The Enemy of Great

A line coined by Jim Collins in his famous book titled “Good to Great.” In the book, Collins lays out the harsh reality that it is in fact, good that is the enemy of great. The comfort of being good can be a source of complacency for businesses, relationships, or even football teams, ultimately preventing achieving something great. Several studies indicate people place a greater priority on minimizing pain over seeking out pleasure. These facts spell out the issues presenting themselves with the 2023 Minnesota Vikings.

What Happened?
The Vikings started Sunday morning as 5.5-point favorites over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the Vikings outgained the Buccaneers in first downs and total yardage, the Vikings lost to the Buccaneers 17-20. It is primarily a result of a three-turnover game from the Vikings offense, two of which being fumbles inexplicably caused by second-year guard Ed Ingram and one interception stripped from a potential KJ Osborn touchdown grab. The Vikings seem to be on the losing end of a game they almost always seemed to be on the other end of last season. It is not a surprise that the football gods do not see the Vikings as anything special. Perhaps the near divinity of last season was the result of random chance, coming to a more realistic result in 2023. Being 11-0 in one-score games last season is something Vikings fans were well aware of coming into the season. Whether it be the lucky bounces, last-minute heroics or game-ending mistakes by the opposition, it seemed like everything went the way of the Vikings. Games such as today are examples of the importance of not leaving things up to chance. To summarize, the Vikings lost today in a way they almost always won last season.

History Contradicting Itself
Now seems a time as appropriate as ever to revisit the 13-4 Minnesota Vikings last season. This is more likely than not a point you have heard before but being the first ever 13-4 season to have a negative point differential tends to rear its ugly head at the worst moments. That moment came in the Vikings first home playoff game in five years with an abysmal loss to the wildcard Giants. During the off-season, many were speculating on the direction of the 2023 Minnesota Vikings. While there were several changes made to both sides of the football, the Vikings still made what seemed like a half-hearted effort to compete for a playoff spot. Whether it be through restructures, extensions or coaching changes the Vikings went into the 2023 season with a division title in mind. While that may not necessarily be a bad decision, it is a questionable one. The Vikings are clearly a step down from the top tier of NFC teams with a weak case to even be a tier two team. The Eagles, 49ers and Cowboys all have serious cases to compete for a superbowl. With the combination of a stellar defense, numerous weapons and a plethora of superstar talent. These teams can realistically pawn off future assets in pursuit of capitalizing on a superbowl window. For reference, the Eagles finished the 2022 NFL season with a point differential of +133. 49ers finished with +173. Cowboys finished with +125. Vikings finished with a point differential of -3. This clear drop off in talent spells out the fact that the Vikings have no business treating themselves as the contenders they may think they are.

The Obligatory Kirk Cousins Conversation
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Vikings timeline this season has to do with the empty roster spot at quarterback next season. Kirk Cousins is currently in the final year of his contract with no official plans for him to sign an extension during the 2023 season. With Cousins’ future in purple uncertain, all signs point to a potential first round pick set to start for the Vikings next season as their future quarterback. With strong performances several notable college programs displayed under center, expect next year’s quarterback draft class to be full of talent. The question remains however, are the Vikings in a position to take a quarterback? While Minnesota is expected to face a tougher schedule this season, the combination of receiver and tackle talent when combined with the seven-win floor of Kirk Cousins puts the Vikings out of Caleb Williams and Drake Maye contention. While the top tier draft prospects may be out of reach, the second tier of quarterback prospects is quickly gaining steam with standout performances from Colorado’s Sheduer Sanders and Texas’ Quinn Ewers. Is it possible Minnesota would be willing to trade up or could one fall to the Vikings standard mid 20s draft pick they appear to consistently reside in annually.

The Vikings have many questions to answer not only in-season but long term. Are the Vikings willing to meaningfully take one step back in order to seriously move several steps forward? To some teams the risk lies in the uncertainty. Is this a risk the Vikings coaching staff and front office are willing to take? Working in coaching is one of the most volatile job positions in the world. Only celebrity marriages can rival the alarmingly short tenures of NFL coaches. The average NFL coaching tenure is a mere 3.2 years. Perhaps Kevin O’Connell would rather work with known talent than take the risk of a non-Kirk quarterback. After all, Kirk Cousins is one of the most remarkably consistent quarterbacks in terms of winning percentage. Cousins is 74-66-2 as a starter. While consistency may not mean always winning, it does mean always not losing for any significant period of time. The gravitational pull towards .500 football keeps jobs safe and fans happy. Week one of the 2023 season is proof that Kirk remains the same. But this issue goes deeper than just the quarterback.

It’s Not You, It’s Kwesi
Minnesota has recently developed a new phobia shared by many. The fear of commitment. Minnesota has a mere 36 players under contract in the 2024 season, largely players under rookie contracts. The Vikings have displayed a lack of desire to dish out long term contracts. A few notable gaps include edge rusher, cornerback, interior offensive line and running back. This team, while full of talent, appears to be ill-prepared for the future without the talent they need at key positions. A refusal to commit to Danielle Hunter this off-season is a further testament to this fact. Signing Marcus Davenport to a one year deal, failing to extend Justin Jefferson are all revealing cracks in this team’s foundation. And yet, they refuse to lose. The Vikings refuse to lose in any meaningful way that puts them in the top drafting position next season. More likely than not, the Vikings will end the season with eight to ten wins, picking in the mid 20s and facing more questions than answers as they tend to do this song and dance annually at this point.

Bringing Data to a Swordfight
Eric Eager (formerly of PFF now of Sumer Sports) uses numbers to spell this out. By analyzing the difficulty teams have in transitioning between the four categories of poor, below average, above average and elite by viewing their PFF ELO rating system. Essentially asking the question, is it harder for a good team or bad team to become elite? Eager concluded his research with this statement. “The spoils of being an above-average team are not that high after you adjust for its transience, as you’re more likely to be classified as “poor” in one season (and equally likely in two seasons) than you are to be classified as elite… Thus, the actionable item here is that many of the instruments that teams are using this time of year to maintain an above-average level of competence — restructuring contracts, void years, mid-level free agents, etc. — are very likely in vain and are underestimating the likelihood that a complete rebuild will work while overestimating their chances of staying above-average or better. “ A data backed paraphrasing of the quote that got us here in the first place.

Good is the enemy of great. Are the Vikings willing to move on from just being good? Are the Vikings willing to take the risk of experiencing pain for the sake of finding pleasure? Are the Vikings able to overcome their innate nature of mitigating risk? Only time will tell. For all things Vikings and more keep it right here on NFCNorthReport.

Check out the rest of Eric Eager’s article below
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