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Can the Vikings turn their poor turnover margin around?

Fortunes have turned for the Minnesota Vikings following a season where the ball kept bouncing in their favor. After a 13-4 season under first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell, the Vikings have dropped their first two games of the 2023 season. While the start can’t be pinned on any one thing, the most glaring issue so far has been the team’s seven turnovers.

How The Vikings Are Losing The Ball

The Vikings lost two fumbles (including a fluky one where right guard Ed Ingram knocked the ball out of Kirk Cousins’ hands) and threw another interception in their Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Four days later against the Philadelphia Eagles, the ball security got even worse. Four different Vikings lost fumbles, including star receiver Justin Jefferson who fumbled a potential touchdown into the endzone late in the first half. The play resulted in a touchback for the Eagles, who then marched quickly downfield to kick a 61-yard field goal. Instead of a potential 14-10 lead heading into halftime, the Vikings trailed 13-7 as the Eagles regained momentum.

Normally a team with seven turnovers through two games can place blame squarely on their quarterback. While the stat sheet shows that Cousins has been responsible for four of the seven turnovers, only one has been intercepted. The fluky fumble caused by Ingram was unfortunate but unlikely to be repeated. And his two other fumbles came from blindside hits on sacks where Cousins didn’t stand a chance.

These turnovers would be more forgivable if the Vikings were getting takeaways of their own. But the Bucs and Eagles took care of the ball, save for one Jalen Hurts pass that was intercepted by backup safety Theo Jackson. Altogether, the Vikings are sitting with a turnover margin of minus-6 through two games. Only 27 other teams have begun their seasons with a turnover margin of minus-6 or worse through two games since 1994. So is this a death sentence for the Vikings? Or are they able to turn it around?

How Have Other Teams Fared With This Start?

Fittingly, none of the 27 previous teams to begin their seasons with a turnover margin of minus-6 or worse began the season 2-0. Six teams began 1-1, and five of those six ended up making the playoffs. The only two teams that made the playoffs after losing both of their opening games were the 2002 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 2003 Philadelphia Eagles, and those teams both had turnover margins of minus-7. Altogether, seven of the 27 teams with a minus-6 turnover margin or worse would ultimately make the playoffs.

What did these six teams have in common? They immediately began reducing their turnovers. The 2005 Seattle Seahawks turned the ball over seven times in Week 1 but would turn the ball over just once in Week 2. Seattle then wouldn’t turn the ball over the next three games. The 2011 Steelers turned the ball over seven times in Week 1 but would only have other games with three turnovers or more the rest of the year. In fact, only the 2002 Steelers ended the season ranking among the bottom five in the NFL in giveaways.

But a team that has a negative turnover margin also isn’t taking the ball away from the other team. Out of these seven playoff teams, only the 2002 Steelers forced multiple turnovers over the first two weeks of the season. Yet each team besides the 2011 Steelers, who finished dead-last in takeaways, finished 18th or better in takeaways by the season’s end.

A Vikings Connection

The Vikings have been here before. After trading away Randy Moss in the off-season, the 2005 Vikings offense got off to a horrendous start, turning the ball over 12 times in the first two weeks. Over the past 30 years, only the 2003 Arizona Cardinals have matched the 2005 Vikings’ minus-9 turnover margin through the first two games. Unlike the Cardinals, though, Minnesota made a run at the playoffs.

After turning the ball over three times against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, the Vikings had turned the ball over a total of 15 times en route to a 1-3 start. But the turnovers stopped occurring after that. They would turn the ball over 15 times over the team’s final 12 games as Brad Johnson took over at quarterback following Daunte Culpepper’s knee injury. While protecting the ball and taking the ball away, the Vikings ripped off six consecutive wins from November to December to sit at 8-5.

Unfortunately, the Vikings would drop two consecutive games to the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, eliminating them from playoff contention with one game to go. But their historic pace of turnovers could only stand to last so long. Once Minnesota cut those down, they were able to fight for a playoff spot late into December.

What It Means For The 2023 Vikings

As far as the 2023 Vikings go, they have a chance to right the ship because of the nature of their turnovers. The previous seven playoff teams cut down their turnovers, but the Vikings can only fumble so often. In 2022, only the Indianapolis Colts (37) and Chicago Bears (33) fumbled more than 30 times. Minnesota is already sitting at six, an average of three per game. Unless things go haywire, it is unlikely that they fumble the ball 51 times, let alone lose that many.

Since 1994, only three teams have turned the ball over 50 or more times altogether. Those three teams all threw at least 30 team interceptions, a mark that Cousins isn’t going to come close to (two of those teams were also the 1998 and 2000 Chargers led by bonafide bust Ryan Leaf).

The 2023 Vikings have had terrible turnover luck thus far, yet have been in position to win both games. If they can play a clean game to aid their prolific passing attack, they can right the ship and turn their season around.

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