Zulgad: A year later, Vikings’ decision to not go the rebuild route looks like a wise one

It has been 365 days since Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf informed general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer that their services were no longer needed at TCO Performance Center.

The Vikings had completed a second consecutive disappointing season on Jan. 9, 2002 with a meaningless 31-17 victory over the Chicago Bears. That finished up an 8-9 season and left the Vikings with a 15-18 record over the past two years.

It would have been hard to disagree with the Wilfs’ desire to make the changes. The question — beyond who would replace Spielman and Zimmer? — was what that change would bring? Highly paid quarterback Kirk Cousins had, for the most part, underachieved, in his first four seasons in Minnesota, and the Vikings had some aging players on their roster whose best seasons appeared to be behind them.

But as Mark Wilf addressed the media after the firings, he made it clear that ownership saw no reason for the Vikings to hit the reset button. At least not immediately.

“We have high expectations for this football team,” Wilf told reporters. “We believe we can be super-competitive right here in 2022. This is not in that mode of a full rebuild. Again, we believe we have a strong, strong foundation here on the field and around the building. I wouldn’t classify it as (a rebuild). … I do feel we can be a contender in 2022, and that’s the way we view it.”

There were some, including the writer who occupies this space, who thought starting over might be the best plan. Cousins had one-year remaining on his contract and the Vikings had the opportunity to explore trading him.

But as the Vikings first hired general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and then coach Kevin O’Connell they set in motion a plan that would retain many of the players on Zimmer’s roster and hope that new leadership and direction could make a difference.

A year later, that decision looks very wise.

After going 6-8 in one-score games during a 2021 season that was tumultuous from the outset and looked downright miserable from the outside, O’Connell oversaw a team that won an NFL record 11 one-score games en route to a 13-4 finish and the franchise’s first NFC North title since 2017.

That success landed the Vikings’ a home playoff game — their first since a victory over the Saints in the Minneapolis Miracle during the 2017 season — against the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon.

O’Connell did exactly what ownership thought was possible, getting the most out of Cousins by empowering him instead of barely tolerating him. It helped that O’Connell had been Cousins’ quarterbacks coach in 2017 in Washington and also was an offense-first guy, unlike the defensive-minded Zimmer.

The Vikings’ success has gone beyond the O’Connell-Cousins relationship. O’Connell, who turned 37 last May, brought a far different demeanor than the 66-year-old Zimmer. On the day Spielman and Zimmer were fired, veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks, asked about the type of culture he wanted under a new coach, said something incredibly damning.

“I don’t think a fear-based organization is the way to go.”

That quote spoke volumes about how Vikings players felt about Zimmer and provided a guide for what type of leader the Wilfs wanted to hire to pair with their new general manager. O’Connell, who had been Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Super Bowl champion Rams, can be an intense and demanding coach, but he also appears far more open to criticizing himself, listening to player feedback and accepting the fact he might not have all the answers.

O’Connell also has served as the Vikings’ play caller and done an outstanding job of getting the most out of superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson. Jefferson finished the regular season with an NFL-leading 128 receptions for 1,809 yards and eight touchdowns in 17 games. He broke the franchise record for catches and receiving yards in a season by Week 16.

This doesn’t mean O’Connell has been perfect, or doesn’t have things to learn as a coach and play caller. The decision to hire veteran defensive coordinator Ed Donatell appears to have been a swing and a miss as the Vikings finished 31st in the NFL in total defense and tied for 28th in scoring defense. Donatell installed a 3-4 scheme that O’Connell believed would create problems for opponents, but the Vikings’ struggles will make it surprising if Donatell is back next season.

Adofo-Mensah and his assistant also get credit for the Vikings’ success. While the GM’s first draft class hasn’t contributed much, Adofo-Mensah did acquire Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson from the Detroit Lions after Week 8. Hockenson played a key role for the Vikings, especially with the decline of wide receiver Adam Thielen, and caught 60 passes for 519 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games with the Vikings.

The addition of free agent pass rusher Za’Darius Smith brought the Vikings 10 sacks, and one of the savviest moves came when cornerback Duke Shelley was added to the practice squad after being released by the Bears in late August. Shelley was added to the active roster as the Vikings lost cornerbacks Cam Dantzler, Akaylab Evans and Andrew Booth Jr. to injury.

A sixth-round pick of the Bears in 2019, Shelley has been outstanding and recorded his first career interception on Sunday against his former team.

This was only the first step for Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell.

It remains to be seen how they replace some of their aging players, or in what direction they elect to go when it comes to the 34-year-old Cousins. The Vikings are going to have to sign Jefferson to a rich contract extension as early as this summer and some tough decisions are going to have to be made regarding the salary cap.

Ultimately, all of these decisions will help us judge Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell. But, for now, the one thing we know is Vikings ownership looks pretty smart for the decisions made in the past year.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com

Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire