As Stefon Diggs ripped off his helmet in the end zone and launched it in celebration of one of the great moments in Minnesota football history, you would have bet anything that the young, gifted wide receiver would be a Viking for life.
Inside the locker room following the “Minneapolis Miracle,” Diggs’s teammates poured tears. They couldn’t speak. Everson Griffen’s eyeballs were still bugging. Raw emotion was everywhere and Diggs smiled for the dozens of cameras.
Everywhere you looked that week, you saw Diggs’s catch. Overnight he went from an underrated, fifth-round pick underdog on a rookie contract to a celebrity. Overnight the Vikings became the favorites to play in the Super Bowl, which just so happened to be at US Bank Stadium. And during the days leading up to the NFC title game, if someone told you that Diggs would be gone in a few years, you would have thought they were wacko.
Things turned quickly from jubilation to horror as the team had a terrible week of practice after the Miracle and fell apart against the Eagles, losing 38-7. Despite the way it ended, the Vikings were vaulted into a different stratosphere of expectations than they had been since the Randy Moss years.
Those expectations were never more present in the following offseason. From the signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins to an $84 million contract to the hiring of Eagles QB coach John DeFilippo the following offseason to decisions by players who were set to head into the final years of their contracts — namely Diggs, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks. All three made it easy on the Vikings, inking team-friendly deals before the hottest days of training camp. All believed they were coming back to win a Super Bowl with the brothers of whom they had shared the Miracle.
But the Cousins signing ramped up expectations and put pressure on everyone in the organization to reach the Super Bowl the following season. At one point after a preseason game, even the normally-patient Cousins grew frustrated with reporters asking about the 2018 season being “Super Bowl or bust” on a daily basis.
Following the Miracle, a switch flipped into win-right-exactly-now mode that sparked reactionary decisions, tensions in the locker room, tensions between coaches and impatience from ownership. In the middle of it, the player who put them in this very position found himself frustrated.
It’s hard to say with 100 percent certainty when Diggs’s agitation began. It’s not easy to pinpoint the root of all things that were bothering him either. He isn’t an open book. There is always more to the story than Diggs lets you know.
One person who worked closely with Diggs called him one of the smartest players on the team. His incredible technical ability on the field would hint as much. In a game where first-round picks regularly fail to grasp all the nuances, Diggs mastered multiple offenses and multiple positions within those offenses. In 2016 he played outside receiver for Norv Turner and then slot receiver for Pat Shurmur and then he moved outside again in 2017. He was a quick-pass receiver in 2018 and a deep threat in 2019. None of those roles phased him. He made Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Kirk Cousins decidedly better.
The difficulty with being an inquisitive-minded football player, however, is that it’s a game that often asks its players to be chess pieces and not chess players.
The ’18 season started off mostly how the Vikings and Diggs wanted on offense. He caught 12 passes, three touchdowns and the offense went for 480 yards in a tie against the Packers. DeFilippo seemed on the right track toward becoming one-and-done in Minnesota and onto head coaching pastures. A perplexing Week 3 loss was mostly washed away by a terrific performance in Los Angeles in which the Vikings lost 37-31 but Diggs caught 11 passes for 123 yards and Cousins cleared 400 passing yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
A few weeks later against the New York Jets, things seemed to turn. Following an easy win over the lowly Jets, head coach Mike Zimmer took a sideswipe at DeFilippo, suggesting that he would have preferred to run the ball more often. On the outside it seemed like a classic Zim jab but on the inside philosophies were colliding.
DeFilippo preferred a complex offense with checks and audibles for the quarterback and a modern pass-first approach. Zimmer wanted Pat Shurmur’s ’17 offense, that started with the run game and worked play-action off the ground-and-pound. Following the Jets win, the Vikings lost key games against the Saints, Bears and Seahawks — an offensive no-show that ultimately pushed Zimmer over the edge with his offensive coordinator.
The following week after DeFilippo was fired, interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski handed to Dalvin Cook 19 times and Latavius Murray 15 times in a win over the Dolphins. Diggs caught four passes for 49 yards. Over the final two games of the season, he gained just 57 yards.
Diggs has been spotted from time to time wearing his emotion on his sleeve but in Week 17, as the Vikings fell apart against the Bears and missed the subsequently postseason, it was Adam Thielen and Cousins who went after each other on the sideline while Diggs pleaded with Cousins to trust him and throw him the ball.
No matter how long they played together, Cousins never built the same level of belief in Diggs as Bridgewater, Keenum and Bradford had in the years prior. Despite ranking as an elite contested-catch receiver — a fact that Diggs was well aware of — Cousins rarely heaved it up into coverage in Diggs’s direction.
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Following major disappointment, Zimmer doubled down on the run game by hiring Gary Kubiak, who had long been known for turning the likes of Clinton Portis, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Tatum Bell and Arian Foster into stars and rarely ranking high in pass attempts (unless Peyton Manning or John Elway were under center).
One person with knowledge of the situation said that Diggs wanted to be traded in the offseason leading into ’19. That summer an Instagram post mysteriously showed up with Diggs in a Washington uniform with his brother commenting below. He mysteriously missed several OTA practices, saying he was dealing with a housing issue. ESPN’s Adam Schefter checked in on the situation and receiver a “f— no,” when asked if the Vikings were shopping him.
In training camp, Diggs was noticeably upset on several occasions, once having to be restrained by Zimmer and another time barking angrily toward Cousins when the QB checked down to the fullback rather than heaving it in his direction.
You could read between the lines.
For a receiver who NFL personnel people have compared to Antonio Brown in terms of talent, he wasn’t being used like Brown. Not to mention that Thielen had two Pro Bowls and Diggs had none despite very similar performances. The receivers were very close and pushed each other to stardom but other receivers who didn’t have a 1A/1B situation — some lesser talented receivers — were getting things that Diggs deserved like offenses designed around them and record-setting numbers and, of course, wins.
Those who played with Diggs say he’s one of the top competitors they have been around. It did not sit well to lose. He was one of the last people walking off the field in San Francisco after another win-exactly-right-now season come up short of a Super Bowl appearance. Former Viking Alex Boone described playing alongside Diggs on the Purple Daily show on SKOR North and compared him to two of the best receivers of the previous era.
“I loved him as a teammate,” Boone said. “I thought he was great. Huge competitor. I thought the one thing that stood out was his physicalness in blocking and when the ball was up in the air he would give you the best chance to catch it. Guy is so competitive. Sometimes you’d be like, ‘Diggs calm down,’ but you love that as a teammate. People forget that this is a barbaric, violent sport and it’s supposed to be played in a loud tone and people are supposed to be crazy and upset and throwing things. That’s how this game is. It’s the teammates who weren’t like that where I was like, what’s wrong with that guy? You know Diggs wants it. He’s constantly in the huddle with those big eyes and he’s looking at you like, ‘come on man, come on man…’ He was the guy that would get you fired up and he’s a receiver. I equate him to Anquan Boldin because Anquan was one of the guys I would have stepped in front of a truck for. Anquan and Randy [Moss] and Stefon, those guys will give you everything they have and never shortchange you and I respect that about their game.”
Diggs had never been given any type of lazy label like “diva,” nor had he been a “culture” problem until Week 4’s 16-6 loss to the Bears in which the offense was abysmal and the Vikings lost to Chase Daniel. Losing that game was peak frustration, even though he’s put up impressive numbers that day (seven catches for 108 yards). He skipped two practices, got fined $200,000 and wanted out but Zimmer told him that the team had no plans of moving him, even with teams around the league smelling blood in the water.
At the podium on a rainy Thursday, Diggs first claimed he had been sick but quickly realized that nobody was buying it and acknowledged, “there’s truth to all rumors.”
And then Diggs got his chance to show everyone exactly how good the offense could be with him as the No. 1 receiver. Thielen got hurt against the Lions and Diggs proceeded to post back-to-back 143-yard games and then three weeks later 121 yards in a Diggs-led comeback over Denver.
At that point, you still wouldn’t have been convinced that Diggs would play for any other team. You would have thought that they could patch things up and move along. But the Vikings finished with the third fewest pass attempts in the NFL. In San Francisco Diggs caught a 41-yard touchdown on the first drive and then only saw four more throws his way the entire game. Zimmer hired Kubiak as the OC to follow Stefanski (and added that he loved the scheme). It all put Diggs in a position to want a new beginning.
Seeing all of his long-time teammates leave may have added to the situation. The ’17 team was hit with an A-bomb this offseason when Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph were cut, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander signed elsewhere and Everson Griffen opted out of his contract. By that time, cryptic tweets had been flowing for weeks from Diggs’s account and the national media had caught on.
And the Vikings were finally in a position to move Diggs. His contract, by league standards, is very reasonable but to a team that entered the offseason with more money on the books than cap space, gaining a few million for 2020 and much more for 2021 suddenly became attractive.
When Diggs tweeted that “something’s gonna happen” last week, the Buffalo Bills wanted that thing for him to be traded to the land of chicken wings and fans jumping through flaming tables. They desperately wanted to give young QB Josh Allen everything he could get in order to repeat last season’s playoff appearance. So they offered the house. A bevy of picks that could justify dealing away one of the NFL’s best receivers.
The trade is good for the Vikings, who have needs all over the place. But replacing Diggs is nearly impossible. Out of all the receivers drafted in 2015, Diggs has more receptions than all of them with No. 4 overall pick that year Amari Cooper trailing close behind. Last year zero rookie receivers hit 60 receptions. Few players compete like him. Few players run routes like him. Few players can carry an offense like he did for a long stretch of ’19.
Now Diggs will have to deal with the diva label and the notion that he’s bad for his new team’s culture. Labels are lazy. Inside the locker room there was irritation with Diggs’s Week 4 blowup but the utmost respect for his dedication and performance. There’s also players who he has trained as understudies like Bisi Johnson, who quickly developed a friendship with Diggs and studied the veteran’s every move. Johnson became a surprise contributor in ’19 after being picked in the seventh round. During his time, he pushed everyone to play harder, even Cousins, who he implored during a sideline explosion to trust his reads during the New Orleans playoff win.
Diggs isn’t as simple as a label or cliched culture nonsense. At a young age he lost his father and was put in position to help raise his brothers, one of whom is expected to be a top draft pick this year. He was injured in college, underrated coming out in the draft and benched his first three games in the NFL before emerging to smoke the Denver Broncos in 2015 and never look back. Few people would have succeeded under his circumstances.
But part of what makes Diggs great is what makes him difficult at times.
Eventually the Vikings decided to grant his wish of a new start, possibly with a team that will build its offense around him. Now in Minnesota, half the fans’ jerseys inside US Bank Stadium were No. 14 after the Miracle. Now his absence is a sign of the times and a reminder that the Vikings were once so close.