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Danecdotes: Vikings leave many scratching their heads

The goings-on of the Minnesota Vikings have your local sports writer truly flummoxed

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This is the time of year where I take up the majority of a page giving my thoughts on the “Big Four” pro teams in Minnesota, sort of recapping the year they had and where I think they are headed.

This year, however, I’m just going to talk about the Vikings because, frankly, there is plenty to say about them – and not a whole lot of positive things to say about the others.

The Twins missed the playoffs despite high expectations, and the offseason has not been too kind to them. The Timberwolves traded their bench depth and future (seriously, four first-round picks?) for perennial all-star and defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert, and what they have to show for it so far is a record hovering around .500. The Wild look like a playoff contender who probably won’t make a ton of noise in the postseason, which is what they have been for the past decade.

So why don’t we focus on the Vikings because seriously, what the heck is this team?

The Vikings of 2021 often looked better than their record indicated. They were usually in the game – maybe down by a score or two – but rarely capitalized on opportunities and ultimately missed the playoffs with an 8-9 record. It was their second straight losing season, leading to head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman losing their jobs.

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The Vikings front office then hired a new general manager in Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who in turn hired a new head coach in young up-and-comer Kevin O’Connell – fresh off a Super Bowl win as the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams.

At the beginning of the season, I predicted we would see “small improvements” from this new-look Vikings team. Twelve wins later – 11 of them decided by one possession – and I’m eating some crow, but I still have no idea what to think of them.

Prior to this season, I can’t imagine watching a team start the season 12-4 and then asking “Yeah, but are they actually any good?” Well, that’s exactly where I am with this team.

Are they a scrappy team capable of doing what it takes to win tough games? Are they a legitimately good team that simply plays to the level of their opponents, both good and bad? Do they just keep getting lucky? There is one game left in the regular season, and I still have no idea.

They beat stellar teams like the Buffalo Bills – and scrappy teams like the Lions and Commanders – but lose soundly to the top-ranked Philadelphia Eagles. They rattle off seven straight wins but then get absolutely demolished by the Dallas Cowboys.

They soundly handled the Green Bay Packers in the season opener and then were outright embarrassed by them this past weekend.

All of that said, the Vikings have been really fun – albeit incredibly stressful – to watch this season.

How stressful are we talking? Well, the defense is ranked second-to-last in passing defense and second-to-last in total defense. They manage to win by somehow clamping down a bit when the opponent is in the red zone most of the time, along with forcing a solid number of turnovers.

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Despite the rough defense, there have been so many bright spots.

I know Kirk Cousins is the resident punching bag for half of the Vikings fan base, and sometimes it’s justified – he did play like a panic-stricken rookie against Philadelphia and made some questionable choices in Green Bay. That said, Cousins is currently fourth in the league in total passing yards and yards per game, and sixth in passing touchdowns. At times, especially in the fourth quarter and overtime, he can look like one of the very best QBs in the league.

He’s not the only athlete on the team putting up some respectable numbers. Dalvin Cook is seventh in rushing yards. Eric Kendricks is 12th in total tackles, and Jordan Hicks isn’t too far behind him. Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson are both in the top 10 in the league for interceptions. Danielle Hunter and ZaDarius Smith both have 10-plus sacks. Kick returner Kene Nwangwu is second in the league in kick return yards and is one of just four players in the league to return a kick for a touchdown this season.

And of course, we need to talk about Justin Jefferson. Holy cow, has he been incredible this season.

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The third-year receiver is easily leading the league in receiving yards. He also leads in total receptions, receptions of more than 20 yards and receiving first-downs. He was on pace for the first-ever 2,000-yard season by a receiver before an underwhelming Green Bay game and may still get there with a huge game in Chicago. He made, arguably, the greatest catch in league history against Buffalo, hauling in a one-handed grab while simultaneously wrestling the ball away from a defender on fourth-and-18 in the fourth quarter.

No wide receiver has ever been named league MVP. If Jefferson doesn’t get it this year – and after a one-reception performance in Green Bay, I doubt he will – I’m not sure a receiver ever will.

Lots of good things, right? Yet for some reason this stacked division champion team has a bit of a penchant for flaming out in big games. What does that mean for the postseason? I truly struggle to even guess. It looks like they will probably host one playoff game, and to get past the second round, they’ll need to be the Vikings that overcame the odds against the Bills and Colts, not the ones that failed to show up against the Cowboys and Packers.

Things will get tricky in the near future for this team, regardless of how this season plays out. Jefferson is under contract until 2025, but you better believe he will be signing a record-breaking deal when the time comes. If that deal is with the Vikings – and let’s all hope it is – it may not leave a whole lot of money for the team’s other free agents, which may lead to the team being stingy with free agents whose contracts come up sooner – like Cousins, Hunter, Kendricks and T.J. Hockenson.

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For now, though, we simply have to enjoy the ride. It’s a bumpy ride, make no mistake, but at least it’s interesting.

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Dan Determan

Dan Determan, sports writer/staff writer, may be reached at 218-855-5879 or dan.determan@pineandlakes.com . Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.

Dan Determan has been a reporter for the Echo Journal since 2014, primarily covering sports at Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus
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