Whatever the Minnesota Vikings are putting in the Kool-Aid this offseason, it sure goes down smooth.
The team’s presumptive blueprint for success this year—run the ball, stuff the run, rush the passer, and turn Percy Harvin loose on the league—is an easy-to-swallow cocktail of conventional football wisdom.
Listen to the pundits talk about “a team that appears to be a competent quarterback away from winning the Super Bowl,” and the buzz sounds even better. It’s enough to make you stop asking how the Vikes are going to make the Super Bowl, and start wondering what the heck is going to stop them.
We’ve got Adrian Peterson! We’ve got Jared Allen! We’ve got the Williams Wall! How could this go wrong?
Well, we’ve got a few ideas. A quick look at the factors behind a typical championship contender reveals a few glaring holes in Minnesota’s title hype.
To be sure, the Vikings boast trophy-caliber elements in a few phases of the game. In the 39 years since the AFL-NFL merger, the average title game participant has finished around No. 9 in rushing and a little better than No. 8 against the run.
Minnesota clocked in at No. 5 and No. 1 in those categories last year. That’s good news.
But the average Super Bowl team also finishes right around No. 7 in passer rating. In fact, 80 percent of Super Bowl contenders finish in the top 10 in passer rating, while just 65 percent finish in the top 10 in rushing. Despite conventional wisdom, passing the ball efficiently is more important than racking up yards on the ground.
The Vikings finished No. 18 in passer rating in 2008—worse than all but seven of the 78 participants in Super Bowl history. That’s bad news.
Along the same lines, disrupting an opponent’s passing rhythm is almost as important as shutting down the running game: Super Bowl teams average league ranks of 7.78 in run defense and 7.93 in opposing passer rating.
Despite a top-five pass rush, last year’s Vikes finished No. 16 in defensive passer rating. That’s more bad news: Of the 39 teams who’ve won the Super Bowl, just four have allowed their opponents to pass the ball with comparable efficiency.
And for a team that hangs its hat on a stout defense, Minnesota falls short in the most important measure of a Super Bowl contender: The ability to keep points off the board.
The average Super Bowl team finishes between No. 6 and No. 7 in scoring defense. The average champion finishes a bit better than No. 5. Eighty-two percent of teams that are good enough to make the title game finish in the top 10.
Last year’s Vikings finished No. 13. Respectable? Certainly. Title-worthy? Not really.
Falling short of Super Bowl averages in a single category, or even a few categories, doesn’t knock a team out of contention. Plenty of teams compensate for shortcomings in one area by excelling in another (recall that the 2000 Ravens won it all with Trent Dilfer under center).
The Vikings’ real problem is that there is little precedent for success among teams that are terrific at stopping the run, but less successful in keeping opponents out of the end zone. Almost every Super Bowl contender built around a dominating ground game has also featured an elite scoring defense.
Just three teams have reached the title game that finished in the top five in rushing defense, but outside the top 10 in scoring “D”: The ’86 Broncos, the ’83 Redskins, and the ’92 Bills.
All of those teams finished No. 6 or better in scoring. All of them sent a quarterback to the Pro Bowl. All of them lost the Super Bowl, by an average margin of 27.6 points.
This year’s Vikings are only in a position to do one of those things.
So the next time somebody tells you the Vikings are a quarterback away from the Super Bowl, ask ‘em which quarterback (Brady? Montana? Tarkenton?) they have in mind.
Next time you hear about Minnesota’s championship-caliber defense, remind them that most opponents don’t run the ball on every down.
And the next time the Vikings offer you a glass of Kool-Aid, well, drink up and hope for the best—frankly, the season is more fun that way.
But don’t be surprised to find a few key ingredients missing.
For more on the Vikings, follow Marino on Twitter @MarinoEccher