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Welcome back from Monday Morning Mailbag's one-week hiatus for vacation.
Hope everyone had a safe and happy Fourth of July. The windshield miles were worth the opportunity to see faraway family and friends.
We are still in the quiet part of the NFL calendar, but this week will feature the Netflix launch of the Quarterback series that will offer an in-depth look at the position as played last season by Kirk Cousins, Patrick Mahomes and Marcus Mariota.
It's wild, but we're only two weeks away from the first players reporting to 2023 Vikings Training Camp presented by Omni Viking Lakes Hotel.
In the meantime, I did want to pose a couple of questions …
Question: How do you welcome football back (Is there anything you look forward to every year/a point on the calendar where you say, 'Yep, it's time.')?
Question: Do you have any game-day rituals or superstitions you'd like to share?
I look forward to seeing your answers.
We'll start today's Mailbag with some interesting thoughts about the trajectory of the 2023 Vikings.
1. I believe that once again, the pundits (and probably a lot of our fans) are underestimating how the Vikings will do this year. Of course, things like injuries can mess up the predictions (if Jalen Hurts was not available last year for the playoffs, would the Eagles have gotten to the Super Bowl?). But I think the Vikings will win at least 12 games this upcoming season. Their offense, despite some departures, still has really good talent, and in my opinion, will not take a dive at all. It might even be better.
2. For several reasons, starting with the hiring of [Brian] Flores, the defense will be significantly better (especially if [Danielle] Hunter is still a Viking, and I suspect he will be). Flores turned around the Dolphins defense, and (as far as I know) the management was brain dead to let him go. An article on the Vikings site noted that it will be key, perhaps, that several new cornerbacks will have to perform. Good coaching is probably the key for that, and I think we'll find it. And while the narrow margins of victories last year irritated a lot of fans, I just say, "Welcome to the modern NFL."
3. Yes, we play teams constituting a strong schedule. That's what happens when you're good. I still remember Chuck Noll, early in his Steelers coaching, answering a press release that said (and it was correct) that the Steelers had the toughest schedule in the league. He said, "No, we don't have to play the Steelers."
— Brad Lewis in Schenectady, New York
Whenever I'm asked about the team's prospects at this point in the year, I usually mention whether or not I think 10 wins is realistically possible. Spoiler alert: I do. If a team can get to 10, it has a shot at winning 12-plus, but I kind of set my benchmark at 10 because that's often the fall line of making the playoffs or not. I kind of set up that parameter when the NFL still played a 16-game schedule. In the two seasons of playing a 17-game schedule, 10 wins has also been enough to go dancing, but four games over .500 in football sounds a lot better than three.
Brad's thoughts in items 1 and 2 help explain why I believe 10 wins can be a reality instead of false optimism, particularly with regard to the offense taking another step forward in its second season.
Injuries can pull the rug out from teams with the loftiest goals; teams can be proactive with several approaches to try to reduce injuries, but they are not completely avoidable.
As for the defense, there were numerous positive influences Flores seemed to have on the Dolphins defense, and the 2023 Vikings seemed to have quite a bit of intensity and purpose during the offseason program.
If conversations about the current team's outlook last for a few minutes, I usually say there's a bit of the unknown for the defense because of the youth movement at cornerback and the loss of some experienced veterans at multiple spots on defense.
Sure, the offense lost a couple of key veterans in Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook who had long-proven results, but the volume of targets to Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson (and K.J. Osborn) late in the 2022 season sets a foundation for 2023.
Even if some young defensive players weren't taking the brunt of the snaps in those close games last season, they were around the program for the preparation that helped yield 11 favorable outcomes (wins) in games decided by one score. The Vikings also used free agency to add multiple veterans who have proven their mettle elsewhere, so it will be about how the defense can effectively implement what Flores thinks will be best.
I personally like Coach Noll's response to that mindset. His teams backed it up with an impressive dynasty run — four Super Bowl victories in his first 11 seasons — that still resonates with the Steelers identity.
I have been a lifelong Vikings fan, but I must admit I am confused by the Vikings offseason moves and the moves in the draft. The number one [area] to be improved was the defense, and with [Za'Darius] Smith's departure and Hunter's potential departure, it looks like our defense is getting weaker vs. stronger. Maybe there is something I don't know here. Also, sad to see Dalvin Cook go.
— Jay Potter in Sylvania, Ohio
Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell didn't take lightly making a change at defensive coordinator and to the system this early into his tenure, but he did recognize changes were necessary, so he brought in Flores.
Smith didn't want to be a Viking/continue playing out the three-year contract he signed in 2022, so there's not a lot the Vikings could do, except try to add a couple of future picks and trim cap to help the long-term options for the team.
I touched on veteran additions to the defense in the previous response, but just to go a bit deeper, cornerback Byron Murphy, Jr., edge rusher Marcus Davenport, defensive lineman Dean Lowry and linebacker Troy Reeder all add solid experience from their previous teams to the group, so we'll start to see more and more about how each could help boost the 2023 Vikings defense from the 2022 group.
Jordan Addison and Mekhi Blackmon — I watched every game at USC that these two young men played. (SKOL MEN OF TROY). They come from a program that gets them ready for the next level. These two are ready to contribute right away. Both humble, and exciting players. Vikings got a steal with both these guys. Thoughts?
— John Heil
You have probably seen more game action for Addison and Blackmon than many Vikings fans.
I often remind people here in this space that I'm not a trained scout, but I do like the game film I've watched.
O'Connell and General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah guided Twin Cities media members through a film study session of what they liked about the players selected this year, including Addison (drafted at No. 23 overall) and Blackmon (No. 102) with their first two selections.
While there will be (and probably should be) high expectations for first-round picks, the Vikings seemed elated that Addison was on the board when they went on the clock (and that's through a lens that appears to emphasize the value obtained in correspondence with position of each pick). Similar sentiments are true for Blackmon being available to close out the third round after the Vikings traded down.
I have been a Vikings fan since, gosh knows how long. Although, I was raised in Edina and went to see Bill Brown in Metropolitan Stadium, blankets and hot cocoa in a thermos, I got hooked when the Vikings drafted Chuck Foreman from Miami. I watched Len Dawson and Otis Taylor deflate our world. Then Larry Csonka run all over us, with Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris. Then, it was Franco Harris (God rest his soul), then Kenny Stabler, Clarence [Davis], Fred Biletnikoff schooling us. Let's not talk about the Drew Pearson push off. To this day, I thought it was a flag thrown, not an orange. Sigh.
Anyways, my point to these "so-called" Viking fans that chime in about commitment the team and front office should show to these icons (Thielen, Kendricks, Cook) is this: they were great players, they "were" great players. They got paid for said service. But the page had turned. Do we want a future, or do we want a memory of the past?
So my question is this. What happens when you go to an aging player, show your admiration for them, but have a frank conversation that their play is not worth the investment. The player says, I deserve my current contract, the front office disagrees. They did Thielen and Kendricks a solid. They let them both go in the height of free agency.
But remember this, all three wanted their money, all three did not value the Vikings over the money, All three are and will make less money to play elsewhere. No way I am taking a pay cut, they say, UNLESS it is not in Minnesota. Allegiance? Let's have an earnest conversation.
— Mark from South Carolina
The end of the second paragraph from Mark here really made me think that Vikings fans can have both, great (and sad — his opening paragraph sums those up for fans of a certain era) memories while also being excited about the future.
The Vikings owners have celebrated the accomplishments of those who helped build the franchise, including by constructing the Minnesota Vikings Museum — which opened five years ago! — to top-notch treatment of Vikings Legends, and they've also invested in trying to create the best future for the franchise.
It's been awesome for fans to be able to cheer for Thielen, Kendricks and Cook for so long in Purple.
As important as loyalty — a multi-way street — is in football, business, and relationships in general, it's also critical for decision makers to avoid it from clouding judgement or placing too many limitations on what a team can do in trying to build the best, most complete roster.
Since I was not privy to any of the conversations between management or any player who departed this offseason, it's best that I not to speculate and contract talks (willingness to take a pay cut, etc.).
If the Vikings lose Hunter, say goodbye, turn out the light, the party's over.
— Bob in Anaheim, California
Original Monday Night Football commentator and former Cowboys quarterback used to croon "Turn out the lights, the party's over," when those prime-time games got lopsided. His wit helped keep the audience entertained at a time when there were very few other options for programs to watch.
If Hunter winds up departing or not playing while still under contract, it won't be as entertaining for Vikings fans. I do know, however, that the current team won't consider games over before they start.
Again, the Vikings have said they want to be solution-oriented when it comes to the edge rusher and one of those qualifying scenarios would be keeping him in Purple with an extension.
The Rams have a good history of being one of the healthier teams in the league. We brought some of their training staff with us. A big question mark for us is the health of our players in the upcoming season. Do you see anything that makes you think we will have a healthy season for the most part?
— Gerald Goblirsch
It's just too hard to forecast something like this because injuries are an inevitable part of sports, particularly in a contact sport like football.
O'Connell and the Vikings Health and Performance staff place premiums on trying to enable players to be at their very best.
There's continued emphasis on nutrition and body preparation, to monitoring usage of players at practices and mixing in some lighter days between the upcoming all-in days at camp, to recurring recovery efforts, to full-on rehabilitation from severe injuries.
Strategic plans are customized with the benefit of sports science. Players and coaches have spoken well repeatedly of the Vikings Health and Performance staff, which includes some former Rams employees hired after O'Connell took over, as well as multiple staff members who were here prior to his arrival.
The group implements a comprehensive plan and works well together.
There's no guarantee that injuries can be completely prevented, but it seems like a considerable amount of professional experience is collaborating on limiting injuries and reducing their long-term impact.