EAGAN, Minn. — The 2023 Vikings offseason plans centered on continuity, particularly on offense, but contingency became the word of the year.
Receivers Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn, left tackle Christian Darrisaw, left guard Ezra Cleveland, center Garrett Bradbury, right guard Ed Ingram, right tackle Brian O'Neill (he had recovered from a late-season Achilles injury), tight end T.J. Hockenson and quarterback Kirk Cousins were all back.
That's nine first-team players from the 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers) grouping that had helped the Vikings make the playoffs.
Minnesota projected to make up for the offseason departures of receiver Adam Thielen with rookie Jordan Addison and running back Dalvin Cook with returning veteran Alexander Mattison.
Head Coach Kevin O'Connell made preseason decisions to have the roster as healthy as possible for Week 1 of his second season at the helm.
But on the seventh offensive play, Bradbury, the first person to touch the football on each offensive snap, was injured.
Oh, the foreshadowing.
According to NFL Game Statistics & Information System, the grouping of Jefferson, Osborn, Addison, Darrisaw, Cleveland, Bradbury, Ingram, O'Neill, Hockenson, Mattison and Cousins was on the field together for nine plays.
For the entire season.
There were six pass plays and three rushes, generating three first downs and one touchdown.
One snap against Tampa Bay, and eight were against Kansas City, when Bradbury returned but Jefferson was lost for seven-plus games to a hamstring injury.
Austin Schlottmann filling in for Bradbury with the other 10 players resulted in the highest frequency combo of 2023 at 66 plays. Only two other combinations occurred more than 29 times in 2023.
35 plays: Joshua Dobbs, Mattison, Brandon Powell, Osborn, Addison, Hockenson, Darrisaw, Dalton Risner, Bradbury, Ingram, O'Neill
34 plays: Cousins, Mattison, Powell, Osborn, Addison, Hockenson, Darrisaw, Risner, Bradbury, Ingram, O'Neill
By contrast, six different combinations were used 68 or more times by the 2022 Vikings.
118 plays: Cousins, Cook, Thielen, Jefferson, Osborn, Irv Smith, Jr., Darrisaw, Cleveland, Bradbury, Ingram, O'Neill
105 plays: Cousins, Cook, Thielen, Jefferson, Osborn, Johnny Mundt, Darrisaw, Cleveland, Bradbury, Ingram, O'Neill
95 plays: Cousins, Cook, Thielen, Jefferson, Osborn, Hockenson, Darrisaw, Cleveland, Schlottmann, Ingram, O'Neill
88 plays: Cousins, Cook, Thielen, Jefferson, Osborn, Hockenson, Darrisaw, Blake Brandel, Bradbury, Ingram, O'Neill
71 plays: Cousins, Cook, Thielen, Jefferson, Osborn, Hockenson, Darrisaw, Cleveland, Bradbury, Ingram, O'Neill
68 plays: Cousins, Mattison, Thielen, Jefferson, Osborn, Smith, Darrisaw, Cleveland, Bradbury, Ingram, O'Neill
Sure, decisions to be multiple with personnel played a part in the low number of plays together. Minnesota uses two tight ends or fullback C.J. Ham to mix groupings. The Vikings also transitioned to Risner at left guard and traded Cleveland, who first left the lineup because of an injury in Week 6.
The shifting required on the offensive line, which wound up starting eight different starting combinations of five players (plus a couple more combos for a few reps in games), felt minor after Cousins suffered a season-ending injury in Week 8 at Green Bay, launching a quarterback carousel that spun the rest of the way.
All told, Minnesota used 22 different combinations of players more frequently than the previously mentioned first-team grouping in 11.
With such irregularity, how does O'Connell go about evaluating that group?
"It's funny cause even when you look back on sequences and certain parts of the year when you felt very strongly about what we're doing, that stretch there from San Francisco into our trip up to Lambeau Field and J.J. wasn't out there for that early on in the year where we were pretty effective moving the football, when we did have at least 10 of the original 11 out there that we thought we would have," O'Connell said Wednesday. "And then, the turnover thing caused us to hit some speed bumps there. So, I think it's a comprehensive look at what we've done [for] two years.
"I think our offense has grown," O'Connell continued. "We've found some tools and some things to help our best players thrive when we can have them out there as a full group. But ultimately, nobody's going to ever feel sorry for anybody in this league when you don't have a premier player at the receiver position or you're going to have eight, nine, whatever combinations of offensive linemen out there throughout the year.
"A guy like T.J. going down when he did [and] the type of season he was having. And then clearly the quarterback adversity that we did have," O'Connell added. Nobody's going to feel sorry for that. My job is to make sure we're consistently doing what we need to do week in and week out to win football games. And it was definitely a process for us this year, specifically for me. I'd like to think that all experience is good experience if you use it the right way, and that's what we've transitioned to now as we get into this offseason and start building the 2024 roster."
O'Connell and Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said during their joint end-of-season press conference there were several signs of the team trying to fight through adversity, but they also spoke about an importance they'll place on continuing to enhance the depth of the roster.
"What does that really look like from the standpoint of being able to sustain? What're we doing from a player development standpoint? How are we maximizing our time year-round with the guys on our roster?" O'Connell said. "That's something I feel very strongly about spearheading and making sure that we're constantly chasing improvement but understanding that it's OK for me to be constantly evolving and growing, and that's what makes this job what it is.
O'Connell brought up a lesson he learned in 2022 during his lunch discussions with Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach Bud Grant, the Vikings Ring of Honor member who died in March at age 95. It was fitting and supported by the visual of Adofo-Mensah wearing a hat that featured the "Bud" tribute patch.
"I'll never forget Coach Grant talking to me about that as the evolving, and the learning, and the growing he was doing after all the success he had had in his career, down to his very last opportunity to be head coach in this league, and that always stuck with me," O'Connell said. "I think that's what the opportunity to become a head coach — you better be willing to constantly have that mindset and that's something I feel very strongly about."
Adofo-Mensah was asked to weigh-in where he believes the team is in its "competitive rebuild," a phrase he and O'Connell introduced nearly two years ago before the team went 13-4 and won the NFC North.
Minnesota finished 2023 at 7-10, stumbling out of the gate with fumbles and suffering interceptions in the second half of the season. The Vikings are 17-0 when the turnover battle is even or in their favor.
"I think we've regained some of our financial flexibility," Adofo-Mensah said. "We have competed to be in the tournament last year as the division champions and this year, through adversity, had a lot of meaningful games late, and there's some things we need to be better at, no question.
"You want to get to a point from a depth, from a top-end standpoint, where you can overcome the adversity we have, so right now, in the competitive rebuild, we want to get to a place where there's no rebuild, right? It's just competitive in a window, and I think we're close to that," Adofo-Mensah added. "It's going to take a big offseason. It's why we're going to be here a lot … and I'm excited for the challenge."