By The Numbers: The Beautiful Mystery That Was The 2022 Minnesota Vikings
Since the NFL’s regular season expanded to 17 regular-season games in 2021, only seven teams have won 13 or more. In 2021, there were two: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Green Bay Packers. In 2022, that number ballooned to five teams that separated themselves from the rest of the crop. Or so you would think. Three of the eventual conference championship teams were on this list (Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, and San Francisco 49ers). The Buffalo Bills were not involved that weekend because they faced a scorching-hot Cincinnati Bengals the week before in the divisional round. Amidst all of this was one team that was not like the others. One that did not get the same respect as their winning counterparts. One sole outlier: The 2022 Minnesota Vikings.
Don’t believe me? Look at the numbers, according to FootballOutsiders.com:
2021 Tampa Bay Bucs
2021 GB Packers
2022 San Francisco 49ers
2022 Buffalo Bills
2022 Philadelphia Eagles
2022 Kansas City Chiefs
2022 Minnesota Vikings
Every advanced metric points to this team being below-average to downright mediocre. So, what separated them from the rest of the pack?
Improbable Fourth-Quarter Comebacks
The saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Well, who is to blame after the eighth time that it happens?
Kirk Cousins set a new single-season record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks. Including two of the more improbable comebacks, any fan of the sport will ever see. Their week 10 OT thriller against the Buffalo Bills, where a Josh Allen fumble coming out of his own end-zone breathed new life and hope into the Minnesota faithful, including the great Paul Allen.
If you don’t believe me, you’re wrong… pic.twitter.com/jjSICF14kZ
— Saivion Mixson (@MixsonS_NFL) May 12, 2023
Then, there was this year’s reminder for quarterback Matt Ryan that life is not fair. The Vikings came back from a 33-point halftime deficit against the Indianapolis Colts to put a stamp on what was an insane year for the Vikings in the 2nd half of games.
Both of these games were examples of an unusual amount of production in the second half for Minnesota throughout the season, especially in the fourth quarter.
Astronomical Fourth-Quarter Production
Pro Football Reference has an efficiency tool called Adjusted Net Yards per pass attempt. The metric provides a deeper look into the effectiveness of every dropback that a quarterback takes.
For reference, the highest total for the 2022 season belongs to Tua Tagovailoa with 8.37, with Patrick Mahomes not far behind with 7.93. When trailing with four minutes or less in the fourth quarter, the Vikings are second in the league in ANY/A with 10.55.
In the first three quarters of games, the 2022 Minnesota Vikings were ranked 24th in EPA/play offensively and 28th in EPA/play defensively. Whereas in the fourth quarter and overtime, these numbers skyrocket to 2nd offensively and 5th defensively, according to rbsdm.com.
The Vikings turned it on when the pressure was the highest, which led to their outrageous NFL record-setting 11-0 record in one-score games.
Justin, And I Can’t Stress This Enough, Jefferson
In 2021, Sean McVay and the Rams offense was praised for their ability to spam the ‘Stafford to Kupp’ button. They spammed it enough to where Cooper Kupp achieved the Triple Crown (1st in Receiving Yards, Receiving TDs, and Receptions) for the first time since hall-of-fame receiver Steve Smith, Sr. in 2005. Kevin O’Connell was offensive coordinator of that Rams offense. So, when he arrived in Minnesota, he essentially said: “Let’s do that again,” but with a different veteran quarterback to top receiver combination.
Before this season, there were legitimate concerns about whether or not the Cousins to Jefferson tandem would work in Minnesota. This season should put all those notions to bed (at least for now). And while Jefferson did not obtain the elusive triple crown, he did lead the league in both receptions (184) and reception yards (1809). However, his impact on the game goes beyond just his numbers in the box score.
The way that O’Connell, like McVay, made Jefferson such a threat was to align him all over the field pre-snap. And I do mean everywhere. They lined him up in the slot, out wide, even motioning him in and out of the backfield. The Vikings offense ensured that defenses could not key in on Jefferson pre-snap. And if they tried to key in on him post-snap, Cousins made them pay by getting the ball to another one of their weapons in the offense.
Four other Vikings pass-catchers caught 50 or more passes this season. None of their passer ratings, when targeted, dipped under 90. The worst was Adam Thielen at 92.2.
Justin Jefferson and his ability to make big plays anywhere on the field opened this offense wide open for everyone.
What About The Defense?
Admittedly, this has been an offensive-heavy piece, but it is for good reason. The Vikings didn’t have much to note or that could be deemed noteworthy in 2022. The offense had to score 28 or more points to secure victory eight times this season. The defense ranked 28th in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed. The lone positive being that they were at least opportunistic in spots and were 9th in the league in turnovers caused. But that was not enough for defensive coordinator Ed Donnatel to keep his job, as he was dismissed at season’s end.
A Wild Ride
This season for the Minnesota Vikings was an insane ride. It ended in unfortunate yet ironic fashion to a New York Giants team, as Minnesota hung with them for the first three quarters. But then, uncharacteristically, played the third-worst 4th quarter of all the teams to play wildcard weekend.
But it makes me wonder: If this team was to play the first three quarters like they did the last, how good would they be?
If they executed the whole game the same way they executed their key moments down the stretch, what would the numbers look like?
There is a scouting “proverb” that I have heard repeatedly since I started writing. It says that: “If you have seen a prospect do it once, that is all you need to see.”
In other words, if you have seen a player achieve a skill, whether a quarterback can read a defense or a running back showcases good acceleration, they have shown that they are capable of said skill. It just has to be coached up to be done more consistently.
I wonder if this is the Vikings showing the NFL they can control the game like O’Connell and company would like them to. They are just in need of more time and coaching.
Or was this year just an anomaly that will go down as such when they revert back to being a middle-of-the-road to below-average team next season?
That is the mystery. And my goodness, it is intriguing.