It’s the Offensive Line, Stupid

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The trenches. That is where the game is fought and won and lost. If your defensive line dominates the line of scrimmage, your chances of winning increase. If your offensive line protects the quarterback’s ability to make plays and open holes for the running back to get to the second level and eventually the endzone, your team is going to be hard to beat. It has always been that way, despite our ability as fans to ignore the war in the trenches. And of the two lines, I would say, for the Minnesota Vikings, the offensive line is the most important this coming season.

I grew up focusing my attention on those shiny things clad in the Vikings purple. Fran Tarkenton, Chuck Forman, Gene Washington and later Ahmad Rashad. Decades later I was enamored with the likes of Randy Moss and Adrian Peterson (among the shiniest things in Minnesota)—and even Brett Favre and Percy Harvin for a short time. And most recently Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen (and, before he rudely and hastily left, Stephon Diggs) thrilled me. (And I see you, Justin Jefferson.)Certainly, I noticed the Purple People Eaters of Alan Page, Jim Marshall and Carl Eller—how could you miss them? But that usually happened when there was a sack and an obliteration ofthe opposing quarterback, not during a routine run stop on first down.

Then one day my dad told me that “the game is won in the trenches.” My original thought was, “That’s pretty boring, Dad. Must be a generational thing.” Well, boring or not, the Old Man was right. And even in this day of the aerial attack-oriented NFL where the rules favor a high-flying offensive over a ground and pound, three yards and a cloud of dust bowl of the past, it is still true. The game is won in the trenches.

Okay, not a complete revelation these days. Most observers know this, but how many of them are acutely focused on the “Battle of the Bulge” taking place across that digitally painted line of scrimmage on your TV screen? Admit it, as soon as the ball is snapped you are hoping and looking for it to end up in the hands of your fantasy player and then praying he makes it across the goal line. If the quarterback is sacked, it is only then you realize, “hey, that’s a point for me defense.” 

We are all looking for points and who scored them—and the offensive line is rewarded no points in fantasy football and, perhaps, not that many game balls in the locker room. It is a relatively thankless job in the game of football.

But ever since my dad’s sage comment, I have paid more attention to the offensive line. I came to appreciate folks such as Randall McDaniel, Matt Birk, Gary Zimmerman and Todd Steussie (and lamenting the tragic loss of Korey Stringer)—all the while taking them for granted. In fact, I had been calling for the recent Vikings front offices to pay more attention to the offensive line (dare I say even a bit before UFFda! Sportsfearless leader, Joe Johnson [who also likes shiny things on offense] started to rail about it)—and now it seems as though they have.

Our editor/writer Sean Borman recently tweeted: “Vikings free agency spending in terms of total dollars: Defense: $42,047,500;Offense: $4,442,500.” This seems about right to me. The defense played terribly last season, due to injuries (Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks), defections (Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes, Mackenzie Alexander) and COVID-19 (Michael Pierce).So, the defense, which head coach Mike Zimmer called his worst, needed to be fixed immediately, and the Vikings brass jumped right on it in free agency (Xavier Woods, Patrick Peterson and Stephen Weatherly to name a few additions). 

Therefore, it was then time for the offensive line. While releasing left tackle Riley Reiff for cap purposes, the cap-strapped Vikings traded for center Mason Cole, resigned guard Dakota Dozier andagreed to terms with Rashod Hill, and we all hoped this wouldn’t be the end of it. In the 2021 NFL Draft, the Vikings proved it wasn’t, with selections of tackle Christian Darrisaw in the first round and guard Wyatt Davis in the third. Finally, all us folks looking for a talent infusion on the oline (which includes 32-year-old quarterback Kirk Cousins) breathed a sigh of relief.

But very soon our collective collars started tightening, as we realized the Vikings will most likely be starting a rookie left tackle in Darrisaw, a rookie right guard in Davis, a center coming off a down year in Garrett Bradbury and a right guard, formerly a tackle,moving again to left guard in Ezra Cleveland. Right tackle Brian O’Neill, whose career trajectory continues to rise (and is in a contract year) figuratively stood to the side (with Cousins) put their hands to their chins and emitted an audible “hmmmm.”

It’s going to take some time for this group (if this is indeed who it ends being) to coalesce, which is why their play this will dictate the season for Minnesota. There are already complaints from Purple Nation as to why Darrisaw and Davis (who we soon hope to call the “Killer D’s”) were getting any run with the ones at OTAs last week. Patience is already (in the first week of July) running thin. Every trench-watcher, such as myself, knows that the success on the oline comes from a lot of playing time together to create continuity, comradery and consistency—at least that’s what we’ve always been told. So, the tittering on Twitter about getting this “eventual” starting five together is somewhat warranted.

But the Vikings will take their time to figure it out, given the importance of winning now (which seems counterintuitive—but they must get it right). Cole could figure in the final analysis, as Zimmer is not a fan of starting rookies (and rarely does so unless forced to), so look for him to battle for a guard spot if not settling in at backup center. And the Vikings resigned Dozier for a reason. He won’t go away from a guard spot easily, and perhaps not immediately, as the rookies must prove their readiness.

Regardless, this is a long way of saying the Vikings offensive line is crucial this season. The defense is going to improve (hard not to) if they get a healthy and happy Hunter back, Peterson has something left in the tank and the cornerback play gets better. Zimmer will see to it. But the oline will have to come together quickly and become an asset. Last season, the Vikings finished fourth in yardage despite a line that needed to revamp in the offseason. If they go backwardsbefore becoming a strong unit, the team could be behind the eight-ball early with a tough schedule looming.

Or the new line could gel quickly and become a strong force on the team for years to come. O’Neill is in his fourth year, Bradbury his third, Cleveland his second, so add a couple talented rookies, andit’s not hard to imagine this as a unit to be battling (and hopefully winning) wars in the trenches for years to come. It’s time the fixing of the offensive line works out in Minnesota. It has been a minute.

No pressure offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak and offensive line coach Rick Denison. None at all.