13-4 Vikings Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve Been 8-9

Vikings Press Conference Provides Insight
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O'Connell

The Minnesota Vikings’ 2022 season is in the books—history—and though it’s tempting to sit and think about what might have been, it’s probably more necessary and instructive to consider what the 13-4 Vikings would’ve, could’ve, should’ve been.

This season was a thrill ride full of tremendous highs, humiliating lows, and even more symptoms of PurplePTSD than we fans are already accustomed to. But even with all those amazing comebacks leaving us feeling we couldn’t take any more, in the end, our Purple left us wanting more. As they always do.

Taking the long view, the Vikings have a mediocrity problem. I’m not just talking about this season, which turned out to be so much more than the mediocre sum of their parts. I’m talking about sustained excellence, over a full season, sure, but over a longer period of time. And the Vikings have not been built for year-in-year out competitiveness at the highest level in quite some time.

Vikings Lost Offensive Identity
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) looks on during warmups before a wild card game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

There was, however a time not too long ago (1986-2000) when Minnesota enjoyed just the type of sustained stretch of excellence that I’m referring to. In those years, they enjoyed streaks of four, then three, then five consecutive winning records, interrupted by a couple of 8-8 years and a single sub-.500 season. In those fifteen seasons, they won 60% of their games, going 144-95. These were the years of Anthony and Cris Carter, of Chris Doleman and John Randle, of Darren Nelson and Robert Smith, of Jerry Burns and Dennis Green.

Since that time, the Vikings have only once been above .500 in even two consecutive seasons—2008-09. Their cumulative regular-season record since 2001 stands at a middling 182-176-2. They have been a chronically average team that managed two outstanding seasons—12-4 in 2009, 13-3 in 2017, both culminating with losses in the NFC Championship Game. Both of those teams failed to make the playoffs the following year.

This year, the Vikings managed to go 13-4 despite once again having a chronically average team. By average, I mean statistically average—which is one thing they never looked to the naked eye. Their ability to look deceptively above-average and depressingly below-average took turns game-to-game, sometimes quarter-to-quarter throughout the season.

Three Frustrating Takeaways from the Vikings Loss to the Giants
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell walks off the field after losing a wild card game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

But at the end of the year, statistically they had a decidedly above-average offense and below-average defense that combined for a yin and yang of remarkably pleasing mediocrity, belied only by the good fortune and entertainment value of their results. What we witnessed this season is exactly what the analytics people call “unsustainable”. And it’s safe to say we’ll never see a season like this one again in our lifetimes.

As we look ahead, there’s one other thing we do want to see in our lifetimes (sooner rather than later) and it isn’t the weekly drama of a middle-of-the-pack team winning more coin-flip football games than they lose. It’s the Lombardi Trophy, in the hands of the team with the purple helmets with horns on them. To get there, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Kevin O’Connell, and the entire braintrust of this team needs to be thinking clearly about the steps they take toward that end. Unfortunately, that process is like navigating a winding hallway of funhouse mirrors, where what you see may or may not be the path of least resistance.  

If it weren’t for some really well-timed turnovers, a sense of tenacity that was really their single strongest trait as a group, and some good old-fashioned dumb luck, this season would’ve been the tenth .500 season (give or take one win) of the new century.

The stat gurus out there have a metric called “Pythagorean Wins” which crunches a cubic ton of NFL data and produces an estimate for how many wins and losses each team “should’ve” won, given their overall performance on the field. The results, according to analytics website Football Outsiders, is 8 wins: our Vikings really could’ve been a .500 team once again this year. It’s as if Taylor Swift was watching the Vikings when she wrote my favorite song from her latest album, “Midnights.”

By winning all 11 of their games decided by one score or less, the Vikings managed to set an NFL record and also obscure what should have been obvious to all of us all along—as currently constructed, this team is no Super Bowl contender.

By winning 13 games, they’ve cast serious doubt on what should have been crystal clear: if the goal is to build a consistent winner and serious Super Bowl contender in the future, this team needs to be overhauled—maybe not in a classic “rebuild” sense, but certainly in a knock-down-some-walls-and-remodel-this-place-from-the-inside-out kind of way. By winning the 4th most games in the NFL this season, they’ll fall ten places or more in the draft order from where they probably should’ve been.

13-4 Vikings
Dec 24, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) warms up before the game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, we may see a “commitment to the core”, we’ll possibly see continued cap problems and veteran contract extensions kicking the can of overcommitment down the road to 2024 and 2025. We’ll probably see more games with 400+ yards allowed by our porous defense and more struggles to find, coach and grow enough high-performing interior linemen on both sides of the ball.

And we’ll almost definitely see fewer miracle comebacks and feel a sense of deflation next season when our favorite football team falls back to the mean and shows themselves to, once again, be very average. In fact, we may look back on this season and quietly sing to ourselves, “I regret you all the time.”