I sense an uncomfortable narrative developing. It’s not coming from the Vikings themselves because I don’t think Mike Zimmer is the kind of person who is satisfied with being average in any capacity. But I do think there are a number of Vikings fans who believe some variation of this: as long as Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings’ offense can be average this season, Minnesota — thanks to a very good defense — has a good chance to be a Super Bowl contender.
This isn’t wrong so much as it’s dangerous — mostly because on multiple levels it makes assumptions about the select events in the past being transferable to the future.
On the level contained to just the Vikings, there is the temptation to look at 2015 — when the Vikings finished 29th in the NFL in total offense but went 11-5 and won the NFC North — and equate a jump to the middle of the pack in offense with another win or two that would put the Vikings in elite territory. And again, that could happen.
But thinking that way ignores the fragility of success in the NFL. The Vikings deserved to be 11-5 last year, but they played enough close games that they easily could have been 9-7. Good teams find a way to win those games. The Vikings are a good team. But even an upgrade to an offense that was more middle-of-the-pack would still leave Minnesota with some pretty thin margins in plenty of games — those toss-up NFL games so often decided by a small handful of key plays.
On a comparative level to recent NFL history, incremental offensive progress for the Vikings in 2016 would be a step in the right direction. But in most cases, it wouldn’t be enough to win a Super Bowl. This is where the real danger lies: in looking at the Broncos last year, or the 2000 Ravens or the 2002 Buccaneers – the three teams in the past 16 seasons who won it all with average to below-average QB play – as proof that an average Vikings offense with Bridgewater operating primarily as a game manager would be good enough to deliver this franchise’s first Super Bowl win.
Those seasons did, indeed, happen. But they are the exceptions to the rule. And good plans are not built around exceptions. Those teams also had historically great defenses. This is only one list – and a subjective one at that — but it’s a valid argument that all three of those teams had among the 10 best defenses in NFL history. The Vikings were a very good defense last year, ranking 13th in yards allowed and 5th in points allowed. They are trending toward elite. Nobody would say they are one of the best in NFL history — at least not yet.
Here are the quarterbacks from the other 13 teams to win Super Bowls in the past 16 seasons: Tom Brady (4 times), Ben Roethlisberger (2 times), Eli Manning (2 times), Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, elite-level Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson.
Brady, Rodgers, Brees and Peyton Manning are inarguably elite. Roethlisberger is close and has a history of making big throws in clutch situations. Wilson is dynamic and had the benefit of an all-time great defense. Eli had 15 TDs and 2 INTs combined in the Giants’ two Super Bowl runs. Flacco had 11 TDs, 0 INTs and never had a passer rating below 106 in the Ravens’ four playoff games en route to the Super Bowl.
The Vikings have clearly built themselves around defense. The Vikings also wouldn’t have taken a wide receiver with their first round pick, or shaken up their offensive line (along with a new position coach) or added more offensive minds to the mix if they were content to be a one-dimensional team.
You can convince me you don’t need a top-5 QB to win a Super Bowl. But there’s this: in the vast majority of situations, even if you have a good defense, you are going to need a QB and an offense that can play at a high enough level to win you a game instead of just not losing a game if you are going to make a Super Bowl run. And if you don’t, you’d better have one of the best defenses of all-time.
Ideally, you’d get yourself a team that could do both.