Apart from Justin Jefferson, Do the Vikings Have a Clear Identity on Offense?

The topic came up on Notes from the North. Do the Vikings have a clear identity on offense?

Upon first glance, the question is a bit ridiculous. Sure, the team’s offense put together an underwhelming day against the Bears, but that’s just a single game. Playing in Chicago has never been straightforward and adjusting to life without #18 is a massive hurdle. Some grace may be in order.

Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) during the first quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Think about it, though: how do the Vikings try to win on offense? Passing a ton is certainly a major part of the equation, but that’s an approach that becomes complicated when Justin Jefferson isn’t doing his thing.

On Monday, Kevin O’Connell addressed the situation. Understandably, the head coach has built a lot of his offense around what Jefferson is capable of doing: “We have other tools at our disposal, to try to be more efficient […] We’ve got to go into all of those tools to try to best serve ourselves on offense. When you are without a player of Justin [Jefferson’s] caliber, where we have, quite honestly, built a lot of the things that we do around him.”

Immediately after that thought, O’Connell indicates that he isn’t making an excuse and that adjusting effectively begins with him.

Do the Vikings Have a Clear Identity on Offense?

Smart teams build themselves around their talent. Figure out what the players do well and then proceed from there. The general wisdom, though, can be taken to an extreme, pushing a truth to a point where it becomes an untruth.

Put differently, what happens when a team’s identity is overly reliant on a single player? If that player gets shutdown, can the team adjust? If that player needs to miss time, can the team still win?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Jordan Hicks (58) crosses the goal line for a 42-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the second half against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Take away the Jordan Hicks scoop & score touchdown. Doing so leaves Minnesota with just 12 points. Even worse, half of those points came via the foot of Greg Joseph, who had a strong day at Soldier Field. The team’s only touchdown came at the end of the second quarter when Kirk Cousins fit a fastball into Jordan Addison’s arms.

Critically, that touchdown came following a turnover from Minnesota’s defense. So, a tip of the cap to Brian Flores as the defense picks up the assist.

Minnesota’s offense needs to continue evolving. The Vikings held onto the football for just 24:49 on Sunday. On third down, the Vikings were a measly 2/13 (which comes to 15.4%). The run/pass balance was better — 31 to 22 in favor of the pass — but the efficiency wasn’t there for Alexander Mattison and Cam Akers. The former had 18 carries go for 44 yards while the latter had his single carry go for 8 yards.

When we eliminate the game’s final drive, the offense had their possessions end this way in the second half: punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, punt. We’re not talking about the ’85 Bears, folks.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears linebacker T.J. Edwards (53) hits Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison (2) in the backfield in the second half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

And, to be sure, these issues aren’t new. Failing to run the ball effectively has been a longstanding problem, one that goes back to the very beginning of O’Connell’s time in Minnesota. Having a QB who gets hit way too much is a problem that is similarly familiar. The turnover foibles are a new issue, but one that has undermined several games, most notably the Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

During the offseason, the chatter focused on the possibility of being more multiple and varied on offense. Josh Oliver and C.J. Ham were retained in an effort to play some bully ball. Bringing in Jordan Addison would take heat off of Jefferson, allowing O’Connell to be a kid in a candy shop with his array of pass catchers. Plus, T.J. Hockenson was sticking around, having a full training camp with the team to get worked into the game plan.

All of the specific players have had their moments, but they’ve been precisely that — moments — rather than sustained dominance within a coherent offensive attack (with Addison being the most impressive).

The Vikings need to have an elite offense to be a true contender in 2023. Instead, they’re the definition of average by scoring just 21.5 points per game. That’s coming in at 17th out of 32 teams (their total yards are coming in at 11th, but their capacity to turn yards into points has been undermined by turnovers).

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell waves to fans as he walks off the field following a 19-13 win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

This team can only go as far as the offense takes them. Flores may push his crew into average, but elite is a long way off for the Minnesota defense.

Cousins is a highly-paid QB1 who is tasked with carrying a huge burden with both his brain and his arm. A major part of the team’s identity is wrapped up in Cousins being capable of decoding a defense in real time, getting his team into a favorable play call to exploit what the defense is giving them.

The usual plan is to ensure Justin Jefferson gets a shot at exploding, but without him the focus shifts to some of the other playmakers. Hockenson — the $66 million tight end — must average more than 8.4 yards per reception. If he doesn’t, then the contract will look like a major mistake. Ensuring the tight end gets to keep climbing into the intermediate area of the field is a must, and so too is further reliance on Addison in a similar area. One also wonders about a continued effort to get the RBs along the outside with their runs.

Rhythm, balance, explosiveness, and creativity need to be the defining words for an offense with so much talent and a head coach who is an offensive architect. Anything less will mean the team is unlikely to go anywhere and that the Vikings have become overly reliant on a single player to form its identity.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and Over the Cap helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.