John Shipley: Vikings have plenty of work ahead as they press on with ‘competitive rebuild’

The Vikings are, by most accounts, in a transition year, which generally doesn’t instill confidence in oddsmakers or fans. It implies a team isn’t what it used to be, yet isn’t quite what it wants to be. Second-year general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is calling it a “competitive rebuild.”

I don’t know if that inspired phrase simply burst one day from Adofo-Mensah’s lips, if he heard it elsewhere or if it was concocted by a roomful of crisis managers, but it’s a smart one. Like “fighting retreat,” it implies both confidence and circumspection, and like “fighting retreat,” it sits perilously close to oxymoron.

Is there such a thing as a competitive rebuild? Vikings fans are about to find out.

It’s important to remember that a transition period can be more than marking time. A transition period can itself produce something as worthwhile and memorable as what is, let’s face it, an often elusive end game. Think, say, “The Who Sell Out” — the bridge between the early Mod records and “Tommy” — or the Super Bowls won by Jeff Hostetler or Trent Dilfer.

Wonderful things can happen when you’re looking ahead.

The Vikings spent the offseason tangling with a large tab run up by previous general manager Rick Spielman, who was so enamored of his plan to win that he just kept extending the contracts of his core players, apparently knowing that a) if the Vikings won their first Super Bowl under his watch, the financial wreckage would be worth it, and b) that if they didn’t, he wouldn’t be the guy charged with cleaning up the damage. If so, he was bound to be right.

As a result, Adofo-Mensah has spent the past 18 months negotiating a Takeshi’s Castle-grade salary-cap quagmire while, remarkably, putting a winning team on the field in 2022. His next trick will be, uh, trickier.

The 2022 Vikings were a ton of fun last season, going 11-1 in one-score games, winning twice on last-second field goals and setting the NFL record for a regular-season comeback in a 39-36 victory over Indianapolis. They finished 13-4 and won the NFC North, and Vikings fans will remember the season more fondly as the years blur a 31-24, first-round playoff loss to a Giants team they had just beaten.

But as that loss made clear, Minnesota won last season in spite of its defense, and in large part because it played the kind of schedule the NFL awards to teams that finished 6-11 the previous season.

This season, the Vikings have six winnable games against their NFC North brethren, but those 13 wins netted them games against the four NFL semifinalists — Super Bowl champion Kansas City, NFC champion Philadelphia and conference runners up Cincinnati and San Francisco.

The Vikings maneuvered to keep quarterback Kirk Cousins, and still have all-everything receiver Justin Jefferson — in line for a big contract extension — and an improved offensive line. There’s the competitive part of your competitive rebuild.

Then there’s the defense.

The defense proved plucky at key moments last season before getting eviscerated in the playoffs, making it clear that Adofo-Mensah not only had to spend the offseason shedding the salaries of some productive players — Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, Dalvin Cook — but also finding a new defensive coordinator.

The Vikings seemed to pull off a coup of sorts when they replaced Ed Donatell with Brian Flores, a forward-thinking brainiac who appears a year or two from becoming a head coach. But Flores has his work cut out for him. He apparently has molded his arcane scheme to fit the talent in the locker room, but it’s unclear what he has to work with. There isn’t a ton of experience there, especially in the secondary.

That’s a tough place to start against NFL offenses that have become dominated by quarterbacks and receivers, even for a brainiac.

One national publication has predicted the Vikings will go 11-6, which would, indeed, fit the description of “competitive rebuild.” From here, it also fits the description of “blind optimism.” In the end, “competitive rebuild” is a euphemism because “competitive” is such a relative term. The Vikings could flip the narrative in 2023 and go 1-11 in one-score games and still be competitive.

What Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell have done so far is plan ahead without tearing the team down to its foundation, which is probably the pitch each made when interviewing with Vikings ownership.

But let’s not lose the plot. What matters most for this franchise, without a Super Bowl appearance since 1977, is getting back into genuine contention for a championship. Some of that heavy lifting has been done, much more lies ahead.

Short of a Super Bowl, whatever happens this season probably won’t change that.