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In a season of strange events, how do we define success for the '23 Vikings?

Fumbles plagued them early, then injuries... how will the final four games shape how we remember 2023?

There are no moral victories, no fake banners and no participation parades in the NFL and Minnesota Vikings fans who have watched their team go through endless seasons of playing fairly competitive football that did not result in a championship are not interested in hearing about a wonderful middling season. However, we can look at every year that doesn’t result in a title and ask whether it was worth the ride. Did the decisions from the previous offseason give them a chance to be there in the end? Did the franchise get closer or farther away from competing for a championship in the last 365 days?

Not that it’s impossible for a wild card team to ride an elite defense to a championship but since 2000 there have only been four teams to win the Super Bowl from the wild card spot and they were quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. And yes there have been backup QBs who have won the Super Bowl but the last team to win with a backup QB starting more than five games in the regular season was… Tom Brady.

So the odds are against them. Draft Kings lists the Vikings at +12000 to win the Super Bowl, 16th best to raise the Lombardi Trophy.

As we head down the stretch with the Vikings needing two wins in four games in order to make the playoffs, it feels appropriate to ask if making the postseason alone makes the ‘23 season a success. Was it worth the ride? Do they need to make the playoffs in order for it to be a success?

When it comes to answering the question, there is a cynical and optimistic perspective.

On one hand, this has been a year of missed opportunities. In Week 1 an interception at the goal line at the end of the first half allowed the Tampa Bay Bucs to hang around and eventually pull off a three-point victory over the Vikings. In Week 3 they fell to the Chargers via a dropped pass in the end zone in the final moments. In Denver they fumbled away a chance to put the game away. Against Chicago they turned the ball over four times and gave up a game-winning drive to Justin Fields. Even cutting those bungled losses in half would have this team set up at 9-4 and sitting in the driver’s seat for another home playoff game despite losing Kirk Cousins.

Beyond the close games that could have been theirs, there are reasonable questions to be asked about the handling of the offense after Josh Dobbs won games against Atlanta and New Orleans. Did they ask too much of Dobbs and fail to design the offense around his capabilities? Did the other offensive players let him down? Hall of Famer Kurt Warner made a video on YouTube showing why he believed Dobbs didn’t deserve to get benched and he pointed to both schematics of plays and performances around him.

Aside from looking at the opportunities missed, there is also the what-if element of losing Kirk Cousins to injury. After beating the Packers 24-10, Cousins looked like he was hitting his stride in the offense in ways that he hadn’t before. And following Green Bay, the only team with a current winning record on the schedule in the subsequent five weeks was New Orleans (7-6). There was an opportunity to get on a run and challenge the NFC’s best teams had Cousins not gone down.

That isn’t anyone’s fault, just that in the harshest view of the season it could fall on the pile of years gone by where one event caused them to fall short of what they could have been.

Nov 27, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson (87) reacts with tight end Josh Oliver (84) and guard Dalton Risner (66) after a touchdown against the Chicago Bears during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Nov 27, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson (87) reacts with tight end Josh Oliver (84) and guard Dalton Risner (66) after a touchdown against the Chicago Bears during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The other approach to evaluating the 2023 season is through the lens of the bigger picture.

The front office gave themselves more room with the salary cap going forward by avoiding reworked contracts for aging veteran stars and have the ultimate flexibility at the quarterback position by not extending Cousins last offseason. Now rather than working around masses of dead cap space and being locked into Cousins they can evaluate whether bringing him back is the right call.

Throughout this year the Vikings have found answers at a lot of positions where there were question marks going into the year. It’s safe to say that young players Josh Metellus, Ivan Pace Jr., Akayleb Evans, Cam Bynum and Mekhi Blackmon will be the foundation of the defense in years to come. They are the pieces that were missing in years past when the Vikings tried to plug holes with veteran signings like Chandon Sullivan and Bashaud Breeland.

On the offensive side, Jordan Addison has registered over 700 yards through 13 games, establishing himself as a long-term partner for Justin Jefferson in the receiving corps. The offensive line made big strides with Christian Darrisaw solidifying himself as one of the best players in the game and there were improvements at right guard along with center Garrett Bradbury putting together his second straight season.

As a roster they appear to be in position to add a quarterback (or bring one back) and spend in free agency with the idea that they could be true NFC contenders next season.

If we zoom out from the nuances of whether Kevin O’Connell didn’t run enough screens and bootlegs with Dobbs in the game and focus more on the fact that the Vikings are one of two teams in the NFL that lost its quarterback and still has a chance to make the playoffs, the coaching looks like the best case scenario when the team moved on from Mike Zimmer. The forest rather than the trees paints a picture of a coach who has galvanized a locker room and created a resilient team that isn’t going to be out of the mix even if they start 0-3 and suffer catastrophic injuries.

We could also reasonably ask how harshly we can really judge an offense without its starting QB. The Vikings were a top 10 offense from the time KOC took over until Cousins went down and they are the only club in the top 15 in offensive Expected Points Added whose QB1 has played fewer than nine games.

Maybe there is reason to think the Vikings’ offensive system needs a certain type of quarterback but it would be going too far to argue that it won’t enhance the next QB’s abilities.

Let’s get back to the central question. There is truth to both sides of the discussion of whether simply making the playoffs makes this season a success. If they fight through the adversity faced throughout this year and reach the postseason, it certainly makes the Vikings appear closer to a deep playoff run in the future than farther away but there will still be an empty spot in the trophy case gathering more dust if they can’t put together a deep playoff run.

How about if they miss the postseason? Can it still be a success then? After all, they are asking a career 5-12 quarterback to lead them to victory against four formidable foes. Falling apart at the end would be celebrated by those looking to have a better chance at drafting a quarterback. That may ultimately get them closer in the future than it would to make the playoffs. At the same time, it would be quite the blow after battling all the way back and controlling their own destiny in the final four weeks.

In a debate-show world where we are supposed to decide whether something is either the greatest of all time or the worst ever, we can live in a world with more nuance when reflecting on 2023. We can acknowledge the things that went against them and think there still could have been more.

Of course, if the Vikings ride their top five defense into three or four wins and finish with double-digit win total, they might be dangerous enough to pull some upsets in the postseason. If that happens, there will be no arguing against the success of a strange season. And if they fall out and draft the QB of the future who makes them a consistent contender, nobody will remember the debates over whether they should have run more rollouts for Josh Dobbs.

As always, the small sample size of a month’s worth of games could send us down a lot of different paths with this team.