The art of a convincing magic trick is its believability; how the showman persuades the audience that what he’s doing is in fact, real. The greats — Houdini, Copperfield, Blaine — do so with the ease of an everyday conversation.
As a captivated audience, we often miss the “tells;” the moments that would otherwise shatter the veneer of an illusion. A mistimed slip of the hand or subtle flick of the wrist can ruin the most complex of tricks, taking us out of the pinnacle moment in a magician’s show.
Monday’s opening game was such a moment for the Minnesota Vikings. Fresh off a summer spent retooling and soul-searching, few knew which team would show up Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints. After a preseason of listless offensive play and suspect defensive coverage, a repeat of 2016’s mediocrity wasn’t an unrealistic expectation.
Talk of Minnesota’s revamped line and explosive passing attack felt too much like a magician’s steady buildup; sleights of hand to convince the audience of a final trick’s authenticity. Save for Mike Zimmer’s words and the team’s offseason-long reassurances, proof of a turnaround did not exist.
But when the curtain pulled back to reveal the 2017 Vikings, there were no optical illusions, no rabbits in the hat.
This was tried-and-true, hit-you-in-the-mouth Zimmer football, but with an added flair — a potent passing game led by Sam Bradford. Gone were Pat Shurmur’s makeshift Wildcat runs and gadget plays; in their place, an array of deep shots down the field and smash-mouth zone running from rookie centerpiece Dalvin Cook, all made possible by a surprisingly cohesive offensive line.
Rejuvenated following last season’s treacherous 3-8 finish, Zimmer’s defense played its own part, smothering Drew Brees and holding the Saints to a lone touchdown in meaningless garbage time minutes. A ferocious pass rush overwhelmed the veteran quarterback’s inferior offensive line, forcing Brees to dink-and-dunk his way to 19 measly points.
For one spectacular night, the Vikings looked like the Vikings we’d optimistically hoped for, yet cautiously doubted. All fanbases carry some measure of blind faith, but even Vikings fans had reason for skepticism, and still do to a degree. One game a season does not make, just as last year’s Week 2 win over the Packers wouldn’t telegraph the rest of a surreal 2016 for the Vikings.
Last year’s nightmare was full of parlor tricks and gimmicks; satisfying when successful, but unsustainable for a 16-game stretch. When Minnesota started the season 5-0, the team did so behind defensive and special teams touchdowns. Through those first five weeks, four of the Vikings’ 13 touchdowns came by way of interception or fumble return and Marcus Sherels‘ continued punt return prowess.
To generate a semblance of a running game, Shurmur adjusted his schematic approach, folding in fly sweeps and Wildcat runs as a counterbalance to Minnesota’s shell of an offensive line. When that didn’t work, he asked Bradford to carry the offense, replacing first and second down rushing attempts with quick-hitting passes and wide receiver screens.
Unless you’re counting Bradford’s record-setting competition percentage as a “success,” the Vikings’ offense was largely unsuccessful. The trickle effect hurt the defense, turning what started as a top unit into a group plagued by fatigue and overuse. When a pass rush wears down, the dip in performance almost certainly impacts a secondary’s ability to sustain coverages, and by Week 14 last year, the result was painfully obvious.
Drew touched on the aforementioned points in his most recent Skol Scale, and he couldn’t be more right. With their performance on Monday, the Vikings, for the moment, erased some of the doubts that had followed them from the conclusion of 2016.
As it stands, Bradford, Cook, and Adam Thielen are the league’s second-most productive players at their respective positions. With 15 games to play — against tougher competition than the Saints — their rankings will surely drop. And the offensive line, while tangibly improved, won’t have it so easy against the front sevens of teams like the Packers and Bears.
Trying to crystal-ball the future is beside the point, though. Coaches view the season on a game-by-game basis, and with the Saints in the rearview mirror, there’s plenty to build on as the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Take comfort in the fact that Minnesota will do so without last year’s props or card tricks. We know who the Vikings want to be on the field; that much was abundantly clear on Monday night. Now, it’s a matter of making sure the next 15 games remain as authentic as we’ve been led to believe.