MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' offense experienced myriad changes in 2018 with a new quarterback, offensive coordinator and system.
The offense aimed to find its own identity separate from years past, but that never truly happened. The Vikings never found what they were good at, struggling through an 8-7-1 nightmarish season.
"I think that’s kind of been the story of the season, just not sure what it [the offense’s identity] will be," running back Latavius Murray said. "Are we going to run the ball a lot? Do we have to pass a lot? Just the uncertainty, to be honest, with a lot of things."
Perhaps that ambiguity will be the most difficult thing to stomach from a lost season as the Vikings look to determine what went wrong offensively and how it led to the demise of a year that began with Super Bowl expectations.
A year after ranking second in rushing attempts, the Vikings were one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the NFL for much of the season. It seemed to be working, at least in Weeks 1-9. It also had to do with finding a work-around for a shaky offensive line that affected a run game that was without Dalvin Cook for more than a month.
Kirk Cousins passed for 4,298 yards and became the second player in team history to reach 30 passing touchdowns in his first Vikings season. He set team records for the most passing yards, passing attempts and 20-completion games in a season. And Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs set single-season team marks with the most receptions by a receiver duo and became the eighth Vikings receiver duo to reach 1,000 yards in the same season.
But all of those individual accolades didn’t add up to consistent results.
"I don't know that there's any one thing," Cousins said about the offense’s lack of identity. "And, frankly, I think each week you adjust your offense to what you need to do to win. So you do what you need to do to be successful. And it's not the same thing every week. It's OK to change your identity from week to week if necessary."
It was more than just changing the game plan each week that held the offense back. Minnesota couldn't get in the end zone.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings ranked 18th in touchdown drive percentage (20.7 percent of all drives) after ranking ninth in 2017. They ranked 25th in three-and-out percentage (12th in 2017), 20th in offensive efficiency (11th) and dropped from third to 26th (35.8 percent) in third-down conversion rate from 2017 to 2018.
The Vikings particularly struggled in the red zone. They ranked 26th in points from each trip inside the 20-yard line and scored a touchdown 54 percent of the time they reached the red zone (21st).
"I think it’s very easy to look at maybe certain games and you say, ‘Man, we were lighting it up,’" Murray said. "You look at the L.A. game and we’re going back and forth with one of the best offenses in the NFL. Were we able to run the ball really well? No, but maybe everybody is looking and saying we’re a good team, right, or good offense. But when you have to play against these good teams and you have to establish the run and you’re not able to pass the ball as much as we were doing, then that’s when the flaws show up. Being consistent we were struggling with. I definitely think we showed at times, but just being consistent. And then all three phases playing together.
"There was also times, if we’re being honest, maybe defensively we didn’t have it figured out. But for the most part, they did what they do. I think that was the story of the season, not consistent enough and not all three phases coming together. Good teams have to do that, especially late in the season and [in Week 17, a loss to the Bears]."
With Cousins, Diggs, Thielen, Cook and others set to come back for another year, the offense has a chance to jell further. Retaining Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator is another way to create continuity.
"You’re going to have changes," Thielen said. "You have to figure out how to quickly get on the same page and try to help your team. But at the same time, yeah, it’s going to be nice to go into an offseason with some of the same quarterback, things like that, and be able to take advantage of this offseason and OTAs and all that again. Just to have some more time under our belt with the receivers and the skill positions with the quarterback and things like that.
"That stuff definitely doesn’t hurt, but like I said before, it doesn’t matter what obstacles you have. It doesn’t matter the changes. You have to make it work and we weren’t able to do that this year."