Over a long season, there is never one event or decision that can be credited or blamed with the year’s outcome, but if you were ranking reasons that the Minnesota Vikings’ season has gone much better this year than last, you would put the decision to sign Riley Reiff and let Matt Kalil leave in free agency at the top of the list.
Shortly after Kalil signed a five-year, $55.5 million contract with the Carolina Panthers, he made comments insinuating the Vikings’ offensive line coaches had not pushed him hard enough.
“(Matsko) is the first guy I’ve played for that kind of demands excellence from his offensive line room,” Kalil told the Charlotte Observer.
But that excellence hasn’t shown up on the field this year as Pro Football Focus ranks Kalil 44th of 56 qualifying tackles in pass blocking. They have graded him positively in just three of 13 games. Cam Newton has been sacked 28 times this season. In Carolina’s key matchup with the New Orleans Saints, the 2012 No. 4 overall pick committed two key penalties
Meanwhile Reiff just gave up his first sack of the season on Sunday against Atlanta (and head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday that the sack wasn’t entirely on Reiff). Case Keenum has been sacked just nine times total.
After signing Reiff this offseason, the Vikings quickly named Reiff and captain and his leadership paid dividends with less experienced players like center Pat Elflein and tackle Rashod Hill, who has been asked to play in place of Mike Remmers.
“Personally, if I ever need help with anything, I can always depend on Riley,” Hill said earlier this year. “He talks when he wants to, when he can, but most of all Riley’s a leader. He’s in the facility before anybody. I try to get here early and Riley beats me here.”
Reiff has also been at the center of the Vikings’ offensive line forming its own identity. They have become known for their mobility and toughness.
“That’s a tight knit group over there,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “I really like the demeanor that they play with….I think that’s a lot of it. And ya know, you don’t have to be a rah rah guy to be a leader. You have to be able to do your job and people respect you and do what you say you’re going to do. That’s usually the litmus test.”
If you Google search Kalil, you will find the same stories you would have over the past three years. For several weeks, he was good and “finally figuring it out,” then the wheels came off again. With a Vikings team whose offense hinges on having every player show up on a weekly basis, that type of inconsistency could have been costly.
Instead the Vikings have one of their most valuable players in Reiff. It’s safe to say they made a future-shaping decision signing the former Lion.