This past spring, I wrote a piece about the Vikings, after a number of roster changes, titled “Vikings will be different, is that a bad thing?”
The answer to that question: Maybe?
It could be worse. A few weeks ago, the answer seemed to be an overwhelming, resounding “yes.”
Back in the spring piece, I said none of the offseason moves made by the team - re-signing Kirk Cousins, trading Stefon Diggs, parting with a number of defenders - “has made them demonstrably worse.” It seemed for a while that I was incorrect, and maybe I still am.
In my defense, I did say that I expected the team to be fine because I expected them to use some of their cap space to sign either a veteran cornerback or offensive lineman, and they did not do that.
In fact, the Vikings corners are one of the key issues affecting this team, and a big reason the team started the season 1-5.
It certainly doesn’t help that there isn’t a single corner on the roster that can stay healthy, but for the first six games, any and all cornerbacks on the team made mediocre receivers look Pro-Bowl worthy. Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers and Russell Wilson have made a career out of picking opposing secondaries apart, but they made it look all too easy against the purple-and-gold.
Another unforeseen issue with the team is the void left by defensive end Danielle Hunter, who suffered a neck injury in August and is out for the year. He has had 14.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons, and not having him on the field means the Vikings aren’t putting as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, leaving them to pick apart the team’s lowly cornerbacks. Losing linebacker Anthony Barr for the season has had a similar effect.
The one thing I said back in the spring that I am standing behind wholeheartedly is that trading Diggs to Buffalo was worth it. He was unhappy, he was a distraction to the team and the Vikings received several draft picks from the Bills that have already given Minnesota a more-than-competent replacement at wide receiver in the form of Justin Jefferson. Diggs is doing well in Buffalo - leading the league in receiving yards, in fact - but I don’t see his departure as too much of a loss.
But of course, receivers are only as effective as the guy throwing to them, and Kirk Cousins has been inconsistent, to coat things with a thick layer of sugar. In three of the team’s first six games, the highly paid QB threw multiple interceptions. He himself admitted playing the way he was playing may lead to him being benched.
However - and maybe it’s a big however - the Vikings have looked remarkably solid in their last two games, which saw the team pick up two straight division wins against the Packers - often touted as Super Bowl contenders - and the Lions.
In those two games, Cousins threw zero interceptions. That’s right, the guy who threw 10 picks through the first six games spent the last 120 in-game minutes throwing only to the fellows in purple helmets.
He has also only been sacked twice in those two games, which is an encouraging showing from an offensive line that looked rather porous in the early games.
But let’s be honest, Cousins has basically been a game manager for the team right now. The reason this offense is looking as good as it does is Dalvin Cook.
We have known for years that the Vikes’ running back is fantastic when he is healthy, but he is often not that healthy. After all, he missed 12 games his rookie year, five games in his second year and two in his third. Though he has missed about a game and a half this year as well, I’d say he is looking pretty healthy.
Against Green Bay, he rushed for 163 yards. Against Detroit, he ran for 206 yards. Over the past five games, he has averaged 149 rushing yards per game.
He currently leads the league in rushing yards (858), rushing touchdowns (12), rushing yards per game (122.6) and rushing first downs (48). He is third in the league in rushing yards per carry (6.0), but has twice as many carries as the two backs ahead of him.
Really, that 6.0 yards per carry is a staggering number considering the workload Cook has. If the rest of the season is similar to that, he has to be the MVP and/or offensive player of the year.
We all need to pray to the football gods he stays healthy, because he is carrying this team and this team is winning.
Now, is all of this sustainable? Can the Vikings claw their way out of the giant hole they dug in the first half of the season? Maybe not. They certainly can’t rely on Cook to rush for 200 yards per game. But looking at the rest of the season, I have the tiniest bit of hope.
For one thing, the rest of the schedule doesn’t look half-bad for the Vikings. They have to play the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - which could be rough - but the rest of the teams they play either have losing records or are trending downward.
Their next game is against the Chicago Bears, who have lost three straight after starting the year 5-1. They are the best non-NFC South team left to play, so it is not too hard to look at that schedule and think that a winning record - dare I say, a playoff spot? - is entirely possible for this team.
I know I’m getting ahead of myself, but a fan can dream, right? I’m just glad they are making the season at least somewhat entertaining.
Dan Determan may be reached at 218-855-5879 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.