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Monday Morning Mailbag: Reactions to Vikings 'Abrupt' Ending, Reflections on Season

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"Abrupt" summed up the quickness with which Minnesota's season ended Sunday with a 31-24 loss to the New York Giants in the Wild Card Round of the NFC Playoffs.

Hollowing is the prevailing effect, and it probably will be for coaches, players, staff and fans for some time. Here's how Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell opened his postgame press conference.

"Tough to come in and talk to your team when we didn't get it done tonight," O'Connell said. "I told them how proud I am of the way they battled and responded all year long to what we asked of them as coaches. It's one of the closest-connected groups in the entire NFL. There's some real tears in there. There were guys that expected to really have a chance to win a world championship.

"You've got to give the Giants a lot of credit," O'Connell added. "We just didn't do enough in the end to win the football game. We'll have to take a long, hard look at every aspect of what we do to make sure we give ourselves the ability to continue to strive to compete at a championship level. That's what we'll begin working on immediately."

Once the raw emotions fade and allow for more reflection, we'll look back on a team that was incredibly fun to follow. It made some amazing memories for all of you and us on our journey with this team and showed some things that Vikings can be excited about for years to come after spending this time a year ago following news updates and tracking the organizational decisions that eventually led to the hiring of General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell.

View game action photos from the Vikings-Giants Wild Card game at U.S. Bank Stadium on Jan. 15, 2023.

Lastly, please accept a broad thank you to fans who have taken the time to write. This was my first full season of handling the Vikings Mailbag. I've tried to include multiple perspectives, even if I didn't always agree 100 percent because I believe in dialogue and feel it's important to try to reflect fan sentiment in this space as best as I can.

We've had regulars and some first-timers send in messages, and they've all been appreciated for the passion that Vikings fans show.

We'll keep doing the Mailbag throughout the offseason, so I look forward to future messages.

On to the questions (as a reminder, we'll update with more Monday).

What a wild ride this season was. Justin Jefferson is amazing. The whole team playing at an improved level and achieving vastly improved results compared to last year, although I wish our defense could have been better. The Buffalo game, the comeback against the Colts, a 61-yard FG for a win, Division Champs, simply amazing! Below are my 3 Ups and 3 Downs for the 2022 season:

UPS:

1. The new team leadership of Adofo-Mensah as GM and O'Connell as head coach was a huge success as our 13-4 record indicates. KOC has shown himself to be an excellent leader and head coach this season. Certainly not perfect; and there are areas of his coaching and play calling that are ripe for improvement, but a successful rookie head coach performance for sure. I hope KOC can improve his game planning and game calling and game management for next year — these types of improvements would help to eliminate the blow out losses we suffered like Philly, Dallas and the Packers.

2. Clutch plays on offense and defense when games were on the line. This is what led directly to winning 11 one-score games. Most impressive. The whole thing was the polar opposite of last season when we couldn't make a clutch play to win a game or seal a game for virtually the entire 2021 season.

3. Our punter is really good. He is consistent and accurate, long when needed. A major upgrade from last year that directly helped us win games this year.

DOWNS:

1. Our short-yardage running game is unreliable and inconsistent. Time and again on third or fourth down and 1 yard to go we were unsuccessful. On the goal line, like at Buffalo, or in other situations to keep drives alive, we couldn't make the line to gain. This has to be an identified point of improvement for next season.

2. Our defense is not so good — at the bottom of the league in stats. We gave up too many points and too many yards on the ground and in the air. Many times we gave up long and sustained scoring drives and just couldn't get off the field — the Giants playoff game to wit. The horrible stats alone demand a deep dive and detailed assessment of the defensive coaching staff and the schemes they used. We must get better next year overall in order to successfully defend our division title.

3. Our kickoff coverage team was weak and inconsistent all season. Gave up a TD return to the Packers and had way, way too many long returns in the 40-plus and higher range; at least one time we gave up two or more 40-plus yard kickoff returns in the same game. They must get this fixed for next year.

Overall, a fun season for me as a fan. Looking forward to next season already.

Respectfully, Jeff L.

I have Jeff kicking off this week for the blend of some positives and definite areas the team needs to address going forward.

Think back to this time a year ago, when the team was interviewing for both a GM and head coach. That's as blank slate of a start in football leadership an NFL team has. They collaborated and worked to evaluate the roster they'd have returning and then on how to strategically add to it through free agency and the draft.

There were multiple moments on and off the field that were enriched by those free-agent additions. The draft class ultimately experienced injuries that ended the seasons of Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth, Jr., and Akayleb Evans. That's some bad luck in general, but the health and performance staff is working to return those players and have them on track to develop more this offseason. Ryan Wright was undrafted but became quite the find at punter.

The Vikings played cleanly more times than not and rose to make plays at critical junctures. Minnesota was just not able to get stops against New York, either through tackles or turnovers, on Sunday. The Giants quickly answered the Vikings opening score and added another in a blink.

Third-and-short/fourth-and-short seemed to be problematic for the Vikings offense at multiple times, and Sunday, the defense gave up explosive plays and allowed a 20-play drive that lasted 10:52 of the second quarter.

I've been a Vikings fan since I was 5 years old. Everyone was either Dallas fans or [Washington] fans. All but my one uncle: I decided to follow him.

It's been such an up-and-down love, to be honest. Kirk Cousins doesn't get the credit he deserves. I honestly feel like our defense had played so soft all year. Sure, we don't give up long plays, but all of the dink and dunks have been our Achilles heel all year long!

I'm just a diehard fan hopeful to one day see my Vikings in the Super Bowl! I will say if [Defensive Coordinator Ed] Donatell was to be gone, I wouldn't be upset! Please help me have some faith for next year!!

— Jason (longtime Vikings fan from Mississippi)

Appreciate the longtime support, and I think there's a certain honor in being nonconformist with one's fan allegiances if one chooses to buck the trend of others in one's social circle.

Cousins played well (31-of-39 passing for 273 yards with two touchdown passes, a passer rating of 112.9 and a rushing score), but the finality of Minnesota's last possession will be one that hangs on him for a while.

He lamented not leading K.J. Osborn a little more on the third-and-8 play that preceded a throw to T.J. Hockenson that was shy of the sticks. Windows are tight in the NFL.

All in all, though, for Cousins to have been in yet another new offense in Minnesota and one that demands much of a QB at the line of scrimmage, I think there's probably a good bit to build on there next season.

I can't remember exactly when it was — it may have been the Patriots game on Thanksgiving — when I started to worry a bit more about the explosives teams were hitting on a defense designed not to give up big plays. More explosives followed as the Vikings played so many late-season games indoors with perfect throwing conditions for opponents.

O'Connell said everything will be evaluated this offseason. He was asked directly about Donatell and said the following:

"I think Ed (Donatell) tried to do the best he could this year across the board, installing the defense and the scheme that we had kind of manifested together and hoped that it would come to life. He worked his absolute tail off, and his commitment to trying to make some adjustments and improve was there each and every week all season long. I'm going to look at every aspect, special teams, offense, defense, personnel, with Kwesi, all across the board how we can improve schematically. All those things are for really a different time and different conversations once we've had a chance to kind of collect ourselves and evaluate what took place this year."

I'm disappointed as I suppose most Vikings fans are, but we should take some time to appreciate this season. My reasons are the following:

1. This group of players and coaches, and the new front office, was quite a band of overachievers. Remember the preseason predictions in the [Star Tribune] and other places? Perhaps a couple of the pundits thought we might sneak into a playoff spot but most saw a repeat of 8-9, or perhaps 9-8, as about the top. Any team that can have 13 wins, and in a season against the two divisions (AFC and NFC other than ours) that clearly were the best in football, has accomplished quite a lot.

2. Our defense typically had to have turnovers to contribute to a strong offense. We didn't have that this afternoon, though we had three sacks.

3. The front office made some really good moves to help the season win total, with perhaps acquiring Hockenson being the most important — with spectacular results. I know we have cap problems next year, but I'm confident that our front office will find ways to shore up the defense.

4. And some of the work of improving the defense has already been going on; this group of coaches, in my opinion, is quite good at developing players during the season.

5. We have a head coach who improved the results greatly after two years of losing records.

6. I might add that Daniel Jones will find, not this early, but if he continues to do a lot of running, that very few NFL quarterbacks can stay healthy for long if they insist on being a major part of the running game.

I'm looking forward to next season!

Thanks for your column,

— Brad in Schenectady, New York

View pregame photos of the Vikings ahead of the Wild Card matchup vs. the Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium.

I think the question most of us would have had if told in August the Vikings would go 13-4 against one of the tougher crossover schedules (AFC East and NFC East combined for five playoff teams) and win the NFC North would have been, "HOW in the heck?"

But they did those things by winning close situations in the multitude of their games. The Giants were really good at that, too, going 8-4-1 in the regular season.

Forcing turnovers was so important to the overall success of the team, and to New York's credit, the Giants did not commit any after losing the football twice back in December.

I like Brad's point four because that can be a bit overlooked at this level of football, but continuing to develop players is paramount.

All teams with running quarterbacks seem to try to evaluate just how many hits they put on their player at the sport's most important position. Jones played hard and kept the ball on some options and other designed runs. His success in the first half seemed to put Minnesota's defense a bit out of whack.

I am so disappointed, not THAT we lost, but how we did it, how we mis-executed our last two drives. This is unforgivable! Seriously, we have that many offensive weapons and end a game with a 3-yard-pass on fourth-and-long? After these last couple of play-calls and execution disaster some people should overthink if they are at the right place yet. This game showed perfectly, that without a good portion of luck we have no chance to win crucial games. There is plenty of improvement necessary in the offseason. PLENTY.

— Wolfie in Germany

After scoring a touchdown and field goal on its first two possessions of the second half, Minnesota's offense lost a yard in three plays before punting and then was halted near midfield on its final drive.

Those are bad results when down by a touchdown.

Part of the problem, however, is that the Vikings only had eight possessions for the entire game and lost time of possession 33:36 to 26:24.

So Minnesota scored three touchdowns and a field goal out of its eight possessions — all of which began at or inside the 25-yard line.

Some of that was self-inflicted by the offense. Minnesota ran a throwback pass on third-and-1 that lost 2 and forced a punt on its second possession of the game. That was followed by a quick touchdown by the Giants thanks to passes of 47, 4 and 14, along with a 16-yard run.

Cousins said he made the throw to Hockenson under the coverage because he was worried about getting sacked, but the initial intent of O'Connell's call was to get the ball to a deeper target.

I think it's also probably a reason for disappointment with the way the Vikings allowed a 12-play drive to go for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Giants converted three second-and-10s on that possession.

Disappointed to see the season come to an end, but I think I'm more concerned with what the future holds in terms of negotiating a contract extension with Justin Jefferson after yet another game where outside of the opening drive he seemed to be a complete after thought in the offense. I understand teams game plan to stop him and that opens things up for his teammates, but all of the games he seems unable to affect statistically also feel like they have a larger theme of a big drop off in targets and not even being given a chance to help the team. Add in an earlier than expected exit from his first postseason, and I don't think many people would blame him for being curious about playing somewhere else than Minnesota. How quickly do you think the Vikings will try to extend Jefferson and at what point would you begin to get worried if that hasn't happened?

Skol,

— Todd J. in Mt. Vernon, Iowa

Jefferson had five catches for 37 yards on five targets in the first quarter. He finished with seven receptions for 47 yards with a long of 10 on nine targets.

The game splits from the fourth quarter were incredibly perplexing.

Minnesota rushed zero times.

Cousins completed nine of 12 passes during the period, but Minnesota netted 32 yards. (Hockenson caught five for 33; Cook netted a loss of 1 on four catches).

Everyone in the world knew Matthew Stafford was going to throw the ball to Cooper Kupp late in Super Bowl LVI, and they connected four times for 39 yards, including the winning touchdown, on four targets.

I think the Vikings will spend some time analyzing what defenses did to get Cousins to progress in a different place from Jefferson and see if they can thwart that in the future, either by designing a counter method to Jefferson or capitalizing better at other parts of the field.

As far as long-term negotiations, that's above my pay grade, but Jefferson has been a great citizen and teammate here, and he's shattered some impressive records while working with O'Connell and Cousins (and teammates).

There's a lot of dominoes that teams must line up every offseason and a strategic approach to executing all contracts, including those set to expire quicker than Jefferson's. As a first-round pick, Jefferson is eligible to have Minnesota exercise a fifth-year option.

Jefferson's burning desire is to be the best. That's the same for him by O'Connell and Cousins and teammates, as well.

View images from the Vikings locker room at TCO Performance Center on Monday as players cleaned out their lockers at the end of the 2022-23 season.

Thank you, Vikings players, for giving us, the fans, a regular season with many thrillers many of us did not expect to see.

I for one, did not see the Vikings clinching the NFC North and making a playoffs appearance.

Many games came down to the wire, from forcing fumble against Chicago in the last minute, to the comeback against the Colts. Those were exciting to watch, and seeing the sports media coverage of the team was enjoyable.

Games were fun to watch until … well, the playoffs game against the Giants.

First off, how come the refs did not see and call the false start on the Giants O-Line on their first or second TD? Astronauts from the International Space Station saw that. That moment kind of took the momentum away from the defense and the team.

Second, speaking of the defense, why is Donatell was hesitant on blitzing the defense? Blitzing clearly paid off when that happened during this game and previous games. Will the Vikings management and KOC look into bringing a new DC to the team in the offseason?

Third, congrats to the Giants. Clearly they were the better team and deserved to advance to the next round.

Once again, thank you Vikings and Vikings Nation for this season!

Enjoy the offseason and see everyone next year.

— Rakan

The thrillers were really incredible.

As for the false start, I didn't notice one on the first touchdown (Barkley run). I did see defenders get out-blocked on the play after the snap, leading to a seam that Barkley hit smoothly.

On the second touchdown, that did seem obvious on Andrew Thomas, who was executing his kick-step and upright as the ball was snapped. Za'Darius Smith stopped his rush on the play and looked at the officials, expecting the flag. What made it worse was that officials flagged Vikings left tackle for a flinch on fourth-and-1. That 5-yard penalty negated what looked like would have been a successful sneak, and Minnesota settled for the field goal to tie the game at 24 instead of trying to reclaim its first lead since the fourth quarter.

The Giants definitely deserve credit for playing well; the Vikings just will know that some things were left on the table in this one.

It's always disappointing when the season comes to an end, but as has been said before, it's important to keep our eye on the big picture. We're in our first season with a rookie GM, a rookie head coach, and an entire new coaching staff. We won the NFC North, and we were the No. 3 seed in the postseason. I doubt anyone expected that back in September. That's pretty impressive, and our future looks bright.

A couple thoughts for next season:

The defense needs a fundamental change in scheme. Our defense this season simply didn't get it done. Ed Donatell needs to get on board with that, or we need to go a different direction.

On offense, our weak link continues to be the O-line. Specifically, Ed Ingram at RG was clearly a liability. Since he's a rookie, I can cut him a little slack, but he needs to figure it out pretty quickly, or else we'll need a change there, too.

On special teams, Greg Joseph needs to be more consistent. He had some great kicks this season, but also missed a number of XPs and short FGs. That needs to change.

Looking forward to next season and beyond. SKOL!

— Joe from Des Moines, Iowa

There was a scramble by Jones on New York's 20-play, 10:52 drive on which Danielle Hunter had dropped far down the field into coverage on Barkley. That left Jones an opportunity to escape the pocket and scramble for a gain of 8 on third-and-2. We've seen Hunter impact the game a lot more over the years when he's going after quarterbacks and setting edges than dropping into coverage on running backs.

It seems like the Giants learned a lot about how they wanted to attack the Vikings in the December matchup.

Ingram was the only offensive player to play every snap for the Vikings in 2022. Linemen take time to develop, but there were definitely some plays where New York attacked the rookie.

Joseph finished 40-of-46 on extra points (87.0 percent), which was a little lower than his 90-percent clip (36 of 40) last season. He actually was improved on field goals under 50 yards in 2022, connecting on 22 of 23 field goals a season after going 26-for-29. His percentage took a hit on 50-plus, going 4-for-10 a season after he went 7-for-9.

Before the Giants scored their go-ahead TD, it seemed to me that their receiver was out of bounds with his right foot. Why didn't we challenge the call? Strange non-move.

Bleeding purple, cheers,

— Nicholas Balkou

This is in reference to Isaiah Hodgins' 19-yard reception on second-and-10. Seeing it live from the press box, I thought it was going to be called out of bounds.

O'Connell had a much better view of the play from Minnesota's sideline. An in-stadium replay confirmed Hodgins got both feet in bounds with the ball.

He also needed to save timeouts and couldn't afford losing a challenge at that point in the game, but I think he probably saw it cleanly live.

It was one of three second-and-10s the Giants got with ease on that drive.

I continue to shake my head. Much of the season, our DBs lined up 6-8 yards off the line of scrimmage. There are zero jams happening, which was giving WRs free releases. It didn't matter if it was first-and-10 or third-and-5. The defensive schemes never changed from game to game all season. Harrison Smith was always 15 yards deep, and we never used our safety in anything. Hunter's rushing talent was completely wasted.

This was a wasted year, with great talent. However, this team didn't deserve to make it any further than they did.

— Joe Henderson

I'm not going to call 13 wins for the third time in franchise history a complete waste. Only one team is going to win it all, and the Vikings weren't able to do that despite the number of victories they did string together.

You bring up some good points that the Vikings need to be more disruptive in the pass game, whether that's defensive backs at the line of scrimmage, the ability to take the air out of zones or just getting home on pass rushes or blitzing more. There were way too many teams that put up big passing numbers against the Vikings.

There were some plays where Harrison Smith was at the line of scrimmage against New York, including on a blitz that didn't work, but there definitely times when he was far removed from the action this season.

View behind-the-scene photos of Vikings Legend, John Randle's pregame hype video ahead of Super Wild Card weekend.

I would like to thank the entire Vikings organization for the exciting year they gave us. While we would have liked for the season to continue, it didn't happen.

Kevin O'Connell did an outstanding job in his first year. I feel they played as a team and should hold their heads high.

I will not make the trite statement "wait until next year"… just enjoy what we had.

Again, my thanks.

— Earleen in Las Vegas, Nevada

The team made a foray into rare air, but still has a couple of more layers of atmosphere to reach. Appreciate you tuning in and appreciated what the team did accomplish in spite of the recent disappointment.

I am a fan of the Vikings from Grand Forks, ND. I have been a fan since I was about 8 or 9 years old. My question/comment is: are the Vikings planning on adding more defensive power next year? It was very evident yesterday that our pass rush and coverage needs a big boost.

— Sherrie Schaefer from Grand Forks, North Dakota

Just statistically speaking, that's the area of the team that needs the most collective improvement. That could be addressed in a combination of approaches, including the addition of players through free agency (often expensive) or the draft (sometimes with a delayed return).

The pass rush and coverage can go hand-in-hand for really strong teams, or a strength in one of the two aspects can help the other. The Giants were able to rush with four players multiple times and drop seven into coverages.

Minnesota struggled to rush Jones and lost contain too many times on him. He also had numerous successes in the passing game.

I don't understand why Kirk Cousins always stays in the pocket. Why doesn't he run if no one is open. Also why wasn't our defense covering the Giants better? I feel bad for the players who were double and tripled for most of the game.

I have been a fan since 1972. I am a diehard fan and will continue to cheer you all on. I worked for this team when I was going to school in Mankato. I love this franchise and all of the work the players do.

— Cindy R. Malm

Cousins has excelled over the years at running bootlegs and has been able to deliver footballs with accuracy when going to his left or right.

One of the 20-something times I've replayed the final four plays in my head, I was wondering if it was ever considered to have a play on which the pocket moved. That maybe could have slowed down New York's rush at a time when the game situations made it likely that Minnesota was going to throw.

The Vikings could have snuck in a run on the second-and-10 just before the 2-minute warning because a clock stoppage would have followed, but they probably thought they'd get more than 2 yards on the play that resulted in a checkdown to Cook.

We saw Cousins scramble for some first downs over the course of the season, but that's not his best strength.

The defense just couldn't string together a few plays to generate momentum. A positive play for the group would quickly be followed by a negative play, and negative plays occurred right out of the gate.

Greetings!

Observation which turns into a quick question:

Was it just me that noticed there was ZERO coverage of Barkley? Would love to understand the thought process behind seeing him wide open most of the game.

— Karen (not one of THOSE) in Minneapolis

Barkley totaled 56 yards on five catches and burned Minnesota for a gain of 24. I think the credit on that particular play goes to a design by the Giants. They routed the running back behind the line after the snap as their tight end made legal contact (within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage) with Eric Kendricks. This moved Kendricks a couple of steps in the opposite direction of Barkley's path and enabled the gain to be longer.

Another critical catch occurred on a second-and-10 in the fourth quarter during New York's final go-ahead drive.

Barkley lined up in somewhat of a wing position and ran an out pattern to follow blocks by two receivers to his right.

It seemed like a miscommunication by the Vikings of some type because Kendricks dropped straight back as Barkley ran to the outside.

Duke Shelley briefly slipped before standing up, but it allowed Kenny Golladay (6-foot-4, 213 pounds) to tee off on the 5-9, 176-pound cornerback and free up a lane for Barkley to reach the line to gain. It also seemed like Golladay was starting his block before Barkley secured the catch, but that was a bit marginal, considering the outflanking.

Wow! What a dramatic fun-filled ride it was this year.

A great turnaround from last year and a move in the right direction.

With that said, winning 13 games has us as Vikings fans expecting to get to the Big One! I've been a Vikings fan my whole life, and the let down at the end of the year is Real.

I love the new coach and GM, but with that said we needed to bring some pressure, passion, and some heat to the Playoffs, and we didn't!!

Leaders like them and [Cousins] need to step it up in these games and play to WIN and not to Lose.

Get them fired up and light them up on the sidelines, and bring the energy that we need to Win in the Playoffs!!

In our house, we didn't do that; we played soft and not aggressive enough!!

Let's figure out what's working and not working for this team and go from there.

Thank you for a fun season.

#SKOL Vikes

— Cory Rice

We'll close this edition here with comments from Cory, but I'm planning to put together a couple more topic-specific Mailbags soon. These comments made me want to circle back to the fans who filled U.S. Bank Stadium and delivered a great atmosphere. Everything those in attendance committed, as well as the support from those near and far deserved to enjoy a playoff victory.

It's hard to get to the playoffs, and it's even more difficult to win once there. The Vikings have laid a foundation on which to build from going forward, and I don't think the memory of Sunday will fade for some time.

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