The Vikings changed the culture. Now what?
All of those pulsating comebacks were no accident. This team believes. Now, the spotlight shifts to Brian Flores, Kirk Cousins and the leaders within. "This year," one promises, "we’re even hungrier."
EAGAN, Minn. — The final seconds of Minnesota Vikings games last season blurred into sci-fi fantasy. Plots authored by the league’s deranged scriptwriters. Harrison Phillips is still baffled by the joy ride. Here, seated on an exercise ball after a training camp practice, the defense’s resident block of granite understands why outsiders may be skeptical.
A Josh Allen fumble at the three-inch line. A 33-point comeback vs. the Colts.
The Double Doink in London. The 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants as time expired.
The blinding ice around his (shirtless) quarterback’s neck.
It’s hard for anyone to comprehend these moments through a lens of traditional football logic. But as the wind whips furiously, as he unstraps the tape around his knuckles at the TCO Performance Center, Phillips promises that none of this was an accident.
“It’s faith in the team,” says Phillips, the 6-foot-3, 307-pound defensive tackle. “There’s a faith element to it. To keep that belief the whole time.”
Belief is the bedrock of everything in Vikings Country.
As it turned out, all of that culture talk — Goodbye Mike Zimmer, Hello Kevin O’Connell! — did translate to W’s and L’s. A team that lost eight one-score games in 2021, won an NFL-record 11 one-score games in 2022 and it wasn’t all a fluke. Creating the best work environment in professional football was a factor. Don’t take it from me. Or even O’Connell. Take it from the 1,300 players surveyed by the NFLPA who anointed the Vikings No. 1 in their treatment of players. Eight different categories were taken into account and you can see why guys love it here. The facilities are stunning. O’Connell cultivates meaningful relationships. Ownership is steady.
The Wilfs’ correct decision to pendulum-swing far, far away from a fear-based environment fueled 13 wins, an NFC North title and that genuine belief late in games.
Now, they want more.
The Vikings will need more than belief.
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Start with a defibrillator for the NFL’s 28th-ranked defense. Somehow, the Vikings allowed more points (427) than they scored (424) in a 13-4 season. Whereas the Detroit Lions reset personnel under the same coordinator, the Vikings are mostly counting on new coordinator Brian Flores working schematic magic. Then, there’s Kirk Cousins because there’s always Kirk Cousins. He’s always been better than his rep suggests. Reliable as Folgers in your cup. Of course, the quarterback also turns 35 years old Saturday and has won one career playoff game. Is it realistic to expect another gear at this stage of his career? The Vikings don’t know themselves. Cousins’ contract expires after this season and, for now, they’re keeping their options open.
Still, there’s a needle to thread. Phillips articulates the team’s state of mind beautifully.
Last year was about finding an “identity.”
The roller-coaster was fun.
Nobody wanted a banner raised.
“There wasn’t one person in this building that said, ‘Yay! We made it to the playoffs — awesome! Let’s pat ourselves on the back,’” Phillips begins. “It was all a shock that, ‘Holy crap. We just lost. We had a plan to make a run.’ This year, we’re even hungrier. This defense has been extremely exciting to be a part of. I’d say the vibe in the locker room, currently, is ‘Can we hurry up and get to Week 1?’”
What made the 2022 Vikings unfathomable is that the metrics don’t compute. We cannot dismiss DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) and other mathematical equations in figuring out who’s good and who actually stinks in the NFL. The Vikings ranked 27th in DVOA at -13.8 percent, the ninth-lowest DVOA ever recorded by Football Outsiders for a playoff team (1981- ‘22), which is why so many folks have labeled them a lucky bunch. Yet as we say a million times over at Go Long, this sport cannot be fully understood with calculators. Physical specimens who run 4.4’s with six percent body fat are not treated equally because no sport clobbers its participants over the head with as much in-game adversity as football. One regular-season game means as much as 10 baseball games which heightens the pressure… with millions of dollars on the line… and millions of people watching/gambling on your every step.
Many players wilt under these circumstances. A select few find a flow state to blast through.
There’s luck. Without question.
The ball does bounce a funny way a few times a year but, as Phillips adds, “not nine times.”
The world that O’Connell is building means something at a deeper level that’s difficult to quantify. Is Justin Jefferson pulling off his fourth-and-18 miracle in Orchard Park because the nutrition is so top-notch? Not directly, no. But a culture in which coaches empower, coaches believe — “treat people right,” as O’Connell told us — will inevitably produce mesmerizing moments. Good and bad energy is contagious in all of life. I’m still struck by one thing Sammy Watkins said in our wild conversation a few years back: We transfer energy with our spouse so much, 24/7, that you’re bound share the same exact mood. When hope easily could’ve been lost, Phillips vividly remembers a feeling of “We’re going to score” and “We’re going to make a stop.”
“I’m a firm believer that better people make better Minnesota Vikings,” Phillips says. “The better people you have, the better teammates you’re going to have. I’ve been a part of cultures and teams in my NFL career, my college career and high school where you walk out there in that exact situation — down 14, 17, whatever it is — and the game’s over. A guy walks out there and he hasn’t even buckled his chinstrap. Or the starter is saying, ‘Nah, nah, nah. Backup, you go out there.’ There’s players like that. There’s teams like that. This team, every single starter jumped up and said, ‘Let’s go! Let’s change the game!’ And you don’t get that everywhere. So, that matters. That matters.”
When the Colts led 33-0 with 7:36 left in the third quarter, their win probability was 99.6 percent. Teams that led by 30+ points were 1,548-1 at the time. Minnesota stormed back.
When the Bills took a 17-point lead with 2 minutes left in the third, their win probability was 96.9 percent.
Phillips, an ex-Bill, can recall specific instances in his football past where players literally took their helmets off and told their backup to go in when the odds were this low. Not so here. A stunning turnaround from where the Vikings were under Zimmer, robots terrified of playing freely.
A fairy tale story, this is not. Belief has its limits.
This defense collapsed far too many times, finally zapped for good by Daniel Jones at home.
That meant rolling the dice on a personality that’s ruffled a few feathers of his own. Brian Flores’ tenure in Miami turned ugly. Real ugly behind the scenes. The coach clashed with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, as reported in our two-part series last season.
After one season with Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, he’s running his own defense again. Say what we will about his abrasiveness, the substance of his X’s and O’s was impressive in Miami. He confused the hell out of some of the best quarterbacks in the sport. Lamar Jackson, for one, was a mess in primetime against Miami in 2021. So, this is the Vikings’ big bet. GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, the former Ivy League grad and Wall Street trader, a numbers’ guy to his core, doesn’t want to risk financial ruin in the future. Green Bay and Tampa Bay fattened up on dead money and good luck recognizing any of the Rams’ defensive players around Aaron Donald this fall. Going for broke can pay off — the Rams certainly would do it all over again. But Adofo-Mensah clearly does not want to turn the salary cap into Monopoly.
No grandiose off-season moves were made. It’s Flores’ job to mold this defense into something special.
This defense cut ties with linebacker Eric Kendricks, cornerback Patrick Peterson and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith (what a difference a year makes, eh?). Cornerback Byron Murphy received a nice chunk of dough in free agency (two years, $17.5 million) and Marcus Davenport arrives on a one-year, $13 million deal, but the Vikings are mostly counting on a more aggressive scheme being the difference. Flores will blitz. A lot. One of the quarterbacks he’s tasked with flustering in the NFC North, Jared Goff, is well aware. Miami beat his Rams, 28-17, two years ago by blitzing Goff 40 times and pressuring him 24 times on 63 total dropbacks.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
If you ask returning players on defense, Phillips says, they’d label 2022 an excellent season. They forced timely turnovers to win games. They had fun. But that often meant that film sessions weren’t as harsh as they should’ve been.
The 24/7 fresh air of optimism was welcomed — players could breathe again — but more intensity is needed on defense.
“The film room wasn’t as critical as it maybe needed to be,” Phillips says. “Because you got the win. You had the big play. That can overshadow the smaller chunks and errors. This year, I would say there’s more of an emphasis on what the standard is and how you have to uphold that standard. Regardless if you make $20 million or you’re an undrafted free agent rookie, this is how we do things.
“For example, the nose guard. If you have to be in the A gap, you have to be in the A gap. Don’t say, ‘Oh, I thought this and I went here.’ No, no. It doesn’t matter how many plays you’ve made in your life or how many notches you have in your belt. If you’re in the A gap, be in the A gap. If you have to set the edge, you set the edge. If you’re supposed to cover so-and-so, cover so-and-so. That has been very, very prevalent in how we’re doing things here. Very disciplined. Everyone is being held to that same standard.”
A Zimmer-, Urban-, Patricia-like autocracy is not required. Defensive backs don’t need to be scared of their own shadow on Sunday, fearful of Monday’s castigation. There’s a realistic middle ground. Blunt accountability is also how new Lions corner Cam Sutton is hoping to fix Detroit’s sagging secondary. Time will tell if the Vikings strike the balance. Phillips believes this is a defense that’ll accept harder coaching. He knows there are veteran players around the NFL who get stuck in their ways and do not like being told what to do and insists the Vikings’ defense is very, very low on ego.
They didn’t sign marquee names, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing given this new direction. He sees buy-in.
“We don’t have personalities,” Phillips says. “There are certain players who probably wouldn’t work in this hierarchy. There are some players who believe they’re above coaching. I don’t think we have that here.”
Phillips will be a leader who holds players to this new standard, too. This marks his sixth pro season, and the former third-rounder out of Stanford has faced the sort of stress likely to smack a slew of young teammates in the face eventually. In 2019, he had surgical operations done on each of his knees. An ACL surgery on one; a patellar tendon on the other. Confined to a wheelchair, he was miserable. By the time he could rehab the knees? Covid locked players out of the facility. After working his way back to full strength, he was oddly jerked around by the coaching staff. The Bills made Phillips a healthy scratch in both 2020 (four games) and 2021 (three games), bizarre considering he was talented enough to warrant interest from at least 12 NFL teams in free agency and ink a three-year, $19.5 million contract with these Vikings in 2022..
As a gameday inactive those two stretches — essentially told he wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL — Phillips admits that doubt crept in. He wondered if he’d even get to a second contract.
At work, he leaned heavily on two staffers to soldier on: Joe Micca (director of physical therapy) and Will Greenberg (assistant strength coach). “Those two poured more into me than any people in my life at any level,” Phillips adds. “I would not be where I am right now — mentally or physically — without those two guys.” At home, he relied on his then-girlfriend, now-wife Shae Spady. The two were unsure where or when to buy a home. Or whether to even go on vacation. The end seemed near.
Says Phillips: “There were many tears.”
No wonder he felt his overall mental health improve last season. Phillips finished with 59 tackles (28 solo), 1.5 sacks, six hurries, a forced fumble and even found himself sleeping better at night.
“Day 1, hearing: ‘Harrison, we believe in you. You’re a proven NFL starter,’” he says. “That is what puts wind in my sails and wind under my wings. I’m not a, ‘We’re going to tell him he’s not good enough so he has to work even harder!’ That’s not the coaching.”
You never know the true reasons for any benching, but Phillips does wonder if play-time incentives had something to do with those scratches. Play “X” amount of snaps, he notes, and a team often has to pay another million-plus bucks. The reality is, however, that teams need to win. If you’re clearly the superior player, you’ll play.
He doesn’t believe he has hit his ceiling yet.
Everyone on the defense knows they can go to him with any questions, any concerns.
Since his second pro season, Phillips has made a point to get the cell phone number for every new draft pick. He texts them on draft weekend, and learns as much as he can. Personal connections are crucial to him.
“I love being in a huddle and having guys come look to me,” Phillips adds. “I love the opportunity to break down the defense and have some of those players look to me. And Kirk Cousins is a big fan of guys leading up. You can be a younger guy leading an older guy. So, I’m in that middle stage of my career. I really do enjoy that badge of honor. Some guys don’t want to step into that role and don’t want to be vocal — they say, ‘I just want to do my thing.’ … I’m still hungry. I have a bigger drive than it’s ever been.”
Now, about that quarterback…
For the sixth season, Cousins is central to all title aspirations in the Twin Cities. Nothing’s guaranteed beyond 2023 — the team is wisely keeping its quarterback options open. His efficiency did take a hit last season. Cousins threw a career-high 14 interceptions, had his lowest completion percentage since the Washington days (65.9) and his 46 sacks were a career high. It’s also true that he was adjusting to yet another playcaller. His seventh in seven years. A point he was quick to bring up when we sat down to chat last summer.
“You take a deep breath the seventh time like, ‘Whew. I’ve gotta do this again? I’d love to have a year where it’s copy and paste,” Cousins said then.
Finally, he can.
He also happens to have the best wide receiver in the sport entering his prime in Justin Jefferson.
And a first-round pick who has lit up training camp in Jordan Addison.
And K.J. Osborn. And T.J. Hockenson.
Matthew Stafford won a Super Bowl in L.A. after a decade of futility in Detroit and O’Connell, remember, was his OC. The opinion that the Vikings are in full-fledged TEARDOWN MODE is incorrect. When the powers that be publicly call this all a “competitive rebuild,” they mean it. They intend to compete for a Super Bowl without being on the hook to pay vets long after they’re gone. Let’s cut to the chase: They’ll need Kirk Cousins to be something more than he’s been his entire career. Something special. The meteoric rise of Jefferson gives him a realistic chance, as does the continuity with O’Connell.
But maybe all of these heated practices vs. Flores’ defense in training camp ultimately nudges Cousins that direction.
Because facing Flores is not always fun. The uncomfortable nature of it all sounds like something Cousins could use 142 games and 5,000 pass attempts into his career.
If you’re preparing for Flores specifically, he explained this week, you’re using a very different plan on offense. So, he’s been asking: Is the goal to beat Flores’ D or prepare for Tampa Bay in Week 1? Prepare for the schedule? That’s the challenge.
Clashing his closed fists together, Cousins admits it has led to “tense conversations” at night with coaches. He’s trying to keep the big picture in mind because it’s true that he’s building up a “menu” of pressures. It’s true that he’s forced to find new ways to thwart pressure — as the play clock melts — in that cat-and-mouse game with linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Harrison Smith.
The goal’s still the same: To win the “game,” not necessarily the “down.” He doesn’t want Flores to win the entire practice.
He’s also sure Flores is showing him exotic looks that could pop up this season.
At which point, Cousins should have an answer.
“When we get those unscouted looks in Week 5, do you have a little bit more inventory built up that could help you?” Cousins says. “And I think that’s the benefit of going against difficult looks, and a variety of looks, and making you have these conversations now, is that when you have something, you haven’t talked about, you can refer back to these moments.”
As a leader himself, Cousins is challenging the offense to get up on teams earlier in games. The Netflix star had a career-high eight fourth quarter comebacks last season but the Vikings don’t want to live that way in 2023… especially with an aggressive defensive playcaller now in charge.
Get a two- or three-score lead on teams and that’s when Flores will be able to cut loose.
Minnesota might even be able to bury a team for once instead of frantically trying to claw back.
“I want to be part of our defense being really good because of the way we play,” Cousins says. “To start games and to give our defense a cushion and an ability to go hunt.”
The math is simple, right? With the same raw belief + a jolt of intensity in meetings + a quarterback who won’t check the ball down when the season’s on the line, hey, rev up your “Skol!” chants, baby. Hope can be reasoned in just about every NFL city at the moment.
Everyone has a plan. The Lions, the Jaguars, the Packers, the Giants every team we’re exploring this summer. In a few weeks, finally, the Mike Tyson punches shall commence.
We’ll have much more from our trip to Minnesota over the next few weeks, including a profile on one offensive weapon whose impact transcends the field.