The Minnesota Vikings need an answer
By: Grant Schwieger
The Minnesota Vikings have been in a treacherous cycle of disappointment since being blown out by Philadelphia just one game from a Super Bowl in their own stadium in January of 2018. Kirk Cousins was brought in to lead a team that went 13-3 with a backup QB the year prior, so a Super Bowl was in the minds of everyone involved. The result? Missing the playoffs completely that year, and one playoff win in the three seasons since, soon to be four.
2021 was supposed to be a big bounce-back for the Vikings, and instead, it has been as disheartening as one could imagine. It all came to a head in Week 8, as Minnesota, fresh off a bye, lost at home, on primetime, to a Dallas Cowboys team led not by their MVP candidate QB Dak Prescott, but by Cooper Rush and all of his three career pass attempts. Rush spent most of the game being unable to hit a moving target, yet with his back to the wall, led a game-winning drive in front of the entire country. It was the perfect storm of embarrassment for Minnesota and appears to be the tipping point for many fans. Rick Spielman, Mike Zimmer, and Kirk Cousins are all in the crosshairs of fans’ anger, and rightfully so. But who really is to blame for the Vikings’ perpetual letdown year after year? The answer is everyone.
We start with what is Kirk Cousins’ fault. In the eyes of many fans, everything is his fault. He is paid too much money, checks down too much, the whole nine yards. Many other fans do not fault Cousins at all. The reality is somewhere in the middle. Kirk Cousins did not pay himself $84 million to play in Minnesota. In fact, he has been a much better QB in Minnesota than in his time in Washington. That being said, he certainly is at fault for some of the Vikings’ woes. Let’s look at how that is the case.
The first issue with Cousins is his general obliviousness to many things around him. That goes for situations both on and off the field. His “If I die, I die.” quote about coronavirus is one example, as is his suggestion that he surrounds himself with plexiglass wherever he goes in the Vikings’ facility to prevent contracted COVID-19.
Cousins also appears to be oblivious of what is expected of him when he is paid like a franchise quarterback. He is only the 8th-highest paid QB now per overthecap.com, but one would expect such a handsomely-paid QB to have control over timeouts during two-minute drills. And yet, he let the clock run out in the final seconds of the first half last Sunday because he thought it was best to leave that decision to Mike Zimmer.
Cousins was asked after the game about his performance and the offense overall not being very aggressive. This was his response:
Blaming a conservative offense on a “combination of coverage and pressure” might be one of the most tone-deaf quotes of all time. There is coverage and pressure on literally every snap where a pass is attempted. That is the point of defense in football. Any time a defense has a good pass-rush and coverage, to just throw your hands up and say “well shoot! They got us!” is frustrating for fans to hear, to say the least. Defenses play well sometimes. It is up to the special players at the QB position to overcome that.
Kirk Cousins has long been considered to lack that “it” factor that a lot of professional athletes possess, including most, if not all, franchise QBs. His impressive start to 2021 almost tricked a lot of football savants, including myself, into thinking he had turned the corner in that aspect. The scary excuse of an offense he led on Halloween was a reminder to all that he is the same old Kirk Cousins.
Ignoring the blatant cluelessness, there are other faults to Kirk Cousins’ game that hinder the Vikings. In his first year in Minnesota, Cousins was often criticized for checking the ball down far too often. His average depth of target (aDot) in 2018 was 7.9 yards downfield. After bumping his aDot above 8.0 yards in 2019 and 2020, Cousins is back down to 7.0 this year, ahead of only Jared Goff.
There can be many reasons for this. Play callers can call plays where there are no deep options, a lot of quick game, and screens to lower a QBs aDot. While it can be difficult to parse out who is truly at fault for a lack of passes downfield, the availability of All-22 film from the NFL allows many to rewatch games and see the whole field. Luke Braun of Zone Coverage and Locked on Vikings charted 11 times in the Dallas game alone where Cousins threw the ball short when he had a window to throw the ball farther downfield.
Cousins did not throw the ball past the first down marker ONCE on Minnesota’s 13 3rd downs in that game. This is not some anomaly either, as time and time again Kirk Cousins has failed to make a big difference on 3rd down.
Per Arjun Menon of PFF, Cousins has the 20th best EPA/play on 3rd downs in the NFL. Minnesota also on average has the farthest to go on both second and third downs this year. Cousins might not be to blame for that (more on that later), but he does not do much to help his case, either.
The chart above looks at the difficulty of NFL QBs’ throws and if their situations are harder or easier on average. Cousins is in the “hard situations, easy passes” group, which means he typically is faced with difficult situations, yet makes the easy pass, such as a check down. No matter how you draw it up, it is never good to be grouped with Davis Mills, Jared Goff, and Jacoby Brissett.
Now, earlier I mentioned that Cousins is not really to blame for Minnesota often being well behind the sticks on second and third downs. That leads us to the next culprit who is to blame for the Vikings’ struggles…
Mike Zimmer took over a Minnesota Vikings team in 2014 that was fresh off 3.5 mostly uninspiring seasons under Leslie Frazier. Frazier was well-respected, a genuinely nice guy who took over for Brad Childress halfway through 2010 after being Minnesota’s defensive coordinator since 2007. His defenses while head coach were never good, however, leading to Mike Zimmer taking over as another defensive-minded coach.
The Zimmer tenure has generally been pretty successful. His teams have never had a record worse than 7-9, always at least fighting for playoff contention. The pre-Zimmer era had some hideous teams, so a constantly competitive team was a breath of fresh air for Minnesota fans. Unfortunately, Mike Zimmer appears to have reached the end of his leash in Minnesota.
The first issue many will point to when it comes to Zimmer’s shortcomings is his general lack of accepting that the NFL is a passing league now. The only thing worse than thinking a running game is the key to success in the modern-day NFL is having that belief while possessing one of the highest-paid QBs in the league. Zimmer is an old-school football head in the biggest way. He would prefer to win every game 16-10 by playing hard-nosed defense and running the ball down his opponent’s throats.
John DeFilippo was ran out of town as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2018 because he did not run the ball as much as Zimmer wanted. Every coordinator the team has had since has been Zimmer’s puppet, doing as he says and making sure that Dalvin Cook is run into the ground whenever possible. The one coordinator who managed to be extremely successful in the face of these guidelines, Kevin Stefanski, was the NFL Coach of the Year last year in Cleveland. Before the Vikings’ seemingly improbable playoff victory in New Orleans after the 2019 season, there was a lot of talk coming out of TCO Performance Center in Eagan about the team wanting to promote Stefanski to head coach and potentially even trade Mike Zimmer to Dallas. Instead, Minnesota shocked the world, won on the road in the playoffs, and earned Zimmer, Rick Spielman, and Kirk Cousins extensions, even though the team laid an egg in San Francisco the very next week.
Speaking of laying eggs when the season is on the line, that has been a common theme recently under Zimmer. Needing one victory over a backup QB to get to the Super Bowl in 2017, Zimmer’s team looked like they had not practiced all week and embarrassed Minnesota fans everywhere. Then in 2018, the Vikings needed a Week 17 victory at home over Chicago to make the playoffs and proceeded to once again not show up, culminating in a shouting match between Cousins and Adam Thielen on the sideline. Then the 2019 season ended in lackluster fashion in San Francisco. 2020 was a disappointing season no matter how you look at it, and yet a home victory over Mitch Trubisky and the Bears could have put Minnesota in good shape to make the playoffs. Instead, they gave Trubisky his second-to-last career win as a starter and shrunk into the shadows.
The excuse of a football game that Zimmer’s team put forth against Dallas in Week 8 was the final straw of fiascos under Zimmer. As Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic noted, Zimmer is responsible for how the team played even if he was not the one telling Klint Kubiak what to call. Cousins blamed his head coach when it came to why the team did not call a timeout on their final first-half possession. Even if it is comical that a team’s QB does not have authority to call timeout if it really is up to Zimmer, then why did he let his team run out the entire clock?
Not only was that a malicious form of clock mismanagement, even worse was the delay of game penalty he received from calling back-to-back timeouts on Dallas’s game-winning drive. That gave the Cowboys 5 extra yards that led to them winning the game as opposed to kicking a field goal and going into overtime. Almost weekly, Mike Zimmer botches a two-minute drill in some capacity. Whether it is putting his below-average CBs on an island against elite WRs, or not even trying to score when given 30+ seconds and multiple timeouts.
Mike Zimmer is incredulously afraid of letting Kirk Cousins loose. Whether right or wrong, his team is paying Cousins enough money where he should be expected to be a difference-maker on the team. Instead, he coaches games against backup QBs where HIS QB looks like the one who is a backup and cannot be trusted. Let’s face it, Stefon Diggs was right. He was always right. Zimmer would make a great defensive coordinator, but at this point in time, he is unfit to lead an NFL locker room. He is too stubborn to accept the hand he has been dealt, instead wishing every night before he goes to sleep that Teddy Bridgewater was still his QB. Besides, did Zimmer even want Kirk Cousins in the first place…?
General Manager Rick Spielman is the hardest one to assign a level of blame to when it comes to Minnesota’s woes. Mike Zimmer clearly has a lot of power over the Vikings, and no one outside the building will ever know who was really more in charge. However, Spielman has made his fair share of mistakes in his time in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
His biggest mistake will have to be the signing of Kirk Cousins. The Vikings were at a very important crossroads in March of 2018, fresh off an NFC Championship Game with a backup QB. The decision of who should be the QB in 2018 was a difficult one. The team made the right decision in letting Case Keenum go, as incredible as his 2017 was. However, bringing in Kirk Cousins obviously divided many inside the team’s front office. In Everson Griffen’s string of tweets last year, he called Cousins “booty” for lack of a better term and said, “ask ZIMMER if he ever wanted Kirk?” This infers that Zimmer was never a Cousins fan, meaning Spielman must have been the one lobbying hard for him.
Now, Kirk Cousins was the best available QB in free agency, so based on talent alone he was the right choice. That signing aside, Spielman has lost his magic touch as of late. After a solid stretch of drafting starting in 2012 and ending with the all-time draft class that was 2015, the Vikings’ drafts since 2016 are a sore sight. I will save my readers the pain of listing off their choices, but if Justin Jefferson had not been selected in 2020, Spielman might already be gone.
The NFL Draft is largely a crapshoot, though, and no team has shown that they are better at drafting than their peers over an extended period. This recent stretch might just be Spielman and Minnesota’s luck evening out. Spielman has not made up for that in other areas, though. While showing loyalty to your players is not a bad thing, sometimes a GM needs to know when to take a stand. Minnesota seemingly always pays their players, often too much. The latest being an unnecessary extension of Harrison Smith for three additional years. When guaranteeing your QB as much money as Minnesota is, you need to be smart with how you manage the cap surrounding him.
There is also the issue with Spielman’s panic trades he has made these last few years. First, there was the trade of a second-round pick for Yannick Ngakoue, only to turn around and trade him away after six games. Sure, Minnesota had a hole to fill with Danielle Hunter’s absence in 2020, but Spielman and Zimmer should have been wise enough to notice they were not one player away from being competitive. This year brought the trade for Chris Herndon and a sixth-round pick for a fourth-round pick in the wake of Irv Smith Jr’s injury. At least Ngakoue was a good player. Herndon has been a net negative for the team thus far.
Spielman’s toxic trait of panicking in the wake of an injury of a player and overpaying via trade will only harm the Vikings in the long run. Does Spielman largely manage draft-day trades well? Yes, but those will only take the team so far. In fact, the team’s two biggest weaknesses, the offensive line and the secondary, are two of the most heavily invested in positions in the draft lately.
No one is absolved of blame when it comes to how Minnesota got to this point. All three of these men are somewhat responsible and likely need to be employed elsewhere in 2022 if the Vikings are going to get the state of their franchise turned around.
Bonus: The Wilf’s
The Wilf family, led by Zygi and his brother Mark and cousin Leonard, have been in ownership of the team since 2005. They inherited the team at a tough time after Minnesota had made nothing out of Randy Moss’s tenure. It has mostly been an upward trajectory since, but the team has gotten complacent in their ownership. Brad Childress was fired mid-season but only once he had a power surge and thought he could dismiss players from the team on his own. Besides that, the only coaches that have been let go came after the season ended.
The Minnesota Vikings are the only NFL team in the top-15 in all-time win percentage that does not own a Super Bowl trophy. While that dates back well before the Wilf’s tenure, it is a perfect summary of their time as owners. They are happy that the team is competitive each season and are content even though the team is rarely true Super Bowl contenders. They lack the true desire to bring a championship to Minnesota. Here is to hoping the latest Minnesota Meltdown changes their mindset on that.