To the Great Beyond: A 2023 Vikings Postmortem

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions
Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

We sports journalists love to throw around the term “Postmortem” at season’s end: the ceremonial analysis of a team’s strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.

The term itself is simply a euphemism for an autopsy, the examination of a body after death. The purpose is to discover the cause of death, and the method includes carving up the remains, assessing toxicological test results, and noticing little details, such as when a Death’s Head Hawk Moth has been placed in the victim’s windpipe by a deranged serial killer.

The clues as to the cause of death of our Minnesota Vikings are no less obvious and no less mysterious, and I spent a little time on the Internet reading up on how to perform an autopsy for this 2023 Vikings Postmortem. So, let’s get out our scalpel and start cutting, shall we?

Summary of Clinical History

Vikings Postmortem
Nov 12, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. (7) celebrates his interception against the New Orleans Saints in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The patient was a 63-year-old football franchise’s 2023 edition, with a significant previous history of alternately strong health followed by soul-sucking disappointment. This year’s team endured early-season failure, followed by a period of shocking success in the form of a five-game winning streak. More recently the team displayed resilience in the face of injuries for a few games, before succumbing to those injuries by losing six of their last seven games.

The team entered the season with one of the best players in the NFL in Justin Jefferson, a strong quarterback in Kirk Cousins, and a smattering of accomplished Pro-Bowl defensive veterans such as Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith.  

The biggest question marks at the start of the season included the release of Dalvin Cook and ascendance of his replacement, Alexander Mattison; whether the offensive line could coalesce as a unit around two strong blockers (Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill) and several pedestrian ones; whether new Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores could find a way to elevate a defensive unit that had ranked near the bottom in points and yards allowed against both the pass and run in 2022, and how the quarterback situation would evolve with Cousins under contract only through season’s end.

Description of Gross Lesions – External Examination

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings
Oct 23, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) signals his team against the San Francisco 49ers in the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings endured plenty of lesions in 2023, and boy, were they gross. Certainly, the grossest of them all was Cousins’ season-ending Achilles tear. It was looking like a career year for Cousins, who was out-passing and out-scoring even the league’s most well-thought-of QBs, while the Vikings’ defense looked only slightly-less porous than their flailing 2022 versions. A bevy of turnovers—a theme that would quiet, but then amplify as the season wore on—also contributed to a rough start for the Purple.

With a 1-4 start, some teams may have turned the page and began work on 2024, but Cousins kept doing Cousins things, the turnovers became less of a problem, and Flores began working some serious magic as he changed personnel, dialed up the aggression in the form of a blitz-happy defense built on disguise, intrigue and growing confidence. Suddenly, the Vikings were the hottest team in the league, winning 6 of 7 games.

But in the midst of all this, Cousins was lost for the season late in the Green Bay game (week 8); the momentum drove them to two additional wins on the back of career-backup Josh Dobbs, who managed to charm coaches, fans and media alike with his mobility, determination, and delightful backstory of career frustration and rocket-science education.

But Dobbs, and then Nick Mullens, then Jaren Hall and then Mullens again all proved to be pale imitations of what Cousins could bring to the table. Dobbs and Mullens each tasted some success mixed in with turnover-driven failure, but ultimately it became obvious: the Vikings would not, and could not, deliver a playoff-worthy product on the field without Cousins under center. Certainly, there was a lot of former Kirk-Haters who learned from the whole affair, and many of them would welcome Cousins back if he ultimately resigns with Minnesota. But certainly, not all.

But there were other lesions as well. Mattison is one that stands out. He had flashed so much promise as Cook’s perma-backup in previous years, and seemed an obvious choice for the Vikings as their new lead back; he was given a two-year contract and the keys to the running game, but his performance was very uneven, and ultimately highly unsatisfying.

He gained just 700 yards, on 3.9 yards per carry—which is deceiving considering very few of his runs that mattered most came anywhere close to 3.9 yards. He was continually stifled in obvious running situations, dropped many balls as a receiver, and scored a miserable 49.5 grade from Pro Football Focus as a pass blocker. As time went on it became painfully obvious that midyear acquisition Cam Akers and, following Akers’ own season ending injury, Ty Chandler were both more impressive choices to lead the Vikings ground game.

Speaking of injuries, the loss of key players grew more and more insurmountable as the season wore on. Cousins and Akers both lost for good at midseason. Jefferson out for eight games. Jordan Hicks on IR mid-November with a leg contusion. T.J. Hockenson and D.J. Wonnum both lost for the season during the key final three games. It was the ugliest injury year in recent memory for the Purple.

And, then there was the defense. After that early blah start and rise to mid-season dominance, the defense appeared to be Minnesota’s saving grace. Post-Cousins, it was the defense that carried the team, going 3-2 in the first five weeks without Kirk, averaging just 16 points and 292.8 yards allowed. It was truly remarkable the way they stepped up as a group, and Brian Flores and company deserve huge kudos for doing so.

But we’re talking lesions, here, and there’s no ignoring the collapse that occurred during the final month of the season. Going 0-4, the defense allowed an average of 30 point and 404.5 yards per game to close the season, in a time when the Vikings were fighting for a playoff spot and playing division rivals Detroit and Green Bay in each of the final three weeks.

The numbers alone don’t even tell the whole story: there were countless instances where rival receivers were wide, wide, wide open downfield. The breakdowns in coverage were concerning. The inability to stop the run during weeks 16 and 17 after holding opponents to 85 yards or less in 9 of the previous 12 contests was confounding. After averaging 3 sacks per game for the season through 14 games, Minnesota’s defense delivered just 3 sacks in the final three games combined.

Internal Examination

Aug 19, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell looks on during the third quarter against the Tennessee Titans at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Now, we football fans tend toward assuming our teams are much better than they actually are, and look on in bemused wonder when things fall apart as completely as the Vikings’ season did in the final month. So it should be pointed out, their collapse occurred against playoff teams.

That 3-2 run post-Cousins? None of those teams went on to make the playoffs, and together they averaged 8.2 wins and 354 yards of offense for the season. Closing the season, the four games featured opponents averaged 10.5 wins and 415 yards of offense, with only one game (versus Cincinnati) not matched with a playoff team. Which is to say, post-Cousins, the Vikings overall, and defensively, looked OK when they were facing middling competition, but they collapsed against strong teams.

Around about Week 12, we were starting to think that the worst thing in our future was Flores departing for a head coaching job. We thought Josh Dobbs could be as good or better than Cousins. We thought the magic from 2022’s remarkable regular season was returning in the form of a bunch of hard-nosed competitors who were again finding a way to win. Now we know different. There are greater things to fear, and no doubt they have been and will continue to keep Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah up at night.

From his point of view, like the team’s year on the field, 2023 was a mixed bag. He continued to be largely hamstrung by cap issues created by his predecessor years ago, and he no doubt lacked the flexibility to plug many of the holes he saw—so he should be largely unsurprised by the issues that arose around player depth, inconsistent line play on both sides of the ball, and in the secondary.

He was probably greatly surprised that the Mattison move didn’t work better. He was no doubt pleasantly surprised by the performance of several rookies and second-year men brought in on his watch, including WR Jordan Addison and Chandler on the offensive side, and CB Mekhi Blackmon and LB Ivan Pace on the defensive side. Corners Andrew Booth and Theo Jackson also flashed their skills notably in limited action.

Additionally, Adofo-Mensah has pulled off several trades of note that have contributed to their success. Last season’s acquisition of Hokenson at the trade deadline has certainly been the marquee deal thus far, and his ability to address issues in-season through trades shown through again in ’23 in acquiring Akers and Dobbs.

It’s clear, however, that the team as currently constructed is in need of a long look in the mirror and perhaps some more dramatic action in the upcoming offseason. If the “competitive rebuild” has a chance of being successful, both the “competitive” and “rebuild” parts will somehow need to be addressed simultaneously. That more than likely means bringing back Cousins for a year or two (or a lesser but cheaper veteran) while simultaneously drafting another quarterback. My impression is that no one in the Vikings’ camp think highly enough of Hall to anoint him as the Future Quarterback for the organization.

Beyond that, the holes that 2023 exposed include both the offensive and defensive lines, more help in the secondary, and unfortunately, plugging new holes in the dyke that are likely to spring forth from offseason departures. A decision on Hunter’s future may result in an even bigger gap in their pass rushing department.

The best teams have that knack for bringing in 1-2 star-caliber players seemingly every season. Perhaps the biggest need is simply for the draft to yield a bona fide high-level star, a true Rookie of the Year type that can add instant strength at a minimal contract level.

The Vikings have pulled that off a couple of times in the past half-dozen seasons with Jefferson and Darrisaw; Addison may grow to be thought of at that high level as well. Could others grow to that same level? Unlike last year, they do have some cap space for the offseason ($36.4 million, per Over the Cap) but that entire amount could potentially be eaten up by another year of Cousins/other pending free agents, and a new crop of rookie contracts alone, leaving the familiar story of no room to build strength and/or depth. There are no easy answers.

Clinical Conclusion

Dec 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) celebrates his touchdown against the Detroit Lions during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The observations have been logged, the tox studies done, it must be concluded for this Vikings Postmortem that there were several contributing factors to the death of the 2023 Vikings. The injury to Kirk Cousins, the regression of the defense in the season’s final month, and the long-term effects of limitations in cap space conspired to bring this team down. How to avoid a similar fate in 2024?  Hey, this is a post-mortem, not a palm reading.