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Matthew Coller: Super Bowl bar is set high, Vikings have to take risks to chase it

The Vikings can’t play this offseason safe and ever hope to be playing for a Super Bowl

In the coming days the debate stemming from the Super Bowl is going to be whether Patrick Mahomes is the greatest quarterback of all time after winning his third Super Bowl. Who would have ever imagined that after Tom Brady towered over the NFL for nearly two decades that another quarterback would emerge and shatter dreams like Michael Jordan did in the 90s.

Think of all the great players and coaches who are ringless because of this man. Josh Allen has never gotten his chance at glory. Lamar Jackson said he wasn’t going to watch the game because his heart was still broken from losing the AFC Championship to Mahomes. Jalen Hurts and the Eagles missed their chance because of a game-winning drive by Mahomes. And Kyle Shanahan and his roster chock-full of All-Pros all sat sadly as confetti rained down upon them and Mahomes danced again.

Mahomes’ path of destruction is enough to leave everybody else feeling hopeless. The only one who could take him down in the Super Bowl was Tom Brady and he’s podcasting now. Not to mention the Chiefs organization knows what it’s doing. They have a top-notch defensive coordinator, a secondary that gave the 49ers fits and a head coach who guided them through tough times during the regular season.

The 49ers were the best the NFC could offer. Their defensive line featured several of the most violent rushers on earth and for much of the Super Bowl they caused problems for the Chiefs offense. The 49ers offense moved the ball and produced points, even in the biggest moment when Brock Purdy used his playmaking skill to get San Fran a chip-shot field goal in overtime. Mahomes just made one too many plays, scrambling for a first down on fourth-and-1 and then tossing the game-winning touchdown.

Mahomes is simply inevitable.

Normally we try to take a lesson out of the team that wins the Super Bowl to pass along to the Minnesota Vikings but Mahomes makes that impossible, outside of the obvious fact that the Chiefs moved on from a good QB in Alex Smith to draft the greatest QB. Hey Vikings, try doing that! Maybe they will heed that advice and trade up for Jayden Daniels or take a shot at Bo Nix or JJ McCarthy and hope the draft analysis world is wrong on them like they were Mahomes. But the more workable lesson should come from the Super Bowl losers: The 49ers roster and coaching staff was incredible — far better than anything the Vikings have put on the field since 2017 — and yet it still wasn’t enough. That’s how high the bar is to truly compete for a Super Bowl. Anybody can play for the Wild Card, where the Vikings have often lived during the Kirk Cousins era. Anybody can have some one-score games go their way and lose in the first round of the playoffs as the Vikings did in 2022. If you want to be in overtime with the greatest QB of all time, you need what San Francisco has built.

Let’s go over that. The 49ers have one of the best offensive minds in NFL history, a quarterback who played like an MVP on an $880,000 cap hit, a mega star pass rusher, star defensive tackle, linebacker, tight end, two receivers, the best left tackle ever and a No. 3 receiver who almost won the MVP award.

The Vikings have a coach who has proven to be effective with passing concepts and leadership, an All-Pro receiver and a good pair of tackles.

When the Vikings won a regular season game over the banged-up 49ers in Week 7, the gap didn’t seem to be that large. In the light of day post Super Bowl, it’s as big as a Great Lake.

The Vikings have spent two seasons in their “competitive rebuild” mode trying to set themselves up to someday be in the conversation with a team like San Francisco. They gave ‘er the old run-it-back in 2022 and came up short and then had a rebuild season by moving on from veteran stars and letting young players emerge. It was rocky, even when Cousins was healthy. Now they face a crossroads. NFL Network and ESPN reporters are hinting at options for the Vikings if Cousins goes like trading up or acquiring Sam Darnold. Suddenly JJ McCarthy’s stock is rising.

Does bringing back a QB with whom they have never competed with teams like the 49ers seem like the way to get to their level? The last time they won a playoff game he was five years younger and not coming off an Achilles injury and yet he’s still going to demand significant guaranteed dollars.

How would the Vikings copycat moves like trading for Christian McCaffrey or Trent Williams or Chase Young or signing Javon Hargrave or extend superstars like Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel around another big QB contract? Could they expect Cousins’ reconstructed leg to scramble like Purdy did in some of the biggest moments?

No doubt, any direction without Cousins comes along with risk but sticking with him risks more wasted years of never truly chasing a championship. And if they went for a big swing and came up short, how different would that be than the last six years?

The 49ers also show us that even missing on a draft pick QB doesn’t have to be the end of the road for an organization if they set up a strong enough foundation to find somebody who fits like Purdy. He’s an outlier in a way but they were in the Super Bowl with Jimmy G before with a chance to beat Mahomes so maybe there’s more people in this world who can play quarterback within the right situation than just Cousins. Maybe they are cheaper and more dynamic.

None of this is meant to be a slam on Cousins, who turned around his leadership and reputation under Kevin O’Connell and gave the Vikings the best football they could have hoped for when signing him in 2018. He made them an “in the hunt” team though, not ever a team that would have belonged on that field on Sunday evening.

Go after what the 49ers have even if it’s the road less traveled, even if it’s the longer road, even if it’s the scarier road. Because anything else takes us right back to the same couches that we all watched the Super Bowl on every year since the 70s and nobody cares whether you went 4-13 or 7-10 or 13-4 and lost in the first round. It’s the same lowly feeling of having to start again next year. But hope springs eternal and the Vikings are on the precipice of trying to take that shot at being here someday. They can’t pass it up.

Kevin O'Connell, Kyle Shanahan

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan shakes hands with Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell following a game in Week 5 of the 2023 regular season.