Imagine the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons are classmates in school (the NFL); both receive high grades, score well on tests, and excel in most subjects. Near the end of the school year, the teacher hands out a test, one the Vikings and Falcons must pass to graduate. Unfortunately, it’s the Falcons who pass and the Vikings who stumble, missing one too many questions.
I’m a fan of analogies, so grant me this imagery for a moment. The Vikings and Falcons – save for an MVP quarterback – are eerily similar, with defensive-minded coaches leading teams built primarily through the NFL Draft. Each franchise places a high value on draft picks and spends money sparingly on high-profile free agents.
The Falcons reaped the rewards of such a strategy in 2016. Their free agent acquisitions, like Alex Mack and Mohammed Sanu, made meaningful contributions during the regular and postseason. As Matt Vensel pointed out in his recent article on the subject, Atlanta’s first and second-year players have also stepped up for the Falcons, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
It was a season that saw the Falcons benefit from a little luck and plenty of organizational planning. The Vikings, for all their offseason preparations, weren’t as fortunate, particularly with injuries. The injury bug, coupled with turnover at offensive coordinator, uncertainty at quarterback, and a litany of dramatic incidents, marked the difference between an 11-win team and an 8-win team.
With that said, the margin between the Vikings and Falcons is razor-thin. Minnesota became the sixth team to start 5-0 and miss the playoffs, preceded by this year’s NFC Champion Falcons. The pieces are in place to make a similar return to double-digit wins, but getting there is another story. I asked the Vikings Territory team to serve as “teachers” and assess the “failing” student.
What can the Vikings learn from the Atlanta Falcons, a team that started the season 5-0 in 2015, finished 8-8, and earned a berth to the Super Bowl the following year?
I’m inclined to say “not much.” I mean, at least not much that they don’t already know. You need veteran talent to play up to their potential, and you need young players to contribute. You need a well-balanced offense, and a defense capable of making even the league’s best quarterbacks wallow post-game. You need to stay healthier than the Vikings were in 2016. You need the stars to align through a mixture of strategic planning, playmaking consistency, and a few shades of luck. Watching the Falcons head to the Super Bowl might provide some Vikings with a little added inspiration or confidence next season, which certainly doesn’t hurt, but I genuinely don’t think they’re learning anything they don’t already know.
Stay the course: The Falcons didn’t freak out when they collapsed in 2016 — they addressed their weakness (defense) through free agency and the draft, and they let their talented unit (offense) grown together another year in the system.
For the Vikings, the strengths and weaknesses are flipped, but they need to follow Atlanta’s blueprint; try to salvage the offensive line in the offseason and make simple improvements to the offense. Statistically, Atlanta’s defense only improved slightly, but the added talent gave it enough juice to complement the team’s marquee unit, Julio & Co.
Then, they need to let the defense breathe; there’s too much talent for Zimmer’s bunch not to take another step in 2017. If the offense just gets nominally better and the defense ascends to the top of the heap, you’re looking at a team that resembles the first five games of the 2016 Vikings season much more than the last 11.
The quarterback will be fine: Minnesota and Atlanta have found themselves in similar situations; highly-drafted quarterbacks who produce statistically (with Matt Ryan admittedly in a different category from Sam Bradford), but who struggle in clutch situations. It was easy for Falcons fans to grumble about Matt Ryan’s 1-4 playoff record coming into the year, those numbers have been widely forgotten.
Give Sam Bradford as much help as you can — a better offensive line, a full offseason with the same playbook and Offensive Coordinator, etc. — and then see how he does. Some say he’ll never be the guy to lead a team to the Super Bowl, but I used to hear that about Matt Ryan, too.
I think the main thing for the Vikings front office is to avoid overreacting to what happened over the final half of the season. Atlanta made some changes on both sides of the ball, but none of those changes were significant enough to disrupt the locker room or team identity. The Vikings’ identity is clearly predicated on strong defense and an offense serviceable enough to win games — and it fits the personnel Mike Zimmer wants in Minnesota.
Rick Spielman just needs to stick to what he has done over the past few years (draft freakish, versatile athletes and targeting mid-tier free agents catered to the team’s biggest needs) and the rest will take care of itself, especially if injury karma balances itself out from the 2016 season.
Matthew’s written an excellent series of articles this offseason in which he addresses the team’s future. Give them a read; they’re well worth your time!
The one thing that sticks out in my mind is that the Falcons’ offense was decent in 2015, seventh in the NFL in yards, and their defense took a lot of the blame for the collapse from 5-0 to 8-8. In the offseason, they still went out and added more playmakers by signing Sanu and Gabriel.
Statistically, their defense dropped off even more, from 16th to 25th, yet here they are in the Super Bowl. The Vikings have two very capable receivers and a halfway decent tight end, but that’s it. With a quarterback like Sam Bradford, he isn’t going to elevate the play of average receivers all that much. He could use more guys who can make a big play with the ball in their hands like Gabriel.
Also, the two running backs who are dual threats are significant assets for Atlanta. If the Vikings can find another back to split time with Jerick McKinnon, they would be in much better shape offensively.