When Vikings players returned from their bye week on Monday to begin a five-game push for a playoff spot that appeared much more contested than it had a week earlier, Brian Flores gathered the members of one of the league's most surprising defenses and told them what was at stake.
"My message was: 'You've got 35 guaranteed days. That's all we got that's guaranteed.' I can't give that message and not heed that message," the Vikings defensive coordinator said in response to a question about his own prospects for a second head coaching opportunity. "Let's put everything into those five weeks, and not come out of it with any regrets."
The Vikings are weeks from an offseason that could shape the direction of General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O'Connell's tenure in Minnesota.
They will learn if a head coach job proves attractive enough to spirit away Flores, the architect of their defensive turnaround.
They will monitor the rehab and the financial aspirations of quarterback Kirk Cousins, the free agent-to-be who hadflourished enough in a second season under O'Connell to elicit comments from both the head coach and GM about a possible return in 2024.
They will try to finish negotiations on what could be a historic deal for Justin Jefferson, determine whether to re-sign Danielle Hunter after he's become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Flores' defense, and work on an extension for left tackle Christian Darrisaw.
And they will continue the work they have already begun on a deep quarterback class, before deciding whether to draft the passer who might partner with Jefferson for the rest of his prime.
It's a slate of decisions with ramifications that could echo for years. Before that, the Vikings have five weeks in an oasis of relative simplicity during which they still control their own chances to secure a playoff spot that has appeared both unreachable and inevitable at different points this season.
They will have Jefferson on the field for the first time in seven weeks on Sunday at Las Vegas, an absence where several doctors weighed in with opinions on the best course of recovery for the All-Pro receiver's strained right hamstring. Joshua Dobbs, still the starting quarterback after the team's bye-week deliberations, will become just the second QB other than Cousins to throw Jefferson the ball in a game, as the Vikings continue to mold an offense that can maximize Dobbs' skills while minimizing the turnovers that cost them two games before the bye.
"At the end of the day, I prepare the same no matter what my role is," Dobbs said. "I love the opportunity to start and compete, and I plan on making the most of this opportunity and bouncing back from the last time on the field."
Even after losses to the Broncos and Bears before the bye, the Vikings (6-6) remain in playoff position coming out of it. Their final five-game stretch begins with two AFC road matchups in six days; it ends with three games against Detroit and Green Bay, the other two division teams currently in the NFC's playoff field.
If they handle it well enough to become the first Vikings team in 14 years to secure back-to-back playoff berths, they will delay the onset of an offseason rife with questions, and perhaps write different answers to some of them.
"All the guys in here worked so hard to get to this moment, where we hold our own destiny," Dobbs said. "So when the ball's in my hands, I don't want any question or hesitation out on that field."
Late bye, tough decision
The NFL has given teams a bye week in 35 of the Vikings' 63 seasons. Of the 35 Vikings teams to receive a bye, only the 1991 team had played more games before a week off than the 2023 team.
Before coaches departed for a rare weekend off, O'Connell deliberated with his offensive staff over a decision no Vikings coach had faced in six years: whether to take a healthy quarterback out of the lineup.
Dobbs asked O'Connell early in the bye week if they could go over the film of the Bears game with quarterbacks coach Chris O'Hara. It was the first time since Dobbs' sudden Nov. 1 arrival in Minnesota they had been able to take an unhurried look at the offense, examining why O'Connell wanted certain plays run in certain ways.
Dobbs' Vikings debut at Atlanta, where he took his first snaps from center Garrett Bradbury seconds before replacing an injured Jaren Hall and directing a comeback victory with teammates he'd barely met, quickly gained a kind of folklore status in Minnesota and earned Dobbs an NFC offensive player of the week award before he'd started his first game. The frantic pace of the season, though, gave Dobbs little time to learn the offense in depth or ask coaches about countermeasures for unexpected defensive looks.
"You can function [without it]. Like, you can hear a play called and have your interpretation of the call, right?" Dobbs said. "But it's different when you're game-planning a play for a specific look, and if you're not getting that look, [it's] 'Hey, what do I want to do so the ball's out of my hand quickly?'
"If I get that look, 'OK, why did we call this play? Now we get the look; how are we trying to attack it?' So yeah, you can survive, but you're not going to play the most efficient version of football out there. You'll probably be holding the ball a couple extra [seconds], letting the rush affect the game, and ultimately, that's where defenses thrive because they've got some really good players across the ball."
The Vikings went back through Dobbs' four games in Minnesota, with O'Connell expounding on his thought process and the quarterback speaking with more candor about what works for him. Their exchanges continued over texts through the bye week, and Dobbs, O'Connell said, "was the first guy back here on Monday morning." O'Connell informed Dobbs on Monday he would start against the Raiders.
The margin for error could be smaller for Dobbs in his fourth start after O'Connell indicated he'd thought about turning to Nick Mullens for a spark during the Bears game. But Dobbs will play with Jefferson for the first time and could have an offense modified more to his strengths after the bye-week conversations.
His coach, who began the bye week contemplating a QB change, came back to him.
"When I informed him of the decision, I could see the excitement on his face," O'Connell said. "It's pretty remarkable sometimes, just showing somebody the belief that you have in them and, ultimately, that you're in, in the fight with them.
"This is not something where we can predict perfect results or we're expecting perfection. It's about the principles of improvement that I think we can see, while also understanding we are doing some things we need to do to help the players, as well."
Jefferson's return changes plans
As the Vikings processed multiple medical opinions about Jefferson's hamstring and deliberated with the receiver about when to bring him back, the Bears game on Nov. 27 emerged as the earliest practical date for a return. Jefferson said this week he felt fully healthy for the first time before the Bears game. But with the bye following that game, all agreed to take the cautious approach and delay the receiver's return until the Raiders game.
His return, in all likelihood, will be met with the double teams and shaded safeties Jefferson grew used to seeing before his injury. He had adjusted enough to the attention with Cousins that he was averaging a career-high 114.2 yards per game before he was hurt. This weekend will be Dobbs' first exposure to the Jefferson treatment from Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, Flores' former coordinator in Miami who interviewed twice for the Vikings coaching job in 2022.
"Josh is a smart enough quarterback to read the defenses and choose where to throw me the ball," Jefferson said. "We go over that every single day. We're kind of prepared for that to happen during the game. ... It's nothing new. Nothing that we don't expect. We still have the same game plan of moving me around and putting me in different positions."
The seven-week absence was Jefferson's longest since he broke his elbow in high school. He admitted to feeling some "hopelessness" each week he wasn't on the field and commiserated with Cousins in the training room as the two centerpieces of the Vikings offense treated their injuries together.
Even though Jefferson played just five games, he returns only 429 yards away from his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season. The 2,000-yard goal he set before the season is gone for 2023, and the fact the Dolphins' Tyreek Hill could reach it first before Jefferson adds some sting to the season.
"We are trying to get to the playoffs and get to the Super Bowl," he said. "The individual stats are not there for me this year, but it's more about winning for the team."
The day Jefferson was injured, the Vikings dropped to 1-4. He returns for a stretch of games that could bring them back to the postseason.
They retain a measure of control over a season that has felt close to the brink several times. They return from an introspective bye week to see how long they can stay together.
"We've put ourselves in a position where everything's out in front of us," Flores said. "We've got a great opportunity, but we have to earn it."