Sure, A Three-Point Loss isn’t the End of the World. Usually/But…
The Vikings fell to the Kansas City Chiefs 26-23 on Sunday thanks to a last-second game-winning field goal by the Chiefs to bring their season record to 6-3, while the Vikings’ record fell to 6-3 as well. From afar or if you only watched the highlights of the game- you’d have thought that it was a very close and hard-fought loss against an explosive Chiefs team in Arrowhead stadium, which is a bottom three place to play in the league as an opposing team or actual Native American. There’s some that believe that stuff like this happens and that the Vikings are in no worse shape, in terms of their season-long potential, after losing a game against one of the powerhouses of the AFC in their home stadium by just three lousy points!
If you’ve followed my articles or podcast(s) in recent years you’ll know that I’m not one of those people.
If you’re anything like me you’re only now perhaps peeking out at the world of Vikings news after Sunday’s ‘Malaise in Missouri’ somehow turned what has been described as a “Heart-Breaking” loss to whatever this is (from me):
I fully admit that I can be prone to hyperbole, especially after an emotional loss… but the more I think about Sunday’s action, the less stupid I feel about seeming apocalyptic about a three-point loss on the road in one of the more inhospitable places to play in the entire NFL. That’s because even though the Vikings were winning and the offense seemed to be humming in the four wins that took place after the disaster in Chicago, there was always this fear that the other shoe would drop from even some of the most optimistic of Vikings fans/writers and that we’d end up feeling that all too familiar sting of failure that seems to follow this organization like vultures follow me when I attempt to jog.
As one of the charter members of the Pessimistic Vikings Writers/Fan Club; I thought that I’d do my best to explain our worldview, or- at least as it pertains to the current iteration of the Vikings and last Sunday’s “action”. Because, as I said in my post-Bears “I’m Getting Off the Cousins Band-Wagon” video, sure, they’ll probably bounce back and beat bad teams but I’m entirely not sold on Cousins or this team to come through when it really matters. Actually, there are three major components to my concerns, and so strap in as I attempt to explain the darkest regions of my very soul.
First up? The coaching decisions and its impact on the very up-and-down Cousins.
In the weeks after the disaster that was the game in Chicago earlier this season I had attempted to limit any panic in my brains by saying that Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins wasn’t just playing well against bad opponents (and thus the other shoe was eventually going to drop once he and the Vikings faced better competition) by saying that perhaps the Vikings brass had finally figured out how to best use Cousins thanks to the newfound stability that comes from not having the worst offensive line (or at least offensive guards) in the league, zero run game because of it and also the infighting between the offensive coordinator and head coach that we experienced in 2018.
Perhaps now that they had a chance to see some stability, they realized that the best way to utilize Cousins was to get his legs moving (as that could solve his happy feet and over-active (and dare I say over-prepared) brain all in one fell swoop) by moving the pocket with roll-outs, bootlegs and the like. A lot of those plays, at least in the way that the Vikings have run them, require the run game to be firing on all cylinders as more often than not it seems like those plays begin with Cousins’ reported favorite kind of play, the play-action.
So, especially after the offense and Cousins seemed to struggle (he posted a sub-50% completion rate in the first-half), why did they continue to run between the tackles against the Chiefs? Especially when it was clear to even people like me that Pat Elflein was being dominated the entire game? Then, when they (and by they I mean Kevin Stefanski, as I can’t imagine either Gary Kubiak nor offensive line coach Rick Dennison calling these monstrosities) did actually run the ball outside (on outside zone runs) they would mostly do it to the short/left side of the field.
That meant that they often were running to the side with the most issues, which is also known as Elflein’s side which I guess is a step up from running directly behind him and into the waiting arms of eight or nine Chiefs defenders.
Because those plays weren’t working there was a trickle-down effect of persistent third-and-longs, which lead to their defense continuing to stack the box or not bite on play-action, and the rest is sort of history. Keep in mind that this was all against the THIRTIETH ranked rush defense in the entire NFL and you’ll get why the title of this article is what it is.
That bad play-calling stemmed from a bad game plan. Which, you’d think that the Vikings would’ve realized the error of their ways early on and would’ve attempted to change back to something resembling what they’d been doing the past month but they were either too far invested into the plan in place or they were too proud to admit defeat. Either way, the result was taking Cousins and Cook from a level of play that got both of their names thrown into the ring as potential MVP’s to essentially being just bad. It wasn’t just a bad game plan, though, it was also just bad execution.
I’ll let DailyNorseman’s Wludford explain:
“The first 15 plays are typically scripted ahead of time, and those first 15 plays yielded just 50 yards, half of which came on a 3rd and 7 completion to Laquon Treadwell. That’s still just over 3 yards a play – half the Vikings season average. Considering that those 15 plays are typically rehearsed during the week, the poor execution and results – two 3-and-outs to start the game – leave a lot to be desired when it comes to both the game plan and execution.”
Take that a step further, and realize that of the Vikings’ first 21 plays on offense, only eight (a percentage of nearly 1-in-3 which is a far cry from Zimmer’s 50:50 dream ratio) were run plays. Because lord knows the last thing you want to see is the Chiefs’ terrible rush defense against the best all-around running back in the NFL. How does that happen? Is it hubris or is it yet another case of this coaching staff outthinking themselves? Cause speaking of both a bad plan and terrible execution…
In the 2017 NFC Championship game there were moments were seasons Vikings veteran defenders, who had been in Zim’s system for years and who were never known as anything but very dedicated and prepared Captains of this defense, were basically throwing their arms up in the air in frustration as they didn’t know what to do or where to be on any particular down. After the game, Zimmer would admit that perhaps he attempted to add too many wrinkles to his defense and because of that his players couldn’t just, you know, play.
Despite the negative on-the-field results you’d have thought that Zimmer and company would’ve learned their lesson. But nope, the Vikings defense played like a shell of its former self to start the 2018 season for very much the same reasons. After Zimmer simplified things the Vikings defense appeared to normalize and play much more like the team that we all thought they were. Unfortunately, by then it was sort of too late as the Vikings offense, with its lack of a line and run game, had essentially shut down.
That’s why watching games like Sunday’s in Kansas City is so frustrating. This Vikings team is talented enough at every position to be able to beat bad teams, or team units, just by running relatively simple plays. Let the guys play to their strengths and they’ll use their talent to get you the rest of the way. Why not let Dalvin Cook and company either start strong or attempt to wear down these Chiefs defenders? Or, instead, why not take advantage of the entire team essentially being in the box with some deep balls?
Sure, Cousins was off all day Sunday. He overthrew Diggs by a few inches early in the game and he was off with his short passes. But, especially when it came to the short passes, Cousins was throwing while under duress that also stemmed from the god awful play-calling on the offensive side of the ball. I don’t want to sound like a Cousins apologist, because I’m still not on that band-wagon again, but they didn’t exactly give him a lot to work within general but especially when Thielen went down.
The offense didn’t light the world on fire against the Redskins, a game in which Thielen didn’t play at all, but they still moved the ball relatively well and if not for almost two handfuls of holding penalties, they could’ve put up a lot more yards (especially considering that Cousins’ completion percentage was in the high 80’s). His percentage before half-time was in the ’40s. Let that sink in. That’s not just a bad game from the quarterback, there’s got to be something more to it than that. He had 10 days to prepare against a unit that is good (11th in the league going into Sunday’s game) and he HALVED his completion percentage?
Because the Chiefs defense knew they didn’t have to worry about, you know, runs that would exploit their palpable weaknesses, they could either stack the box to stop the interior (or weak side) runs and then sell out on completely on pressuring Cousins (which is something he struggles with). Why wouldn’t you when the opposing team keeps running straight at your wall of defenders?
It really felt like Stefanski and company knew that the Chiefs had footage from four games where the offense played to their strengths and dominated bad opponents. Stefanski must’ve thought that he would throw the Chiefs for a loop by doing the opposite of what the Chiefs expected, the only problem there is that the opposite of what was expected was also the opposite of what made the Vikings offense so dangerous during the second quarter of the season. On top of it, when running the opposite of what is expected, you end up sometimes running right into something that you can’t beat. When they put that many guys in the box, they don’t expect you to run right at it consistently, especially when your left guard is getting dominated all day. So by doing so, sure, they’re surprised you’re doing it at all (or still doing it), but not in a “Wow, we didn’t see that coming! We got burned!” reaction you get “Wow, we didn’t see that coming! They KEEP running right at us, LULZ!”
It’s play-calling decisions like that that make me wonder if this Vikings team is capable of winning big games. Because regardless of what you think about Kirk Cousins against good-to-great opponents or this Vikings defense in prime time or “Big” games, there’s also been some really bad decisions coming from the sidelines when it seemingly matters most and if you can’t rely on your quarterback, entire defense or entire coaching staff when there’s a lot on the line then you really already know what I’m going to say.
That having been said, I’m not entirely sure Cousins is the issue or the issue on the same level as the defense and coaching staff, or should I say just the coaching staff because I’d put a lot of the defenses bad “Big” games on Zimmer and George Edwards. In Cousins’ bad games, he’s either been left to attempt to carry the offense without any pass protection or a run game like in 2018 or without and pass protection or a run game like in the Bears game. Sure, he threw an undefendable interception against the Packers, but outside of that, I don’t see a ton of mistakes from Cousins. I’m sort of joking here, but I just want to point out that this issue has been going on for a while, so any hopes that…
Well, I’ll explain…
You’d think that the Vikings coaching staff be able to figure this out with enough time left in the season to bounce back, and also that we should be encouraged that the Vikings “only” lost by three points in this game, considering what I just said above. But as we all know, the line between winning and losing in the NFL is very thin and it can often be the smallest decisions that dictate who makes the playoffs, or who wins those very tough games come January. The Vikings had a great chance to move into a tie (where overall records are concerned) with the Packers had they won on Sunday, with a tough game against the Cowboys on the docket and a whole bunch of momentum flowing from Eagan like those evil spirits leaving Ghostbusters HQ when that “Dickless” bureaucrat turns off the power to their ghost containment system.
Instead, we’re wondering whether or not this team has what it takes essentially on every level to be the more than what the Vikings have been for their entire five-decades of existence and that’s a flashy team that wins a lot of games but never can figure things out when the time comes for champions to emerge and pretenders to continue pretending. So, again, people who didn’t watch the game and only saw the highlights on ESPN might think that I’m being overly dramatic for effect, clicks or because my meds need to be upped. But, I hosted a pre-game/half-time/post-game show on Sunday and I heard A LOT of similar complaints from those of you that are invested heavily enough to be participating in the live chat on those shows. This isn’t exactly Kare-11, so if you’ve not only heard of our sites but live chatted or typed questions to my fat, sweaty rat face, then you’re in PRETTY deep.
Let’s hope that they do because let’s face it- they’ve never been more fully committed to coaching staff or roster than they are right now. The other good news is that the solution is to just let these guys play without worrying so much about what the other team is going to do. To pull a Belichick and enforce your will on other teams, especially bad ones, instead of worrying whether or not they’ll know that you’re going to run certain plays that you’ve had a lot of success running (against other bad teams). Of course, you have to adjust as the season progresses, but that means tweaking what has been working for you, not simply doing mostly the opposite of what’s worked since the opposite of success isn’t more successful.
There’s absolutely no reason outside of injury that Dalvin Cook should’ve been held to under 125 yards in that game against that defense and especially considering you’d think that Zimmer would’ve wanted to slow things way down and keep the ball out of the hands of the Chiefs offense, regardless of who was under center. That plan requires the defense to have bounced back from a bad game in Detroit and a game at home against the ‘Skins that looked a lot better on paper than it felt, to watch, as a human being.
Case Keenum was 13-16 for around 130 yards in the first half of that game, thanks mostly to a Vikings defense that Zimmer himself called “soft” at half-time. The Vikings were giving the ‘Skins a ton of cushion between the 20’s and then they bailed themselves out in dramatic fashion in the red-zone. Keenum exited the game, though, and the rest was history but none of us that watch or cover the team whilst watching left that game feeling like the Vikings defense successfully bounced back from a flat game in the Motor City.
Then there was the Chiefs games, which again I know they lost via a last-second field-goal but they were also playing against another back-up quarterback and against a really bad defense. They also had almost ten days to prepare for this game and you’d think that with that being the case, especially when it comes to being healthy (*COUGH* Xavier Rhodes *COUGH*) you’d have put up better numbers. I can’t point, at least solely, to Rhodes though as Trae Waynes also struggled all day. However, he often was playing opposite Tyreek Hill, most likely because Rhodes couldn’t keep up with Hill (generally but especially not since his recent regression). That’s not to say he had a good day, but he was covering one of the more explosive threats in the NFL.
Throw on top of that, with the Chiefs without two of their starting four offensive lineman, and had Matt Moore as their opposing quarterback (who is far, far, far far far less mobile than reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes) and you’d have thought that the Vikings front would’ve been eating Moore for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
That wasn’t the case, though.
Sure, the Chiefs did A LOT to protect Moore. They had running backs chip, tight ends chip in, etc. The Vikings have also employed similar tactics in recent years thanks to over half-a-decade where they refused to spend any top three draft picks on their offensive line and never had they had the success that the Chiefs seemingly had Sunday. That’s because other teams not only see that coming but also know how to get around it. Zimmer has been around long enough to see something like that coming, but he plays too conservatively to do anything drastic like use a lot of exotic blitzes. That becomes increasingly frustrating because as we saw during the game, those blitzes worked when employed.
Based on what we know about Stefanski’s game plan I wouldn’t be surprised if Zimmer made a point not to sack too much because the Chiefs would be expecting a pass rush.
I’m being facetious but I thought it was time for one of us from the ‘Doom and Gloom Committee’ to explain to the few Vikings fans who are also optimists why we’re so upset about a three-point loss on the road, in Arrowhead. It’s not hard to see that this game was a failure on all three levels of concern that even during the four-game winning streak that felt great for everyone, some of us still worried about. The first is Cousins falling back to Earth, the second is the coaching staff getting bested by themselves/”elite” opposing coaches and the third is that this defense may look great statistically but they’ve yet to really shut down an opponent (especially an opponent playing with a back-up at quarterback) for what may appear like a variety of reasons but perhaps isn’t that complicated.
I mean, had you told any of us before the start of the season that we’d be facing a Trubisky-less Bears in Chicago and a Chiefs team without Mahomes and be 0-2, and I bet there’d be a lot of 3-13 or 4-12 season predictions (or at least more of those predictions outside of Eastern Wisconsin). So, I should be glad that the team is 6-3, but simply being a playoff team isn’t good enough anymore. That raises the question as to what I mean by “Good Enough”, but in terms of expectations we’ve all been heavily invested in what the Vikings have done these past few seasons and the expectation is a lot higher than making it past just the Wild Card round or simply making the playoffs a year after they missed them in dramatic fashion.
That’s not just me saying that, I’m sure the team would tell you that they had some hefty goals this season even if the rest of the league didn’t see them as a contender, they’ve really worked hard to get to this point and it’s just so frustrating to that this is the result.
While it did feel like perhaps the Vikings had found the right recipe to do just that, there was still that fear that one of the three horsemen of Viking’s failure could rear its head and unfortunately, it appears that all three did against the Chiefs on Sunday.
Welcome to the club.
PS: I really, really LOVE the team and want the best for them just like we all do. We just differ on our outlook but it all stems from the same place, love and passion for this team. Sure, being negative means I’m batting 1.00 for my entire lifetime of being a Vikings fan but it’s not that simple. I’d rather write the above and be wrong, but I just see things that make me even more nervous than I already am by nature and I feel like it’s my duty to point them out while also stepping out as one of the more melancholy members of the Vikings media (as I know from talking to a lot of you that I’m not alone).
So I mean this with all due respect and love…. SKOL.