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Vikings Off-Season Evaluation Part I: Offensive Overview

The first in a series of Vikings off-season evaluations

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Vikings have been virtually eliminated from postseason contention with one meaningless game left to play, the focus turns to off-season evaluations and potential moves the Vikings could make over the coming months to improve their roster and results on the field.

I’ll start things off with an overview of the Vikings’ offense.

Injuries and Turnovers Plague the Vikings Offense All Season

This season was the worst the Vikings offense has been hit by injuries in at least several years, with starting quarterback Kirk Cousins suffering a season-ending Achilles tear in the Week 8 game against the Packers, star wide receiver Justin Jefferson missing seven games with a hamstring injury and most of another one after a hit caused an internal chest injury. Beyond that running back Cam Akers was lost for the season in Week 10 with an Achilles tear, seven games were lost to injury among starting offensive linemen, and most recently top tight end TJ Hockenson was lost for the season- and likely most of the coming off-season- with ACL and MCL tears. In terms of the impact on offensive performance, the Vikings have been the hardest hit offense in the league from an injury standpoint this season. But it was the loss of Kirk Cousins that sent the Vikings production into a tailspin, as none of the Vikings’ backups were able to show any consistency, made game planning more difficult, and with both Nick Mullens and Josh Dobbs having multiple turnover games.

But it was turnovers that were the one constant throughout most of the season for the Vikings’ offense, which has committed more turnovers in sixteen games this season than they have over the past ten seasons, going back to 2013. And more than anything else, this has led to the Vikings falling short of both winning another division championship and making the playoffs. The Vikings are 16-0 under Kevin O’Connell when either tying or winning the turnover battle, but have done so in just four games this season. They’ve had only two games this season in which they haven’t given up a turnover. And with the Vikings playing so many one-score games- all but two this season have been such- it’s no surprise that turnovers have had an even bigger impact on the outcome of the game than average.

Most Production and Efficiency Metrics Down from Last Season

While Kirk Cousins was having arguably his best season before he got injured (he still has the third highest passer rating this season and is 7th in ESPN’s QBR) clearly the Vikings offense suffered after he was lost for the season, and from the eight-game absence of Justin Jefferson. Here are some of the major metric rankings after 16 games with the change from last season in parentheses:

Points: 22nd (-14)

Yards: 12th (-5)

3rd Down Conversion Rate: 14th (-2)

Red Zone TD Conversion Rate: 25th (-17)

Offensive DVOA: 23rd (-3)

EPA/Play: 15th (+3)

Overall PFF Offense Grade: 9th (-4)

Play Success Rate: 13th (-4)

Overall, the Vikings offense dropped quite a bit in the points scored rankings largely due to the drop in red zone TD conversion rate, along with the increase in turnovers- some of which occurred in the red zone. EPA/Play ranking improved a bit, but the actual number declined over last season.

Coaching/Game Management/Play-Calling

In terms of tendencies when it comes to coaching, game management and play-calling, Kevin O’Connell generally ranks above average or better in most aspects of these duties, although the analytics behind measuring playcalling is a bit murky at best.

The chart above attempts to quantify the value of offensive play callers in the NFL this season after 15 weeks. Kevin O’Connell ranks 6th overall, just above his mentor Sean McVay. It’s difficult to really have a lot of confidence in any model for evaluating play calling, as it’s highly situational and separating a good play call from bad execution is somewhat subjective as well. In any case, the Vikings’ success rate on offensive plays is above average, despite having lost their starting quarterback for half the season along with some other key players, and their explosive play rate remains high as well, so Kevin O’Connell must be doing something right.

Of course every play caller is subject to criticism, and Kevin O’Connell is no exception. A common complaint from fans is that he’s not aggressive enough in his play calling with the lead, allowing teams to come back and not putting his foot on the throat of opponents enough. I would add that his red zone play calling has been suspect at times- too many inside runs that haven’t been successful- and calling too many screens at times when they’ve not been working. It’s easy to nitpick and second-guess play calling when the offense isn’t moving the ball well and scoring points. But in general, the Vikings problem this season hasn’t been play calling or moving the ball, but turnovers and a downturn in red zone efficiency- some of which may be due to play calling, but certainly the loss of key players on offense over the course of the season.

Tendencies

Kevin O’Connell continues to leverage the Vikings’ strength on offense- their passing game- by calling pass plays at the 5th highest rate this season (66%), which is consistent with last season. Of course some tendencies like pass rate are influenced by game situation as well, but overall O’Connell has attempted to leverage the passing game as much as possible to get the ball in the hands of the Vikings’ top playmakers.

In terms of personnel formations, O’Connell is more varied than most NFL offenses, using 11 personnel (3WR sets) at one of the lower rates in the league (40%) while using 12 personnel (2TE) sets at a relatively high rate (25%) compared to league average. This makes sense as well with the Vikings having invested quite a bit this past off-season in TJ Hockenson and Josh Oliver, in terms of getting your best players on the field as much as possible.

Because the Vikings use 11 personnel at such a low rate, they rank high in the use of other formations, being top ten in 13 personnel (3TEs), 21 personnel (2RBs or RB/FB), 22 personnel (2RB, 2TE) and also 4/5WR sets. Overall, O’Connell has one of the more diverse personnel formation usage in the league, if not the most. It’s interesting this season that the top offenses (Ravens, 49ers, Dolphins) all use 21 personnel (RB/FB) at the highest rate in the league and over 30% of the time.

In terms of first down formations, Kevin O’Connell is an outlier in many instances as well. First, he uses a single-back formation on first down a league-high 48% of the time, shotgun formation at the second-lowest rate of 23%, and an empty backfield at a league-low 1%. Overall, however, the Vikings’ success rate is fairly uniform between first, second, and third down, with third down being the highest. Success rate being defined as getting 40% of needed yards on first down, 60% on second down, and 100% on third or fourth down.

Fourth Down Conversions

Kevin O’Connell has been among the more efficient coaches in going for it on fourth down. First, he’s gone for it on fourth down at the 9th highest rate in the league this season (22.9%) and he’s also converted them at the 9th highest rate (57.7%) and was 4th highest before the Packers game yesterday.

Clock Management, Tempo, 2-point Conversions, etc.

In terms of clock management, Kevin O’Connell has generally been mindful of preserving time with timeouts and coaching players to get out of bounds, etc. when needed, and also using up time when possible with the lead (which hasn’t come up nearly as much). I’m sure there have been some questionable decisions at times this season, but in general clock management isn’t an on-going issue as it was at times with his predecessor, and what controversies there have been were mild.

While usually a function of game situation, O’Connell has gone for 2-point conversions at near a league low rate. Only Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan have gone for 2-point conversions at a lower rate than O’Connell this season.

O’Connell has also used tempo (no huddle) offense at the sixth highest rate (13.8%) in the league this season. Again, something that can be a function of game situation- two-minute offense- but O’Connell has used it on occasion in other situations as well to keep a personnel matchup advantage, for instance.

Player Usage

One criticism that can be laid on Kevin O’Connell is that he has been slow to move on from poorer performers on offense and give others more snaps.

For example, KJ Osborn has led the league in drop rate (currently 13.2%) among wide receivers with at least 70 targets. He also has the sixth lowest contested catch rate (25%) and the third worst yards per route run. And this despite eight games without Justin Jefferson. He has the worst overall offense grade from PFF, the second-worst receiving grade, and by far the worst drop grade. His run block grade is also below average. And yet O’Connell has had nothing but compliments for Osborn and hasn’t decreased his role or snaps based on poor on-field performance. It was only due to the injury to Jefferson that we began to see more of Brandon Powell, who has performed better than Osborn but hasn’t been rewarded for it with more snaps, apart from injury to either Jefferson or Addison.

Another case has been with Alexander Mattison, who was somewhat surprisingly made the bell-cow back at the beginning of the season despite impressive performances from Ty Chandler in preseason. Mattison continued to be the lead back despite mediocre performance and some key fumbles. Improving the running game had been a key focus for O’Connell during the past off-season. But with the injuries first to Cam Akers and then Mattison, Ty Chandler began to get more snaps and has proven the most productive as a rusher (4.3 yards per carry) and as a receiver (1.3 yards per route run) with no drops or fumbles. Overall, Chandler has the 20th highest overall PFF grade among running backs.

Regarding backup quarterbacks, it’s been disappointing that O’Connell, a former backup himself, wasn’t able to fashion one of the three options into a viable starter. Of course every backup is there for a reason, but the performance of all three, with a two-game exception for Dobbs, was particularly poor. Overall, the interception rate for Cousins’ backups was a massive 4.4%, with a combined passer rating in the low 80s.

Overall

The decline of the offense this season has two clear causes: turnovers and injuries. Both were surprising developments as turnovers hadn’t been a big issue in the past- they had the fewest turnovers in the league in 2021 and were league average in 2022. And under Tyler Williams the Rams and Vikings have had among the fewest adjusted games lost (AGLs) for several years going back to 2015.

Apart from getting players back healthy, and somehow managing to take better care of the ball, there are areas for improvement from improving the running game to optimizing player usage better and improving red zone performance. But assuming the Vikings extend Kirk Cousins for next season, there are no big missing pieces for the Vikings to return to being at least a top ten offense again next season.

Poll

Should the Vikings extend Kirk Cousins on something like a 2-year guaranteed contract averaging $35 million per year?

This poll is closed

  • 70%
    Yes
    (1004 votes)
  • 29%
    No
    (418 votes)
1422 votes total Vote Now