A year after running it back, the Vikings are tearing it down

A year after running it back, the Vikings are tearing it down

When the Vikings not-surprisingly jettisoned coach Mike Zimmer and somewhat-surprisingly dumped G.M. Rick Spielman after the 2021 season, the new regime kept around an unexpectedly high number of existing players. This year, G.M. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell are tearing it down, a year after an unlikely 13-4 season.

Gone, to date, are running back Dalvin Cook, receiver Adam Thielen, linebacker Za'Darius Smith (whom they signed last year), linebacker Eric Kendricks, cornerback Patrick Peterson, and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. Next to go could be pass-rusher Danielle Hunter, given that someone leaked that the Vikings were “getting calls” for him. (Usually, that sort of call to a reporter comes from inside the house, as part of an effort to get the offer the team wants.)

So what are the Vikings doing? The retention of so many players in 2021 coupled with a memorable first season created a sense that the Vikings would hold it together if they could and try to take the next step — especially since they kept quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The deeper question is whether they were willing if not hoping to get rid of Cousins, too. Rumors flew at the Scouting Combine of a possible Cousins trade to the 49ers.

The question for the Vikings would have been who do they replace him with? They were drafting too low to get in position for one of the best young quarterbacks in the 2023 draft class, and the free-agency and trade options (other than Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson) would have resulted in another middle-of-the-pack, water-treading, just-good-enough-to-be-good-enough option, perhaps to give the Vikings a chance at another one-and-done playoff run. Or maybe, if they get lucky, a blowout loss in the divisional round.

Adofo-Mensah said it himself last year. He called Cousins a “good quarterback,” “but he acknowledged that “we don’t have Tom Brady . . . we don’t have Pat Mahomes.”

And as the Vikings pivot from consistency to demolition, Adofo-Mensah has one position that gives him paused when it comes to trading or cutting a player.

“I’ll be frank,” Adofo-Mensah said last year, “the one asset where you get nervous about not burning it down is quarterback.”

The QB burn pit is likely coming after the 2023 season. Even as the Vikings will try to persuade themselves and others that they’re trying to get to the Super Bowl and win it (every team says that, every year), the Vikings have a broader plan to make themselves into a consistent Super Bowl contender. It involves deliberately taking a major step back in 2023, in the hopes that it will lead to multiple steps forward in 2024 and beyond.

Whether that’s tanking or strategic rebuilding is a matter of semantics. The Vikings aren’t prioritizing winning as many games as possible in 2023, just like the Cardinals. The Vikings are thinking about the franchise’s future with a franchise quarterback — a true, year-in and year-out best-in-the-league-or-close-to-it passer and runner that they haven’t had since Fran Tarkenton.

The problem is that the Vikings don’t usually draft in position to get a franchise quarterback. Since taking Daunte Culpepper in 1999 (who was becoming a franchise quarterback until he suffered a serious knee injury in 2005), the Vikings had the seventh pick in 2007, a year when the top quarterbacks were JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn. (They took Adrian Peterson.) In 2012, they had the fourth pick, but they had used a first-rounder one year earlier on Christian Ponder. In 2014, they had the ninth overall selection in a year that featured Blake Bortles as the consensus top quarterback; they traded back into round one to get Teddy Bridgewater.

In 2017, they Vikings didn’t have a first-round pick after desperation forced them to send what became the fourteenth overall selection to the Eagles for Sam Bradford. (In an alternate universe, the Vikings dealt with the aftermath of Teddy Bridgewater’s serious knee injury by riding with Shaun Hill, and perhaps finishing high enough in the 2017 draft order to take Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson.)

In 2021, the Vikings were seriously eyeing Justin Fields, but the Bears traded up to get him — and the Vikings then traded down, for tackle Christian Darrisaw.

This year, the Vikings could secretly be hoping to finish high enough in the draft order to trade up to prime position, in order to get one of the top quarterbacks that will be entering the league in 2024. If not 2024, then 2025.

Regardless, that seems to be the goal. To get a franchise quarterback, and to let things go from there.

The league doesn’t want to find teams guilty of tanking, as evidenced by the pass that 345 Park Avenue gave to the Dolphins after former coach Brian Flores claimed that owner Stephen Ross offered $100,000 per loss in 2019. (The NFL accepted the explanation that it was a joke. We’re still waiting for the punchline.) There’s a more artful way to tank; the Browns did that with a “four-year plan” that prioritized stockpiling future draft picks and cap space over collecting the best possible players in a given year. The NFL endorsed that approach.

And, yes, Adofo-Mensah worked for the DiPodesta Moneyball Browns before getting the G.M. job in Minnesota.

So that’s what’s happening. It was always what was going to happen, from the moment Adofo-Mensah was hired. The decision to keep so many players from 2021, combined with the 13-4 record from 2022 and the decision to retain Kirk Cousins for at least one more year, began to create a different impression.

It was a mirage. This is Year Two of a broader plan.

If anything, Year One went too well for the plan’s own good. That’s the thing that has made the deliberate regression in 2023 seem confusing to those fans that continue to hope next year will be the year that the Vikings emerge from purple purgatory.

The truth seems to be that they’re willing to make a temporary visit to football hell, in the hopes of busting out of limbo for as long as their future franchise quarterback plays in Minnesota.

A year after running it back, the Vikings are tearing it down originally appeared on Pro Football Talk