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Many Vikings fans of a certain age remember the team’s glory years in the late 1960s and ’70s. At the time, it looked like the franchise would become the lead dog in the NFL and follow in the footsteps of Vince Lombardi’s Packers.
It might have come down to a battle with the Dallas Cowboys or Los Angeles Rams, but the Vikings were either at or near the top spot. The Vikings had everything, including a game-changing quarterback in Fran Tarkenton, skill players in Chuck Foreman, John Gilliam and Ahmad Rashad and a fine offensive line.
But the thing that defined the oldest and best generation of Vikings was the toughness on defense. This team had one of the best defensive lines in the history of the NFL, with the threesome of Alan Page, Carl Eller and Jim Marshall wreaking havoc. The fourth member during a large portion of that era was Gary Larsen, who was not a superstar, but excelled in the stay-at-home role as a run stopper.
Led by the brilliant Page, this group was fast, smart and mean on the field. Those are all characteristics that the current version of the team could use more of as it prepares for the 2023 season.
It’s one of the reasons that finding the next defensive coordinator is such a critical move. The hiring of Kevin O’Connell may have been very positive for the franchise, but it doesn’t seem as if he has a mean bone in his body. If you could have this guy as a neighbor, you would be thrilled to know he is looking out for your property when you went on vacation. If you had a daughter who was ready to go off on her own, you hope she would find a Kevin O’Connell to date and possibly marry.
He is the quintessential nice guy, and after inheriting a damaged locker room and a broken team, he was the right man for the job. He proved that by bringing all sides together and delivering a 13-4 regular-season record.
O’Connell does not inspire fear within his own organization, and while everybody evolves, it’s doubtful that he ever will. However, if he can find a nasty, cantankerous and demanding defensive coordinator who can push his players hard and is not satisfied, the Vikings will at least have a chance to improve on that side of the ball.
That is not the whole answer, of course. The issue with the defense is largely a lack of talent, and what happened during the 2022 season was not any kind of fluke. The Vikings had one of the worst defenses in the league for the last three seasons.
There were a number of spectacularly poor performances in 2020, 2021 and 2022. The worst performance in 2020 was a Christmas Day game against the Saints. In that 52-33 loss, the Vikings gave up 264 rushing yards on 45 carries and 7 rushing touchdowns. It was one of the worst defensive showings by any team in the league that year, and nobody was more embarrassed than Mike Zimmer. The former Vikings head coach was once a great defensive mind, and he never got over that game.
In 2021, a 34-28 loss to the 49ers saw the San Francisco running game punish the Vikings with 208 rushing yards and 3 TDs while Jimmy Garoppolo throw for 230 yards and a touchdown. Basically, the Niners did whatever they wanted to against a non-existent defense, both on the ground and through the air.
Other miserable performances that season came against the Arizona Cardinals, as the Vikings allowed Kyler Murray to throw for 400 yards, Baltimore Ravens, allowing 247 rushing yards and 266 passing yards and Green Bay Packers, allowing 481 total yards.
The new regime saw the defense fall apart this season in losses to the Eagles, Cowboys, Lions, Packers and the Giants in the Wild Card game.
There can be no equivocating when it comes to defense. The Vikings must upgrade the personnel on the defensive line, at the linebacker position and in the secondary. But they must also get a defensive coordinator who will push the defense to the limit and demand performances that bring back memories of the legacy players from the team’s glory days.