The Vikings starting the season 1-4 was bad enough for Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. But add to that the Vikings’ star player- Justin Jefferson- headed to injured reserve for at least a month and the adversity has mounted quickly after a charmed inaugural season. The Vikings’ inability to compete for a postseason berth is likely to draw increased scrutiny from the Vikings’ ownership group, led by the Wilf family, who expect their head coach and general manager to deliver a playoff team.
A Big Test for the Culture KAM and KOC Created
When the Vikings’ regime of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell took over 20 months ago, they were quick to promote and install a new player-focused culture, where coaches and management care about their players and will do everything possible for them to succeed both individually and as a team. That culture quickly took hold, in large part as it was a welcome sunrise from the darkness that had become the Zimmer regime.
And it paid immediate dividends. The Vikings beat the Packers easily in their first home game, and went on to a 13-3 regular season, division title, and playoff berth. It was the Vikings’ first postseason since 2019 and first division title since 2017.
But a one-and-done postseason was a buzzkill that left many wondering what the new regime would do next to get the Vikings to the next level.
The first decision was to let go defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who was responsible for the Vikings’ poor defense that lacked both nuance and deception, and replaced him with Brian Flores. The second decisions were to let go many aging veterans no longer performing up to their salary cap in Eric Kendricks, Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook. They wanted to keep Za’Darius Smith but he wanted out so they ended up trading him. They wanted to keep Patrick Peterson but the Steelers offered him more than they were willing to match so he moved on. They asked Jordan Hicks and Harrison Smith to take pay cuts, which they both accepted.
And at the beginning of the off-season, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah failed to secure an extension for Kirk Cousins, which surprised Cousins as he was reportedly willing to take a discount to remain with the Vikings, while at the end of the off-season Adofo-Mensah was unable to extend Justin Jefferson, despite making a push to do so. There was also the hold-in of Danielle Hunter after he was unable to restructure his deal prior to training camp, but ultimately was resolved with Hunter agreeing to a revised one-year contract. Even the expected extension for TJ Hockenson took longer than expected, with Hockenson not being a full participant in practice for several days prior to inking his new deal.
The optics of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah asking Harrison Smith to take a pay-cut, and not being able to agree on extensions for Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson- the only three Vikings voted to the NFL Top 100 players list after last season- probably wasn’t helpful to the Vikings’ culture this season. Not to mention all the other moves. Other players take note.
All those front office negotiations become important because whether they realized it or not, the Vikings front office led by Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, has either released, restructured, or failed to extend almost every team captain from last year and this year. Only Josh Metellus, Brian O’Neill, and CJ Ham were excepted.
It’s important because while I don’t think they lost anything on the field in the players they released or moved on from given their replacements have been as good or better so far, it does create a disconnect from the culture they established last year. Most team captains this year have all had disappointing experiences with the front office during the off-season, and now the new regime is leaning on them to lead them through this period of adversity.
All is Not Bad
Despite the front office issues with player contracts- which are certainly not unique to the Vikings- not all is bad when it comes to team culture. This isn’t the Bears. There are no players questioning coaching or the organization or wanting out. Most players understand there is a business side to the NFL and teams can’t afford to pay every player, whether it’s in-line with what they feel they’re worth or not. And as an organization, the Vikings were the highest graded franchise in the league in the first NFLPA Team Report Cards graded by players that were released this off-season. The Vikings got A grades in every category.
Moreover, it seems pretty clear among players and coaches that the main problem with the Vikings’ disappointing season has been turnovers and drops, which have persisted despite coaching before and after they became a problem. Nobody is throwing anyone under the bus in press conferences, and players recognize it’s on them to improve and correct those mistakes. But what happens to change the funk that the Vikings are in?
Justin Jefferson to IR
Sometimes a catalyst for a team to step-up is the loss of a key player, strange as it sounds. In a team with a good culture, the loss of a key player can cause players to rally. For the Vikings, the loss of Justin Jefferson may well result in more opportunities for Jordan Addison, who has been praised by coaches and QB Kirk Cousins for his performance so far, despite more limited snaps. Additionally, Jalen Nailor- who also went on IR 3 weeks ago for a hamstring injury- is eligible to return next week. Once he is active, he could see more snaps- a lot more snaps- which would allow him to show what he can do for the offense. Similarly, Brandon Powell- who got more snaps against the Chiefs after JJ went down- could see his targets grow in JJ’s absence.
I’m not so bullish on KJ Osborn, who has been more of a disappointment generally, both this season and last season. His ability to step up is limited. He doesn’t have the speed or suddenness to generate much separation, and his catch radius is remarkably small.
Both N’Keal Harry and Trishton Jackson have been promoted to the active roster and may see more snaps in rotation with Jefferson’s and Nailor’s absence. Harry has never been good as a separator but does have a big catch radius and excels at contested catches. He could be a useful role player in the red zone and as a matchup advantage against smaller defensive backs. He’s also been a good blocker at 6’4”, 225 pounds. Jackson’s ability to have an impact is more uncertain, as is his likely snap count, but this is his best opportunity to showcase his talents since joining the Vikings.
Beyond wide receivers, the Vikings have two talented tight ends that have been disappointments of late in not holding on to the ball. TJ Hockenson both with fumbles and drops, while the less targeted Josh Oliver with his recent fumble to start the game against the Chiefs. Both have the ability to step-up and Oliver could be in-line for more targets from Cousins, who refers to Oliver as the ‘Sears Tower’ given his size and big catch radius.
Running backs could also see a few more targets, although I’d be surprised if that was a big part of the Vikings’ revised game plan in Jefferson’s absence. They may get more targets as check-downs, however, if other receivers are not able to get open.
Reaction to Adversity
At this point, with a 1-4 record, most are counting the Vikings out of the postseason- for good reason. There are only a handful of 1-4 teams that have made the playoffs among the dozens that have fallen to that record over the years, and the NFL Football Operations chart suggests that in the new 17-game, 7-team playoff format, a 1-4 team has only a 13% chance of making the playoffs. The Vikings would need to finish 9-8 to have a 50% chance of making the playoffs according to the same chart. The Lions last season started 1-6, which gave them just a 3% chance of making the playoffs, but they nearly did after rallying to a 9-8 record at season’s end. They lost the tiebreaker to the Seahawks, however, who also finished 9-8.
But with playoff hopes all but dashed, how will this Vikings’ team react? Will a strong culture propel a rally? Or will the team just accept its fate and that things just didn’t go their way this season and simply go through the motions the rest of the season?
This will be the test for the culture created under Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. Was the positive atmosphere from last year simply a short-term reaction to the end of the Zimmer regime, or is it more enduring? And with the exodus of more vocal leaders for the Vikings last season- Adam Thielen, Patrick Peterson, Eric Kendricks, and Za’Darius Smith- will the leaders and captains this year be able to step up?
Positives Remain, but Leadership is a Question
Outside of turnovers, this Vikings team has performed better than the team that started 8-1 last season. The defense is improved, even if still lacking in pass rush and takeaways. The offensive line has also improved and is moving from being a liability to a strength.
But 1-4 is 1-4, and how the team responds to being down and nearly out will reveal a lot about the Vikings’ team culture, both this season and beyond. A team that meanders through the rest of this season without urgency is one that lacks effective leadership that is likely to be an issue in future seasons as well.
Additionally, should the Vikings fail to rally over the remainder of the season, the Wilfs will likely begin to scrutinize the decision-making and performance of both Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell. Both were signed to four-year contracts last year and will be half-way through them after this season. A poor finish to this season will reduce confidence in their leadership with the Wilfs, who expect to field a competitive team each and every year and have been generous in their funding and support of the team and its top-rated facilities.
But at the end of the day, there are still twelve games left in the regular season for the Vikings and they may be favored in seven of the next eight of them despite a 1-4 record. Being without Justin Jefferson for the next month is certainly a setback, but not an insurmountable one. In fact, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if the Vikings were still able to go 3-1 over the next four games against the Bears, 49ers, Packers, and Falcons.
But as was the case over the first five games, the Vikings can’t expect to win many games when going -2 in turnover margin per game. If they can stop the turnovers- and most of the drops- the Vikings will likely win at the same clip they’ve been losing at so far. The offensive line is improved, and with Marcus Davenport finally on the field, the defensive line is improved a bit too. Even without Justin Jefferson, the Vikings have other playmakers offensively that can step up. There is a lot for Kevin O’Connell and company to work with, but they need to show that they can lead the team through adversity and that the culture they established last season wasn’t just a one-season wonder.
How many wins will the Vikings have this season?
This poll is closed
6 or fewer