Stockholm Syndrome isn't real, but Vikings Syndrome might be

Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) is unable to catch a pass while defended by New York Giants cornerback Fabian Moreau (37) during the fourth quarter during a wild card game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Photo credit Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the term Stockholm Syndrome was derived from an attempted bank robbery in 1973. The robbery resulted in a six-day standoff between the robbers and the police in Stockholm, Sweden. It included many hostages who became sympathetic toward their kidnappers as the situation played out.

When the standoff ended, many refused to testify against the robbers in court and even raised money for their defense. A criminologist and psychiatrist coined the term to describe the feelings the hostages had toward their captors — but it didn’t come without flaws.

The police had threatened to use violent methods to end the standoff, creating a perceived threat among the hostages. They felt the captors were less of a threat than the police who were supposed to save them. Dr. Allan Wade later wrote in a 2008 study that Stockholm Syndrome was “a myth to discredit women victims of violence by a psychiatrist with an obvious conflict of interest.”

The concept of Stockholm Syndrome may not be real. But when it comes to the Minnesota Vikings over the past several years, they have developed their own loyalty toward players due to the perceived threat of the outside world.

This may sound harsh, but it’s a grim reality that the Vikings have been facing since 2013. Minnesota went from making the playoffs the previous year to owners of a 5-10-1 record that season. They hired Mike Zimmer and promoted Rick Spielman to general manager, leading the Vikings on a rise that ultimately wound up getting them to the NFC Championship game in 2017.

Since that year, the Vikings have shown an undying loyalty to that team even as they’ve hit the glass ceiling of their own boundaries. The players who comprised that nucleus came off as less of a threat to fall back into their irrelevancy in the early 2010s, thus prompting the Vikings to make moves that were to their own detriment.

The biggest example is signing Kirk Cousins. The Vikings brought Cousins in to push the 2017 team over the top and get the franchise to its first Super Bowl in 46 years. In five seasons, Cousins has led Minnesota to one playoff win. Still, the team seems willing to give him another chance entering his age-35 season.

The cycle began with an initial three-year, $84 million commitment to Cousins but has since included a pair of one-year extensions. Each extension has been more ironclad than the one before it. Even with a new regime coming in, Cousins’ consistency at the position seemed like less of a threat to their competitiveness than the idea of taking a different quarterback.

“The one asset where you get nervous about not burning it down is quarterback,” Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah told USA Today’s Jori Epstein in July 2022. “…[We have] a good quarterback [but] we don’t have Tom Brady. We don’t have Patrick Mahomes. … [The Super Bowl] is more likely to win if you have that quarterback [but] it’s very unlikely to have that quarterback.”

Taking swing after swing in the draft could lead the Vikings to a road they have traveled since Daunte Culpepper blew out his knee in 2005. The Vikings have tried to find a quarterback of the future, drafting Tarvaris Jackson in 2006 and Christian Ponder in 2011.

Neither quarterback seized that role, but both led them to the playoffs during their time in Minnesota. However, that seems to be lost on ownership that pulls up Cousins’ Pro Football Reference page and sees that he’s thrown for over 4,000 yards in seven of the past eight seasons and 30 or more touchdowns in three of his past five.

Signing a cheaper quarterback or drafting one could cause them to fall out of contention and irritate Justin Jefferson, the face of the franchise. In their minds, if the Vikings were to employ a quarterback similar to Ponder or Jackson, they wouldn’t be able to get the ball to Jefferson, causing him to demand a trade or leave the organization altogether.

They are failing to account for Cousins’ rigid contracts, which are hindering the roster’s development. With each short-term deal, the Vikings lose the flexibility to keep some of their own players and potentially add others that could help them in free agency.

This year, the urgency to make the most out of Cousins’ prime forced trades for T.J. Hockenson, Jalen Reagor, and Ross Blacklock. It deprived the Vikings of draft picks that could be used to set up a succession plan for Cousins and locked themselves into another year of hoping that he has “an extra level.”

But Cousins is not the sole captor of the franchise. The veterans from the 2017 team played a key role in the organization’s shift.

When Eric Kendricks and Brian O’Neill criticized Zimmer’s culture after the Vikings fired him a year ago, they indicated to ownership that he was the problem. Ownership jumped at the opportunity to make a change. While Kevin O’Connell brought a breath of fresh air, it also meant the ownership and front office were committed to the existing players.

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The front office leaned into this theory by giving Adam Thielen a raise and guaranteeing Danielle Hunter’s roster bonus. They also made several win-now moves, including signing Za’Darius Smith in free agency. The moves fueled a 13-win season – the third in franchise history – but also damaged their future while clinging to the recent past.

Approaching a new offseason, the Vikings need to realize that the players that have become their captors aren’t as big of a threat as the unknown. Kendricks, Jordan Hicks, and Harrison Smith have become long in the tooth, and a defense that was one of the worst in the NFL was just as much as the players’ fault as it was Ed Donatell’s.

The pandering has already begun for some of these players to return to Minnesota next season; Thielen and his family started throwing out cryptic tweets like his name was Stefon Diggs. The same could happen for other veterans as they try to convince ownership that they were just a handful of plays away from making it to the Super Bowl.

At some point, the cycle needs to end. The Vikings must realize that the unknown isn’t as big of a threat as they perceive it to be. They will be stuck in a syndrome of their own creation until they do.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports