I lay in bed Sunday night mulling the whole season over in my mind. It comes every year that the Vikings miss the playoffs by a slim margin. The what-ifs, the could-haves, and the should-haves are crazy. If Daniel Carlson makes one field goal in Lambeau, if the team doesn’t underperform against Buffalo or Seattle, and if the refs don’t call roughing the passer on Stephen Weatherly, turning all momentum the Vikings had against Chicago into a touchdown.
It hurts every year that this happens, but it’s a necessary part of accepting that it’s over. Your team lost and no amount of thinking about what could have happened will help that. Once I’m done with that line of thought, my mind turns to why things happened the way they did. Why did a team that was one game removed from a Super Bowl, turn around and underperform so badly the next year? I kept coming back to a few reasons.
The first reason was that Kirk Cousins was not the answer this year. I like Kirk, and I still think he is an average to above average quarterback in terms of talent. However, this year he also consistently showed that he should not be relied on to win big games on his own. After week two in Green Bay, when he led the team back to tie the Packers on the road, I thought he was the answer. I thought we had it all put together and were about to ascend, but I was very wrong.
The next week Cousins again goes for almost 300 yards and has a touchdown, but the Vikings lose to the awful Buffalo bills and a trend starts to develop. The Vikings cannot run the ball. It’s not just that John DeFilippo doesn’t want to run the ball, the team literally cannot get anything going on the ground. The Vikings did not have a single player get above 50 rushing yards in a game until week 6 against the Arizona Cardinals, when Latavius Murray went for 155 yards and a touchdown. The Vikings only had another 100-yard rushing game one more time this season, in week 15 against the Miami Dolphins.
This inability to run the ball would seem be the answer to the question “why can’t we win games?” However, Kirk Cousins receives much of the public blame, as quarterbacks often do and especially quarterbacks who are being paid as handsomely as Cousins is. So with this ineffective running game is it Kirk Cousins’ fault that the team missed out on the playoffs? Well, yes it is, and no, it isn’t. Football isn’t a game where you lose a season because of one player.
This might make me seem like I have no backbone, because I don’t want to call for a quarterback’s head after a team’s inability to get to the playoffs. I’m disappointed in Cousins, the fumbles and interceptions early in the year put the team in bad shape, and his poor showing against Chicago in the final game of the season finished them off. It hurts that Rick spielman put so much guaranteed money into a guy who couldn’t deliver. However, I’m not ready to give up on Cousins or his ability to win games. I know the stats, one win against teams with a winning record and no playoff victories, but I think that the Vikings have a team that could win with even an average quarterback at the helm, if only they could fix a couple glaring problems. This led me to who I truly feel was the biggest disappointment this year, the offensive line.
This particular year’s offensive line group was dreadful. There is no doubt that Tony Sparano’s passing must have been devastating and certainly having co-offensive line coaches following the tragedy must have made building cohesion difficult. However, even accounting for these unforeseen circumstances, this year’s offensive line was the worst that I can remember. This year it wasn’t the tackles that were the issue, but the guards and center. Moving Mike Remmers inside was not a good decision as he was consistently beat by his man. Pat Elflein, the darling of last year’s draft in many people’s eyes, was pushed back into the running backs and Cousins all year. I don’t even want to talk about Tom Compton. This year’s unit, unlike many before them, don’t have the excuse of injuries even. The line was healthy most of the year and played a majority of the snaps together. I don’t pretend to be an expert on offensive lineman, but these guys deserve a good chunk of the blame for how this year went. You cannot run, or pass, without good blocking and this is the main issue that Rick is going to have to address before next season.
Finally, I thought about Mike Zimmer. I have loved Zimmer since day one. His no-nonsense, tough attitude was a perfect fit for Minnesota. He wanted to build a defensive team that controlled the game and won because they wanted it more than the other team. We saw results as the defense improved drastically, and they became a force in the North again. Mike Zimmer is now 47-32-1 as a head coach, with one playoff win, and two crushing playoff defeats. The results still aren’t terrible on paper when you throw in 2 division titles and the fact that one playoff game was a result of a shanked 27-yard field goal. However, once you dig a bit deeper you see some more concerning things.
I’m going to write off 2014 as a wash because it was Zimmer’s first as head coach and he inherited a team that went 5-10-1 the year before. So 2015, the Vikings win their last game of the season in Lambeau to claim the top of the NFC North, and secure a playoff spot. The next week they face the Seattle Seahawks at home. Since this was when US Bank Stadium was under construction, they play outside at TCF Bank Stadium where the temperature is -6 degrees, a perfect atmosphere for Zimmer’s vaunted defense. The Vikings control the game and are only down 10-9 when they drive to put kicker Blair walsh in position to win it. We all know what happens next. I was at this game and we knew from the moment he hit it, it wasn’t going to happen. So 2015 is a successful year, but not as successful as it should be.
In 2016 the Vikings are decimated by injuries. Promising young quarterback, and all around great guy, Teddy Bridgewater’s knee explodes in a non-contact practice drill, all-pro running back Adrian Peterson tears the meniscus in his right knee in the home opener, and the offensive line has so many injuries it would take too long for me to list them. Despite this, the Vikings open 5-0 after trading for quarterback Sam Bradford, and winning a game with everybody’s favorite player Shaun Hill. Zimmer has seemingly done the impossible and gotten the best out of a terrible team, but then reality kicks in. The Vikings lose 4 game in a row, by week 15 they are 7-6. However they have a chance, if they run the table and finish 10-6, they can still beat Green Bay for the division. In there week 15 matchup the Vikings face the Indianapolis Colts, who are not playing very well on either side of the ball. It’s a huge game with playoff implications. The Vikings, and especially Zimmer’s beloved defense lay a huge egg and look like they don’t want to be playing football. The Vikings lose to the colts, and then the Packers. They notch a win against the Bears in week 17 to finish 8-8. This season can be defined by injuries, or the defense’s inability to show up when they’re needed most.
2017 is a magical year full of hopes and dreams. The super bowl is to be hosted in Minneapolis, and the Vikings look to be playing in it. Following starter Sam Bradford’s injury, and Teddy still rehabbing his knee, Case Keenum is leading the charge on offense. The team runs through their schedule, racking up wins along the way. The Vikings only loss from weeks 5-17 is at Carolina in week 14. The defense is historically good on third down and there is hope for Minnesota fans who have waited so long. Playoffs start, since Minnesota has the #2 seed, they get a bye week. After beating the Carolina Panthers, the New Orleans Saints march into Minneapolis, trying to spoil the Vikings storybook season, and they almost succeed. If not for Stefon Diggs’ miracle catch, and the Saints safety’s missed tackle, the Vikings season would have ended in failure, at home. Instead, it ended in worse disappointment the next week when the Vikings lost 38-7 in Philadelphia, another big game where the defense, and offense for that matter, didn’t show up.
So finally, 2018. Our year, is what fans are essentially told when General Manager Rick Spielman goes all in on a quarterback. I don’t feel that I need to recap this year like the last few, because so many Vikings faithful are still feeling the sting from Sunday’s game against Chicago. The bottomline on this year is this; once again, when it mattered most, Zimmer’s team didn’t show up to play. In what I would consider big games*, Zimmer’s teams are 2-3, average 265 yards of offense, have given up an average of 344 yards, and have been outscored 109-75. I have been on Zim’s side since his first day in Minnesota, and his overall success of the last couple years should be taken into account, but coaches don’t get remembered for two division titles and a miracle playoff victory. They get remembered for getting their team to come up big when it matters most.
This year is over, and you can spread the blame however you want, but at the end of the day Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman are going to have to do something in the next year to show that they will address the problems with the offensive line, getting the most value out of Kirk Cousins, and the team falling flat in big games. The clock is ticking, and we want to see this team win, now.
*The “big games” I included were week 16 at Green Bay in 2015, the wildcard game versus Seattle in 2016, the divisional round game versus New Orleans in 2018, the NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia in 2018, and the week 16 game versus Chicago in 2018