As a 1-3 team, the Vikings rankings are precisely where they should be in most meaningful categories – in the back half of the league. Minnesota ranks 22nd in offensive yards gained. This is fittingly dragged down because 25 percent of the team’s season occurred during the miserable game at Indianapolis. The small sample size is mightily affected by the lifelessness on display in that contest – on both sides of the ball.
The purple and gold rank 28th in offensive passing yards (829). For context, another team with a losing record, the Dallas Cowboys, has almost double the number of passing yards. In some respects, it is odd that the Vikings do not rank higher in passing yards as the team has frequently played from behind amid its 1-3 start. When trailing, teams tend to pass the ball. We like to call it “garbage time.”
From a defensive standpoint, Mike Zimmer’s group is the fourth-worst unit in the business via yards allowed and has surrendered the sixth-most points. If one must encapsulate the season concisely, this is the paramount reason that the team has struggled.
Zimmer’s ordinarily good defense has looked nowhere near as astute as years past. Various forms of injury have affected Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and Michael Pierce (COVID opt-out). A bushel of 2019 starting defensive players no longer plays with the team due to contractual impasses.
There’s more. Minnesota owns a -4 turnover differential, which is ranks 25th in the NFL. Even if Kirk Cousins’ not-important interceptions (last-gasp Hail Marys) are subtracted from this total, the Vikings would rank 22nd in the league. Zimmer’s defense is historically one that forces fumbles and interceptions, but that has not happened much early in 2020.
The positive aspect to all of these numbers is this: The Vikings – despite a 1-3 record – have run the football marvelously. Minnesota ranks fifth in the league rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns. There is a temptation to a proclaim, “Big deal, We’re 1-3.”
That cynicism is reasonable, but Gary Kubiak’s ability to run the football – even with a nasty start to 2020 – is a very, very promising nugget of foreshadowing.
Teams that Run the Ball – Make the Playoffs
Last season, seven of the NFL’s top-ten rushing teams (via yards) made the postseason. In fact, the teams with the two best regular-season records, the Ravens and 49ers, ranked No.1 and No. 2 in rushing yards.
Again in 2018, seven of the NFL’s top-ten rushing teams were playoff participants. This includes the two teams that squared off in the Super Bowl that season – the Patriots and Rams. In fairness, it’s mentionable that many of these playoff-bound rushing teams implement a committee-style of rushing. So, if something was to happen injury-wise to Dalvin Cook, all is not necessarily lost.
Through one-quarter of the 2020 season, the Vikings are a top-five rushing team. Yes, even a slow-out-of-the-gate team like this has found ways to sustain the running game. If one had to pick one specific area to excel in the face of a lugubrious start of a season, running the football would likely top the list. NFL teams that can run the football seldom finish seasons mired in shame.
One more bit of perspective: Often, good teams simply run the ball more when they get a lead. Therefore, some of the top-ten zeal via rushing can be considered a byproduct of winning in the first place rather than winning because of rushing. Think of this way: Teams that have leads run the ball more frequently. A disclaimer of food for thought.
Dalvin Cook is earning his keep. The 25-year-old inked a monster deal the day before the 2020 season began. Through four games, it is quite evident why the Vikings front office executed the transaction – even the Never Dalvin birthers can probably cede this point.
Cook has the second-most rushing yards (424) through four games to begin a season in Minnesota Vikings history. Only Robert Smith in 1997 had more yards in the first four contests of a season. Adrian Peterson, Chuck Foreman, Bill Brown, and Ted Brown never started a season this hot. What’s more, Cook is second in the NFL in touchdowns (six) this season – he trails Saints tailback, Alvin Kamara, by one score.
If that’s not enough, consider this. Since 2015, Cook is encountering the third-best start to a season of any running back in the last six seasons. Only Kareem Hunt (2017) and Ezekiel Elliott (2018) had more rushing yards through four games than does Cook in 2020.
So long as he remains upright and healthy, Cook is showing in living color why he’s one of the best running backs in the NFL – worth $13 million per year.
Passing League but Rushing Matters
It is unmistakable that the NFL has transformed into a passing league. Offensive coordinators call more pass plays than, say, the 1990s and before. Quarterback safety is like a prom dress – the powers-that-be discourage funny business pertaining to both entities.
And, pass-catchers can no longer be decapitated on the field as was encouraged not long ago. Linebacker and safeties are tasked with finding creative ways to hit hard, just not in the head or neck area.
Throwing the football is easier, to be frank, and there has been a corresponding trend to do more of it. However, running the football is still the lifeblood of football. Rushing demoralizes defenses when done effectively.
A running back’s production enables his team to manhandle the time-of-possession battle in a game. And, teams can run to set up the pass. Rushing still offers offensive balance. Flip through the history books – recent or yesteryear – and find NFL teams that have prospered without a prowess for running the football. Good luck.
So far, the Pandemic Vikings run the ball in a deft manner. The 1-3 record is a tricky one to circumvent, but it will be a lot more doable with a team that has a knack for accruing rushing yards.