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Souhan: Built to win, devastated by injuries, this year’s Vikings leave fans apathetic

Football people love to say the word "football." Listen to a former player or coach on TV, and their patter sounds something like: "These football players need to win this football game for this football team on this football field. Also: Football."

Their second-favorite utterance is "Next man up." Spoken with resolve and attitude, "Next man up" connotes toughness and resilience. It's a supposedly macho way of stating the obvious — when your team endures a meaningful injury, the next player on the depth chart will have to perform.

The saying comes with a catch, though. If you're going to survive injuries, the next man up had better be good at playing professional football. Too many of the Vikings' reserves have failed, which means the franchise has done a lousy job of building depth over the last few years.

I've been covering the Vikings since 1990. I've never seen a Vikings team in playoff contention elicit such disgust and apathy from the fan base. On Sunday in Detroit, this depleted and seemingly depressed team will try to beat the Lions and hope the right teams lose around the league so they can drag themselves and their FSA accounts into the playoffs, where certain doom awaits.

Since beating the Raiders 3-0, the Vikings are 0-3, having played two different backup quarterbacks and allowed 90 points. Their collapse culminated, they hope, in the worst game of Kevin O'Connell's head coaching career, a 33-10 loss at home to the mediocre Packers.

This combination of events has led to the usual calls from angry fans to replace O'Connell and perhaps even defensive coordinator Brian Flores.

O'Connell won 13 games as a rookie head coach. Flores is a quality coach. A loss like the one they suffered to the Packers puts everyone on notice, but it's not only too reactionary to give up on either — such a mentality would reveal a misunderstanding of this team's problems.

The 2023 Vikings wound up in the same place as the 2022 Twins and 2022-23 Timberwolves: built to win, and devastated by injuries.

The Twins weren't a bad team in 2022. They were an injured team. The 2022-23 Wolves were not ruined by the Rudy Gobert trade. They were robbed of a chance to win immediately by the illnesses and injuries of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Entering the 2023 season, the Vikings lacked depth and defensive talent, and those weaknesses have been exposed by injuries to their best players.

The most important players on this roster are, in no particular order, Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson, Brian O'Neill, Christian Darrisaw, Danielle Hunter, Marcus Davenport, Jordan Hicks, Harrison Smith and Byron Murphy Jr.

Of those, only Hunter was uniformly healthy and productive. Smith, at 34, was healthy but doesn't play like he's in his prime because he's not in his prime. Everyone else on that list missed significant time. Murphy, in particular, demonstrated that you don't have to be a great player to be invaluable. Once Murphy was hurt, the Vikings' cornerbacks were exposed.

Cousins was having a career season in terms of yardage before he was injured. Jefferson was trying to continue a historically good start to his career. Davenport was signed to be Hunter's bookend pass rusher. He played in four games.

You can always blame the coaches for everything, but building depth is the general manager's job. I hate to keep bringing up the 2022 draft, but Kwesi Adofo-Mensah had a chance to take safety Kyle Hamilton, who looks like a future Hall of Famer for the Ravens, and he traded down and took Lewis Cine, who can't get on the field for a team desperate for secondary help, and Andrew Booth Jr., who is mostly playing special teams.

Adofo-Mensah has had successes, including the additions of Jordan Addison and Hockenson, but his drafting has been iffy at best and the Davenport signing was a disaster.

Vikings players have occasionally described this season as a roller coaster, but it's been a thrill ride with broken wheels.