Vikings coach Mike Zimmer offered up the sound bite of the season after a 52-33 loss to the Saints on Christmas, saying the Vikings had a "bad defense. Worst one I've ever had."
Make no mistake: The Vikings defense, ravaged by injuries, neglect and poor tackling, was far from the standard Zimmer has set. The Vikings allowed 475 points; only Jacksonville, Las Vegas and Detroit allowed more.
But in digging a little deeper into the 2020 numbers, I don't think it was defense that ultimately doomed the Vikings. Rather, it was an atrocious performance in almost every phase of special teams that cost the team points, precious field position and — ultimately — a playoff spot that might have changed the conversation about the team's future prospects to a significant degree.
Special teams mistakes sometimes lack the drama of what happens on offense and defense. Example from this weekend's playoff action: Lamar Jackson's pick-six will get about 99% of the blame for the Ravens losing to the Bills, but two missed first half field goals — both off an upright by the normally accurate Justin Tucker — and a short punt that led to a Buffalo field goal changed both the early score and early momentum.
Let's look at how Football Outsiders breaks down the Vikings this season in the three overall phases — offense, defense and special teams — according to its DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) metric that "breaks down every single NFL play and compares a team's performance to a league baseline based on situation."
The good news: The Vikings had the No. 8 offensive DVOA in the league. They were more than good enough on that side of the ball to make the playoffs. In fact, they were the ONLY one of the top 12 teams in offensive DVOA that didn't make the playoffs.
The somewhat surprising news: The Vikings had the No. 18 defensive DVOA in the league. That's obviously subpar, but it's similar to spots occupied by Seattle (16) and Green Bay (17) and better than playoff teams Kansas City, Cleveland and Tennessee.
A below-average defense didn't help the Vikings, but it could have been good enough to at least allow for a playoff berth — remember, the 8-8 Bears made it, besting the Vikings by just one game — if not for ...
The dreadful news: Special teams finished No. 31 in DVOA, better than only the historically bad Chargers. In fact, the Vikings' mark of minus-9.3 would have been worst in the NFL in each of the previous five seasons.
Rick Gosselin's 2020 special teams rankings, which came out recently in SI.com, tell a very similar story — the Vikings again finished 31st, only ahead of the Chargers — but help us break down just how special teams cost the Vikings.
*The Vikings averaged just 4.3 yards on punt returns, worst in the league. That came on only 16 returned punts for 69 total yards. By contrast, they had 33 punts returned for a total of 321 yards and a 9.7-yard average. That's a lot of field position lost on punt exchanges.
*Vikings punter Britton Colquitt and his coverage team only pinned opponents inside the 20 on 11 of 54 punts. Those 11 were the lowest mark in the league.
*The Vikings (two) and Chargers (three) were the only teams that had multiple punts blocked. Only 13 punts were blocked in the entire NFL all season.
*After kickoffs, Vikings opponents started their drives, on average, at the 27.2 yard line — the best starting position and hence the worst mark in the league. The Vikings allowed a kickoff return TD by the Bears' Cordarrelle Patterson, one of only seven kickoff returns for a TD all season.
*Dan Bailey made just 68.1% of his field goals (15 of 22), giving the Vikings the worst mark in the league as a team. Bailey also missed six extra points and his 86% mark on those tries put the Vikings near the bottom of the league.
A lot of those things led to significant field position deficits, which can make a shaky defense seem even worse than it is.
There wasn't necessarily one "smoking gun" game that cost the Vikings, though Bailey's 49-yard miss — and Tennessee going 6-for-6 on field goals — was a factor in a 31-30 loss early, and the Bailey meltdown against Tampa Bay was a big part of that loss.
But zeroing in on one game or one facet of special teams misses the big picture: The Vikings were bad in all phases over the course of the season, which is why special teams coach Marwan Maalouf was fired. (Whether that's scapegoating or justified is a topic covered beautifully by Patrick Reusse).
If the Vikings had been even adequate on special teams, they quite possibly would have won one more game and made the playoffs. Maybe they would have even made it to the division round that was just played.
If they had made the postseason this year despite all those defensive injuries — even if it was just to lose quickly — wouldn't you think about the year and Zimmer differently than you do now?