The Minnesota Vikings and tricky expectations

EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings 2018 training camp was defined by four words: Super Bowl or bust.

The accuracy of those four words never mattered.

National outlets that came to visit Vikings camp made darn sure to ask every interview subject about them. Kirk Cousins was asked by the locals so many times that he got frustrated and gave a one-day-at-a-time lecture after a preseason game and from the sounds of Adam Thielen’s comments this week, the SBOB attitude may have permeated the locker room at times.

“You kind of have a feeling when you’re around a team that thinks about expectations or talks about it a lot in the locker room, to the media, what have you. I think that’s when you’re not playing your best football,” Thielen said during his second podium session of camp. “I think teams that usually win Super Bowls or are playoff teams consistently, they’re just coming out here and busting their tail, they’re not worried about that. I think that’s the mindset this team has right now.”

But 2018 was not SBOB. Here’s how we know: The Vikings are in the top half of the league by Vegas odds to win the Super Bowl. Their offensive line is better. Their offensive coordinator is probably better. Their defense is pretty much the same. The head coach and general manager are still here.

Nothing busted following an 8-7-1 season. SBOB can’t simply mean that everyone is sad, right? It has to mean something to the effect of: If Team X doesn’t win this year, they won’t have another chance. The walls will come crumbling down and heads will roll.

None of that happened.

There is a big difference between entering a season and seeing the Super Bowl is plausible and knowing that it’s all over if there isn’t a championship parade at the end.

But where does this leave us now?

In an NFL Network interview, Thielen said he would rather the Vikings “fly under the radar.” They most certainly are not flying under the radar. A stacked team with an $84 million quarterback and cash spending that would impress Jerry Jones does not qualify as “under the radar.”

They aren’t favorites either. Eleven teams have higher Vegas odds. They do not have a quarterback with any history of winning and the defense has some areas that have the potential to draft back i.e. the interior of the defensive line after losing Sheldon Richardson.

“Last year was disappointing but we have great expectations for this year,” owner Mark Wilf said in a training camp session with the media. “We love the things that happened in the offseason…our goal is always to win the division and win Super Bowls.”

Naturally the team’s owner wasn’t going to be specific about whether 2019 is SBOB. It stands to reason, however, that this season has a higher likelihood of being SBOB than 2018.

If they come short of a playoff berth, the Vikings could make changes at head coach and general manager. Cousins’ future could be elsewhere if he doesn’t have a strong 2019. Veteran players who played key roles in the 2017 NFC Championship game could be moving on. This time it could bust.

Cousins said he’s good with all that.

“This is professional football and I hope we have expectations,” he said. “I hope the people on the outside say, ‘boy, they better be good this year or else.’ I mean, is that pressure? Yeah, but we’re professionals. We’re living a dream and we should have pressure on us and there should be expectations. I hope we get to play here for a lot of years where people really are putting a lot on us because they expect a lot out of us because we’ve shown that we can do it. That should be the goal.”

The part of the expectations game in the NFL is that there is grey area on top of grey area. If ownership sets the bar at an NFC North title and trip to the Super Bowl, what happens if they go 9-7 and exit the playoffs in the first round? Would they run it back again in 2020? Would they approach Cousins about an extension? Would they believe this plan, which was laid out by Zimmer upon his arrival in 2014, could get them over the hump? Would they blame the front office for going all-in on Cousins?

And if an average season is considered a bust, would it make any sense from a 30,000-foot view to blow out the coach who brought the team from 3-13 to consistent relevance in a time in which the franchise desperately needed it with the opening of a new stadium? Would they want to explore the great unknown of quarterback land, which can sometimes leave you with the next Patrick Mahomes and sometimes leave you with the next Brady Quinn?

The difficulty with the 9-7 scenario is that it’s the most likely according to Vegas. It isn’t hard to picture nine wins even if the Vikings were right about all the offseason tweaks and right about Gary Kubiak’s offense and right to bring back Anthony Barr and right to restructure Everson Griffen and sign Kyle Rudolph to an extension. The NFC North is darn tough. Their schedule includes games with similar desperation like Atlanta and Seattle.

Does it matter how it looks? In the NFC North, 9-7 might win the division. Would the Vikings need two playoff wins to go along with a so-so regular year in order for everything to stay status quo going forward?

So there’s a battle between setting expectations extremely high because the Vikings were in the NFC title game two years ago and recognizing that the most statistically likely outcome is a bit disappointing. There’s another battle between staying the course of a path that gets you to a likely strong season and wondering what direction another path would have taken you.

There’s holding people accountable and then there’s holding them accountable for things that either weren’t attainable from the start or weren’t attained because football is weird and sometimes kickers are bad and people get hurt.

All of this is a long way of saying: With the laundry list of potential long-term implications of the Vikings’ outcome in 2019, it won’t be as simple to judge as SBOB.

But — as Cousins pointed out — it’s far better to have higher expectations than you should than no expectations at all.

“If having a high standard and producing creates expectations that we have to talk about, that’s a good problem to have,” Cousins said.