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Minnesota Vikings running it back, a look at how 2022’s roster compares to best teams in franchise history

This Minnesota Vikings fan blog entry was originally posted at Purple Pain Forums by MidwinterViking.

Since the Vikings are running things back, the only question is: how far back do they need to run for a Super Bowl trophy?

It is time to take a look at the current Vikings team and how they stack up against others in history.

Before we can figure out what a Super Bowl team could look like, there is an urban myth that must be dispelled first:

  • Myth: Playoff teams win with better offenses.
  • Reality: Playoff teams need to both score more than average AND hold teams to less than average.

Check out how playoff teams have outperformed non-playoff teams on offense and defense:

The advantage gained from being better on offense and being better on defense is nearly identical. Even more interesting, this advantage has been remarkably consistent over time. You can use the numbers to show how much of an advantage the average playoff team gains from their combined offense and defense.

In the rest of this post I use the term “advantage” to capture how many points better than league average a team is (more points scored or fewer points allowed). This means that the average playoff team has to have about a five or six point-per-game advantage over the field. And, to be a good playoff team, a team has to be above these lines; Super Bowl teams follow the same pattern just slightly more extreme than the “average playoff teams”.

Also note, this PPG advantage can come from either offense or defense, teams can take any path to get there. Examples: 2018 Chiefs were +12.0 Offense / -3.0 Defense; the 2000 Ravens were +0.1 Offense / +10.4 Defense.

Nice history lesson – now would you kindly GET TO THE VIKINGS OR I’M CLOSING MY BROWSER!

Related: Minnesota Vikings’ Jaylen Twyman plans to play in 2022 after being shot 4 times last year

Yes, it’s time for the Vikings. The point of those pretty pictures above is to provide a good background for the current Vikings team and how they stack up against some historical squads. To plan for a Super Bowl, at minimum, a team has to be six points per game better than average through a combination of offense and defense. 

So let’s compare the Vikings to this benchmark for the average football team; any Vikings team that is better than the average playoff team I will consider to be a Super Bowl contender, starting with a very simple comparison of Vikings’ performance versus the historical average. The real reason I want to share this is to make sure that the data makes sense. If a coach fielded a team with a Super Bowl contending team, I highlighted their coaching era.

Do these dates make sense, looking backwards?

2019 Barely, but barely counts and the Vikings were 6.5 points per game better than average. If you want to, “Yeah, but what about?!” the loss to the San Francisco 49ers, look at the Vikings’ playoff opponents for that season. Saints: +7.3 PPG, and 49ers: +10.6 PPG. The Vikings lost to a 49ers team that outperformed most Super Bowl teams.

2017 – Vikings had a +8.1 PPG advantage, which is very solid. The Minneapolis Miracle was not a fluke; the Vikings were a stronger team than the New Orleans Saints that year.

2009 – Vikings were +9.9 PPG above average. Interestingly, Brad Childress fielded a more serious Super Bowl contender than Mike Zimmer did.

1998 – Vikings run up a massive +16.3 PPG advantage over the field. I’ve always thought of that year as an epic failure because the Atlanta Falcons stunk, but looking at this, the Falcons had a +9.1 PPG value; the reality is that the Vikings didn’t lose to chopped liver, they lost to a really good Falcons team.

1986 and 1988 – Wow, sandwiched between some extremely forgettable seasons, Jerry Burns had two contenders in a three-year window… and one of them (1986 with a +7.8 PPG advantage) didn’t even make the playoffs while the Bears were +10.3 PPG that year with only one Wild Card team. Coach Burns left the following quote to address that misfortune: “%#&#@^$” – Jerry Burns

1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 – As a reminder, this is above average “for a playoff team”, which makes this stretch even more remarkable; none of it was luck.

That list makes sense for a list of contenders from the Vikings, outside of 1986, it’s everything I expected, so I can use this for a team evaluation.

Related: Dalvin Cook confirms plans to change jersey number from No. 33 to No. 4 this season

Learning from history

The point of this long, detailed breakdown of advantages is to look at history and figure out how the current Vikings team stacks up. To do this, I’m going to compare how Vikings teams gained their advantage (because remember, it can come from scoring more or playing good defense). I’m also going to cut out everything between that 1970-1976 Bud Grant Super Bowl window and the Mike Zimmer era because what I really want to do is compare “what we are familiar with” to “what we know is good”. Here is the breakdown of offensive and defensive advantages from those two eras:

There are some interesting things to learn from this…

Observation 1 – While the recent Minnesota offense has been above average (advantage >0), no Mike Zimmer team ever fielded a Super Bowl quality offense. This is something that Kevin O’Connell will need to address.

Observation 2 – The Vikings defense has been good, but not THAT good. At first glance, it looks like they are above the playoff team line, so that counts as a Super Bowl quality defense, right? Well, not if you have to carry an offense that has never risen above “good-ish”. I’m going to be generous and pretend 2020 and 2021 never happened, and compare the Mike Zimmer defenses to that Bud Grant era: Zimmer defenses (from 2014 – 2019) averaged a PPG advantage of +3.4; the Bud Grant era defenses averaged +6.7. So when you’re thinking of recent history, the 2017 Vikings defense would be pretty average in the Bud Grant era.

Bud Grant’s 1975 Vikings

USA TODAY Sports-Historical
Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports

I wanted to profile the 2022 Vikings against one of the Bud Grant teams, and looking at the players, I think the 1975 team is the best one for comparison. Now, to be fair to the 2022 Vikings, this will not be a fair comparison – the 1975 team was elite on both offense and defense (but that’s part of why I picked them) and as such had the second-largest PPG advantage of any Vikings team in history +14.1 (1998 was +16.3). However, after looking at the players (more on them later), I think this is the best team to shoot for.

Importance of coaching culture

Replicating that run from the 1970s has to start with culture. Every play can be copied; every tendency of every player is on film from multiple angles; every skill player is fast; and every player in the trenches is strong. The ONLY consistent competitive advantage is culture. You don’t need to take my word for this, this interview with Bill Walsh by the Harvard Business review from 1993 might as well have been published yesterday:

To Build a Winning Team: An interview with head coach Bill Walsh

Bud Grant was famously disciplined, humble and practical. The discipline explains his team’s high performance on defense. If an offense is undisciplined and misses on a play, it will simply try again the next play. Defense has to be in the right place at the right time every play or the offense scores and the drive is over. I think there was a strong parallel in discipline when it came to Bud Grant and Mike Zimmer – probably why their teams gained more points on defense than offense. To build to where they want to be, the Vikings will need to maintain that discipline and add something more. If you check out this interview with Grant, it’s obvious that he values inclusion and collaboration in addition to discipline.

15 Minutes with Bud Grant

And on the reverse, he was clear about what he didn’t like:

SI: MMQB interview with Bud Grant:

Okay, well, Lombardi and I didn’t get along. He’s a tyrant, and he coached that way. Great coach, but he coached with fear, and he treated everybody—whether you’re the president or the secretary of the club—with bombastic fear. -Bud Grant

This is where the 2022 Vikings can find an advantage over recent history. Listening to what Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell value: working together, situational football, putting guys in a position to succeed, and winning on the margins. There are no tyrants in the Vikings building. This is not a shot at Zimmer – I think the hyperbole with him is a product of social media more than reality – it is meant to highlight how the Bud Grant teams of the 1970s gained their advantage: by purposefully bringing them up. The language being used now matches really well with the approach taken by Grant. Talent matters (and I’ll get to that), but if culture is the only consistent differentiator, I think the Vikings 2022 team is closer to that 1975 team than they were last year.

Related: Analyzing 5 different Minnesota Vikings draft scenarios for 2022

Player profiles 1975 versus 2022

A quick glance at that 1975 team and you will see a massive talent pool: six Hall of Famers (SIX!)

Fran Tarkenton (QB), Mick Tingelhoff (C), Ron Yary (OT), Alan Page (DT), Paul Krause (S), and Carl Eller (DE). All of this talent as well as an All-Pro running back in Chuck Foreman and several non-Hall of Fame Pro Bowlers: Ed White (G), John Gilliam (WR), Jeff Siemon (LB), and Bobby Bryant (CB). Lastly, let’s not forget Jim Marshall (DE), who should be in the Hall of Fame. Seriously, who do we contact about that? I’d like to write a strongly-worded letter.  

This is why the comparison to the 2022 team isn’t fair (SIX Hall of Famers!). But, I’m not comparing the 2022 Vikings to the entire careers of all the Hall of Famers on the 1975 team; I’m comparing 2022 only to 1975, so to do that I need more than a quick glance. Let’s look at the age and performance of these Hall of Famers and key guys from 1975.

Fran Tarkenton (Age 35) – This was not “The Mad Scrambler” you might remember from 1961-1968 when he averaged over 300 rush yards per season; in 1975 he had 108 rush yards. What he did have in 1975 was a career-high completion percentage and passer rating – not the thing he was known for, but the way he had to adapt to be effective.

Mick Tingelhoff (Age 35) – In 1975 he was six years removed from his final Pro Bowl or All-Pro season.

Carl Eller (Age 33) – His last Pro Bowl season was the year prior, in 1974.

Paul Krause (Age 33) – 1975 was Paul Krause’s 12th season and final Pro Bowl selection. A safety that is/was still good but near the end of his career (sound familiar?).

Jim Marshall (Age 38) – 1975 was Marshall’s 16th year in the league.

John Gilliam (age 30) – This was a Pro Bowl season for Gilliam, but his 777 yards were notably off from the 945 yards he averaged from 1969-1973; this was his final Pro Bowl season.

Bobby Bryant (Age 31) – It turned out that he still had gas left in the tank making the Pro Bowl in 1975 and again in 1976; but he was 31 coming off a 1974 season that was lost to a knee injury.

Only Ron Yary and Alan Page were Hall of Famers in their prime. This was arguably the greatest team in Vikings’ history, even if many of the individuals weren’t at the highest point of their careers individually. Looking at the individual players on that 1975 team can give a different perspective to the 2022 Vikings.

– Harrison Smith is in a remarkably similar position to Paul Krause.

– Justin Jefferson is a star entering his prime, just like fellow offensive weapon Chuck Foreman. 

– Adam Thielen is closer to the end of his career than the start, and you can’t expect him to repeat his high points, just like John Gilliam.

– The offensive line has a stalwart in Brian O’Neill (like Ron Yary), some promising parts in Christian Darrisaw and Ezra Cleveland, but some pieces that we know could be better (only two of the five linemen from 1975 made the Pro Bowl).

– It remains to be seen what Patrick Peterson has left in the tank, just like Bobby Bryant.

– In terms of potential, Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith probably have more one-year upside than Eller and Marshall at that point in their careers.

– To be great, Kirk Cousins will need to continue to reinvent himself like Tarkenton did to remain effective; something Cousins has already done as he has changed systems and teams.

Related: Minnesota Vikings mock draft: 2022 NFL Draft projections and analysis

Year-over-year change

This look back at 1975 is important for two reasons.

First, that a team constructed like the 2022 Vikings can be elite; in terms of roster age and performance levels the 2022 Vikings’ team has many similarities to the 1975 version. Yes, several of the 2022 Vikings’ stars are past their prime; the critical solution is to have leadership that can identify what they can get out of the players. I think this is where Bud Grant added so much value: keep things disciplined and humbly focus on the task at hand.

Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell are saying things that fit the mold of this methodical, task-based approach – if they can turn that into action, there is potential to be unlocked.

The second reason requires the full context of that 1975 team, that is: how much change is realistic to expect from one season to the next? The 2021 Vikings had a PPG advantage of -0.1 , which is very middle-of-the-road. To be a good team they have to get to at least +6. Now scroll back up and look at the Total Advantage performance chart for the 1975 Vikings versus the 1974 Vikings. That jump from 1974 to 1975 was from +8.2 to +14.1, a net gain of +5.9, almost exactly what the 2022 Vikings need to be considered contenders.

That was with a core group of players who were 1) basically the same as 1974 and 2) many of whom were in the twilight of their careers. This also isn’t an outlier, 10 other Vikings teams have had improvements this large since 1975.

We won’t see 1,200 yards from Adam Thielen or a seven-interception season from Patrick Peterson, but the lesson from the 1975 team is that the Vikings don’t need that to be an elite team. What they do need is guys like Thielen, Peterson, Smith, and Kendricks to bring their vast amount of professional experience to the table so the guys in their prime – Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and Danielle Hunter – can carry the torch.  And they need the coaching staff to focus on what the players can still do versus what they used to be.

What happens next?

I have no idea, but looking back at the 1975 Vikings has made me very curious to find out.

If you enjoyed this piece, please consider hopping over to Purple Pain Forums and debating with other Minnesota Vikings fans about not only this topic, but so much more!