Do the Vikings Have a Clear Identity? If So, What is It?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Playing in the NFC North is growing increasingly difficult for the Vikings.

The Detroit Lions have been following through on their convictions (which even includes the GM smiting his detractors in a press conference). Detroit is a gritty, scrappy crew that also boats some high-end skill; in 2023, the formula worked. And then there’s the perpetually-patient Packers. Green Bay is content to bide its time, developing talent in-house before elevating from within. In 2023, the shtick worked; being patient paid off.

Nov 23, 2023; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love (10) runs out of the pocket against the Detroit Lions in the first quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

Even the Bears have some reason to be encouraged. Ryan Poles took over in Illinois at the same time that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah took over in Minnesota. Poles has plunged his team into a full-scale rebuild and has been rewarded for doing so. Chicago has been ruthlessly rebuilding and is in a good position to build a juggernaut.

What about the Vikings? What makes them unique? What’s within the team’s DNA that gives them a competitive advantage?

Do the Vikings Have a Clear Identity?

Passing and skill has to be part of the equation. So, too, does versatility.

Rostering Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, and T.J. Hockenson means Minnesota is the envy of the vast majority of the NFL for receiving talent. Few, if any, can compete with this collection of skill (San Francisco, a participant in the day’s festivities, is among the rare examples of a team that can keep up).

Oct 23, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) runs with the ball against the Minnesota Vikings in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Since taking over as head coach, Kevin O’Connell has pushed passing to the extreme. The Vikings picked up 276.5 passing yards per game in 2023, 1st overall in the NFL. They arrived at the gaudy total by flinging the pigskin 631 times, which works out to an average of roughly 37 passing attempts per game. That’s 4th in the NFL.

Now, simply passing a lot and gaining a ton of air yards isn’t necessarily a winning formula. Minnesota finished with the league’s 22nd-ranked offense by averaging 20.2 points per game and finished with a 7-10 record. So while it’s a strength, passing yards aren’t the silver bullet.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Minnesota Vikings
Sep 10, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Jordan Addison (3) reacts with wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) after scoring his first career touchdown pass from quarterback Kirk Cousins (not pictured) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, there’s a similar extreme going on. As a way of neutralizing the pass — and, to a lesser extent, the run — the Vikings blitzed. In fact, the Vikings blitzed more than any other team. At the end of the season, Minnesota was sending an extra man (or men) 51.5% of the time. Pretty wild, eh?

No other team was sitting at higher than 50%. Only a pair of teams ventured into the 40s: the Giants at 45.4% and the Buccaneers at 40.1%.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores watches his team play against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Do these twin facts — passing & blitzing — help us to decode the mystery?

Perhaps aggressive needs to get tossed into the mix for a consideration of Minnesota’s identity. In an early season of The Simpsons, Lisa refers to football as “the savage ballet,” phrasing that’s meant to capture the violence and elegance that constantly exist in paradoxical harmony on the football field. Being aggressive, then, is certainly a good thing.

The issue, of course, is that the extreme forms of aggression were implemented as a way of masking issues. Why did Minnesota pass so much? Well, the answer is at least partly due to their brutal run game. And why did they blitz so much? Well, the answer is at least partly due to lacking talent in the front seven.

In other words, aggression alone isn’t enough.

An Evolving Identity

Begin with aggression. Where does that attribute need to go to allow the Vikings to snag wins?

Versatility and brilliance. Cultivating those attributes is the next step, folks.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Las Vegas Raiders
Dec 10, 2023; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell (left) and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah react during the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Ivy-League educated Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is a really sharp dude. O’Connell is no slouch, and Flores is similarly a very smart person. Even Kirk Cousins could get tossed the mix, someone who thrives largely because of what’s between his ears.

Think back to all of those moments when the clock is ticking toward zero as Cousins surveys the defense. What’s going on? Well, he’s working from within the scheme O’Connell has installed. He’s decoding what the defense is doing in an effort to determine if the play has the potential to work. If it does, where’s the likely best spot to throw the ball?

Brain power, folks. Whoever plays quarterback for O’Connell needs to study beforehand and then have the acuity to crack the code in real time. No small task.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings
Oct 23, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) warms up before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Now, that’s not to say that other teams aren’t doing something similar. Every NFL team tries to glean insight before the ball is snapped. The Vikings, though, seem to bring things to an extreme (noticing a trend?).

Consider what Justin Jefferson had to say about the backup quarterback taking over. The receiver suggests that mastering the Vikings’ offense is no small feat. “We have,” Jefferson explains, “one of the most difficult offenses in the league.”

A follow-up question asks the receiver to expand on the difficulty: “It’s just the type of offense that we have, with KO just moving people around […] It’s very difficult. It’s even difficult for me just listening to the play call, and I’m only listening for one or two things. So for the quarterback to remember, to relay back to the whole offense, and to remember everybody’s route schemes and the play, so it’s difficult.”

Dec 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell and wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) and linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40) react near the end of the game during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Jefferson’s words corroborate what has been plain to see: the Vikings operate within a sophisticated offense that puts a huge mental burden on the players. And while the Ed Donatell defense was far from complex, Flores has rectified the issue in short order. Flores pushed them toward sophistication and the team was rewarded.

Adding it all together means brilliant, versatile aggression for the Minnesota Vikings. Being super smart and super aggressive will be the key to gaining an edge. That identity must then involve finding a way of running the ball more effectively and pressuring QBs with just four defenders, but that’s precisely the point: being aggressive doesn’t mean forfeiting the right to being multiple. Or, put differently, finding a more versatile way of attacking an opponent.

Look for the coaching staff to keep working alongside players with great skill and versatility to bring this identity to fruition.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and StatMuse 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.