerback group was totally different with Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes being replaced by Jeff Gladney and Cam Dantzler. Having two rookie cornerbacks, along with Anthony Harris having a huge stepback after a great 2019 hurt the defense. Michael Pierce, who was signed to replace Linval Joseph as the run stopper sat out due to COVID.
And, probably the biggest loss in 2020 was missing Hunter for the entire season after a neck injury. Yannick Ngakoue came to form a duo with Hunter, but, without him, didn’t do much and was traded mid-season. So, with no Hunter and Ngakoue, the pass rush was basically non-existent, which only exposed the rookie CBs even more.
The silver lining in what would be the first of back-to-back 9-loss seasons was drafting Justin Jefferson. Without playing in the first two games he broke the rookie receiving yards record and lead the league with 100.0 yards per game. Who can forget his dominating 7 catches, 175 yards, and 1 TD game against the Titans?
In what was the last season with Mike Zimmer as head coach, the team showed the same problems that they had in 2020, along with a knack for blowing leads in the 4th quarter (hello Steelers game). The year started with Gary Kubiak retiring, making his son, Klint Kubiak, the 8th different OC to start the season in 8 years. This also showed the nepotism that reigned in Minnesota during the Zimmer era, with Adam Zimmer and Klint Kubiak being coordinators (in Zimmer’s case, co-coordinator) much because of who their fathers are.
The offense was predictable and couldn’t adapt during games. The defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed. Even with a bottom 5 defense and an offense that somehow was a top-15 unit in some categories, the team managed to win 8 games. It wasn’t enough to clinch a playoff berth, but in my opinion, it was a lot for how the team played during last season.
Games like the ones against the Steelers, Cowboys, and the loss against the Lions exemplified how the season went. Questionable decisions by Zimmer, blowing huge leads, and not making the plays when they were required were a staple of the 2021 season. But the worst game of the season was the one against the Packers in Green Bay.
With the season basically over and Kirk Cousins out due to COVID, Zimmer had the choice of starting Sean Mannion, who everyone knew wasn’t the future of the team, or 3rd-round rookie Kellen Mond, even if it was only to evaluate how much he had grown during the year. To those that don’t remember, Zimmer went with Mannion to start the game, and, although he couldn’t make any plays, Mond would only play in a couple of drives. Mond didn’t turn out to be the solution the team hoped for when drafted the QB, but the stubbornness to play rookie players was a thing for the entirety of the Zimmer tenure.
After the season, Zimmer and Spielman were fired, and a new era began in Minnesota.
The ownership went in a completely different direction with the hiring of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as general manager and Kevin O’Connell as head coach. Adofo-Mensah is as an analytics person as you can have, using his unique background in Wall Street to his advantage when it comes to decision-making. And for HC they went from what players called “a fear-based culture” to someone who believes that empowering players is the best way to find success in the NFL.
The coaching staff was revamped, with WR coach Keenan McCardell being the only coach that stayed in Minnesota. The former Rams OC brought some of his friends from LA to work with him, including OC Wes Phillips and QB coach Chris O’Hara. To coach the defense he brought Ed Donatell, a longtime Vic Fangio assistant to bring this scheme to Minnesota (I won’t talk much about the defense or this will be an even longer article).
Adofo-Mensah’s first draft class didn’t have much of an impact. Lewis Cine broke his leg in Week 4, Andrew Booth was injured for some time, played badly when had the chance, and got injured again, Asamoah is a good special teams player and is getting some snaps on defense, and Akayleb Evans is on IR due to multiple concussions. This leaves guard Ed Ingram as the only rookie with meaningful snaps, but you can play much worse than what he’s doing, leading the league by a lot in pressures allowed.
On the field, it wasn’t always pretty, with 10 wins coming by a single score (10-0 in those games though), two blowouts against the Eagles and Cowboys, and a frustrating loss to the Lions. But we have to give O’Connell a lot of credit to not only winning 11 games – and counting – and the division in his first year as a head coach, but also for how he managed to turn the locker room around. If you see the speeches after the games on the Vikings’ YouTube channel or almost every player’s interview it’s clear how much they love to play for O’Connell.
We can’t not mention the wins against the Bills, erasing a 17-point deficit on the road against one of the best teams in the league, and the game that won the team the North, a.k.a the biggest comeback in NFL history, winning 39-36 after being down 33-0 until the middle of the 3rd quarter.
Again, it wasn’t pretty, but, after five years, the Vikings won the North once again.