Success — or failure — isn’t what it always seems in the NFL. Take the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers, for example. Both remain winless, but a simple 0-6 record doesn’t reflect the full story behind each team’s mediocrity.
On the surface, it’d be easy to say they’re similar franchises; teams whose young, inexperienced head coaches are working to mesh with their respective front offices’ long-term vision. Everyone in the building, from the starting quarterback to the defensive coordinator, knows that turnarounds aren’t instantaneous.
But at any level, be it high school or college, there’s very little patience for failure. And in the NFL, where the stakes are that much higher, the slightest misstep can spell the end of a coaching staff’s time on the sidelines. In Cleveland, head coach Hue Jackson has what I’d consider the hottest seat in football, while San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan is trying to find his way in the first of a six-season contract.
They may be the leaders of winless teams, but not all rebuilds are constructed the same. In their last five games, the Browns lost by a combined 60 points, while the 49ers fell by a cumulative margin of 13. Never mind the questions at quarterback or dearth of talent at key positions; one team is clearly more competitive and far closer to a breakthrough than the other.
No matter how you break it down, though, neither is playing winning football. Whether you lose by a field goal or three touchdowns, a loss is a loss, and win-loss columns don’t account for context. I’d love to give some context to this argument, but you’re here for Minnesota Vikings football.
So, what does any of this have to do with the Vikings?
Good question, and one I’ve thought about quite a bit this season. If you watch the VT Roundtable, you know I like to go off on tangents, but please trust me — I’m getting to the point.
Looking at the Vikings’ record, things appear golden in Minnesota. Four wins, two losses, and a half-game lead atop the NFC North. With Sam Bradford at quarterback, Dalvin Cook in the backfield, and a revamped offensive line, that’s where many expected the Vikings to be after six games.
Only, the lone constant is a shockingly reliable offensive line. Bradford’s playing career may be over and Cook won’t see the field until Week 1 of the 2018 season. Against the Green Bay Packers, Mike Zimmer’s team was without its best wide receiver, starting left guard, and starting strong safety; a surefire combination for defeat.
Despite the logjam on the injury report, the Vikings rolled past Green Bay, beating an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team 23-10 to claim first place in the division. Before Anthony Barr‘s season-ending hit on No. 12, the matchup on paper favored the Packers.
But I’m not here for the paper; I’m looking for a deeper explanation, a reason to trust the process.
The Vikings are not the 49ers, the Browns, or any of the NFL’s other middling franchises. When Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014, he and general manager Rick Spielman laid a foundation for success, and did so as quickly as possible. The duo wasted no time establishing a uniform vision for the future, attacking the roster with a clear strategy:
Develop a cadre of premier talents — Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen — solidify the roster with subsequent cornerstone draft picks — Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater, Stefon Diggs, Dalvin Cook — and supplement youth with untapped veteran potential — Linval Joseph, Riley Reiff.
My list is just a sample of the critical names on Minnesota’s roster. From Danielle Hunter to Pat Elflein to an emerging Laquon Treadwell, the Vikings have pieces at key positions that should pay dividends well beyond 2017. There are no holes along the 53-man depth chart, at least none that have been exposed in the team’s first six games.
With every new test Zimmer’s crew faces and passes, I’m left with fewer questions. Sam Bradford hurt and done for a decent chunk of time? No problem, Case Keenum can shoulder the load, at least in the interim. How will Minnesota replace Dalvin Cook’s production? Take advantage of Jerick McKinnon‘s versatility, of course! What happens if an offensive lineman goes down? Nothing, apparently; Jeremiah Sirles didn’t miss a beat on Sunday.
Obviously, analysis isn’t always that simple. I’d be remiss to ignore the Vikings’ last two wins came at the hands of a rookie quarterback and Aaron Rodgers’ oft-neglected backup. While certainly not the championship test the Kansas City Chiefs pose, all victories in the NFL are equal; two wins is two wins, no matter the opponent. Top teams, or those considered top teams, should always win the games where circumstances dictate it.
Sunday’s contest, and even the Monday night slog in Chicago, were games only this season’s iteration of the Vikings could win. Last year’s offensive line was too porous; the 2015 kicker too unreliable; the 2014 defense missing too many pieces.
It hasn’t all been pretty in Zimmer’s 3-plus years as head coach, and I’ve only just started to trust the franchise’s rejuvenation. It took a heartbreaking playoff loss, the near-destruction of a quarterback’s career, and total collapse to get here, but I can comfortably say I’m optimistic about this team’s short and long-term future.
The Browns and 49ers will eventually get there; it takes years to realize the fruits of one’s labor, to see the acquisition of talent manifest itself into wins on the field. Minnesota didn’t need the kickstart Cleveland and San Francisco require(d), but it’s been quite the ride. We may only be scratching the surface with how good these Vikings can be.
Maybe I’ll eat crow at the end of the season as the Vikings suffer another bout of self-destruction, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. The roster’s at a point where injury won’t cripple the team’s competitiveness, and for the first time in months, there’s hope for something greater in Minnesota.
That might have something to do with the return of a certain quarterback, but hey, maybe it’s just my gut this time.