Analysis

Minnesota Vikings Are In Trouble, Luck Is Turning

The Minnesota Vikings made history last season: No team before them had ever won 11 one-score games in a season. The Vikings won every one of their one-score games and tiptoed their way to a 13-4 finish. No matter what befell them over the course of a game, they always managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat in the end.

Two games into the 2023 season, the Vikings have already lost two one-score games.

They lost a painful 20-17 contest to the Baker Mayfield–led Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the opener before letting the Philadelphia Eagles take them out 34-28 on Thursday night. For a team that seemed to have everything break their way a season ago, it’s fair to wonder why things have gone so wrong for Minnesota this time.

The trick is that last year’s Vikings weren’t all that good to begin with.

They finished 20th in offensive DVOA (defense adjusted value over average) and 24th in defensive DVOA, in addition to 30th in special teams (classic Vikings). In all, the Vikings finished 27th in total team DVOA, sandwiched between a lifeless Los Angeles Rams team and an Arizona Cardinals team that has now committed to tanking.

Even Pro Football Reference’s expected win-loss model only projected last year’s Vikings to win 8.4-8.6 games. They were an average team — at best — that scraped together wins in an improbable fashion.

There was no way the Vikings would recreate that magic again this year. That’s not even their fault, necessarily. One-score wins are a notoriously volatile stat. Teams can dominate one-score games one year and completely fall apart the next, all while more or less being the same quality of team. That’s the nature of a league with immense parity.

Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t.

The best way to avoid that regression is simple: Become a markedly better football team. Become so much better that whatever improvements you make outweigh any potential regression or bad luck. That could be anything from splurging on key positions in free agency, nailing the draft, hiring new coordinators with an immediate impact or the right blend of all three. Minnesota did almost none of that.

The Vikings mostly ran back the same offense this season. All they did was swap out an aging Adam Thielen for rookie Jordan Addison and promote longtime backup running back Alexander Mattison into a starting role. Early returns on Addison are promising, but the promotion of Mattison from backup to starter was an outright admission that the Vikings didn’t care about upgrading the position.

Not upgrading the offensive line is the bigger question mark. Tackles Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill are studs, but the Vikings had one of the worst interiors in football last season. That’s a big reason their offense struggled to run the ball and string together consistent drives with the passing game. Without any changes, the Vikings’ offensive line was a group bound to handcuff the offense with the same issues it did a year ago.

The defense is a different story — but not a better one. After floundering under Ed Donatell’s passive defense last season, the Vikings swerved into the other lane by hiring Brian Flores to replace him.

Flores is a good coordinator, but the Vikings’ roster is in no shape to field the kind of defense he wants to run. At previous stops, Flores’ defenses have always heavily favored blitzing and man coverage. He’s a Bill Belichick disciple, after all. With that in mind, I’d implore you to look at the Vikings’ depth chart and tell me who is supposed to win in man coverage.

Factor in that the Vikings also let their second-best pass-rusher, Za’Darius Smith, and veteran linebacker, Eric Kendricks, walk in free agency without replacing them in any serious way, and you have a roster that can’t run an aggressive defense without getting cooked more often than not.

To his credit, Flores has done his darnedest to change his stripes and turn to more of a zone approach. It’s just not a fit that looks good on him yet, and the Vikings don’t have the talent to make up for it.

All that roster rehashing is a long-winded way to say the Vikings are not a better football team than they were a year ago. They are a roster carried by the best receiver in football and a decent enough quarterback to get him the ball. There isn’t much else there.

That means the difference between this last year’s Vikings and this year’s Vikings will come in the margins. Turnovers, lucky bounces and low-percentage plays are all things that generally swung in the Vikings’ favor last year. Sequences such as the record-breaking comeback against the Indianapolis Colts or the Justin Jefferson one-handed-catch comeback vs. the Buffalo Bills aren’t repeatable.

Thursday night’s game was a reminder of how hard things can swing the other way.

The Vikings fumbled four times and lost all four. Two of those were fumbles you never expect to happen. Punt returner Brandon Powell coughed the ball up after bringing the punt inside of the Eagles’ 35-yard line, only to be somehow outdone by Jefferson fumbling the ball out of the end zone and automatically giving up possession right before the half.

Mind you, this is off the back of a loss to Tampa Bay in which the Vikings also lost two fumbles and saw Kirk Cousins throw a horrific interception. That was the kind of nonsense opposing teams were doing last season that was helping the Vikings win, and now that luck has turned on its head.

Good ol’ regression to the mean has sent the Vikings spiraling to an 0-2 start with no reprieve in sight.

Three of the Vikings’ next five games include the Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. Two of those teams will run right through this Minnesota defense, and the other is quarterbacked by Patrick Mahomes. Even the game against the Green Bay Packers immediately following that stretch won’t be a walk in the park.

Not to beleaguer the point, but it’s hard to see why things would turn around for the Vikings.

This team was historically fortunate to win 13 games a season ago and didn’t make any serious personnel changes. This is a .500 roster that will keep getting into these one-score, fistfight-type of games the same way it did a year ago.

All that will change is that the Vikings will probably lose more of those games than they win.

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