The Minnesota Vikings under head coach Mike Zimmer have always taken pride in the fact that they’re a defensive team first. Even after breaking how the NFL pays its players, or rather its quarterbacks, and having the best one-two punch in the league at receiver (sigh) AND one of the best young running backs (as well as a tight end that catches 80% of the balls thrown his way) the team was thought of as a ho-hum run first/field position/defensive minded squad.
That was before.
Now? The team, as Pioneer Press’ Chris Tomasson (arguably the nicest guy in Vikings media) adeptly pointed out, has more veterans and Pro Bowlers on offense than defense for the first time since Zimmer joined the purple in 2014.
What Tomasson didn’t point out, is that that isn’t good news for the Vikings.
Now, I am starting to feel like the proverbial wet blanket in Vikings media. But I have to call ‘em like I see ‘em and I am struggling to fathom how some in the national media or especially the betting world are giving this Vikings team a chance to contend in 2020.
Now, NO ONE in the Vikings-sphere is more excited about Gary Kubiak helming the Vikings offense in 2020. I love that move and have actually advocated for him to take over as head coach as recently as before and after the 49ers debacle (if you remove the purple goggles you’ll know that Zimmer can’t get it done against offensive minded coaches and he isn’t really a head coach but more of a glorified defensive coordinator who prioritizes his unit in terms of draft picks and game planning and execution).
But, the reality there is that there’d be little to no difference Sunday’s if Kubiak was the head coach and Zimmer was demoted to defensive coordinator. Zimmer is well known for giving full power to his offensive coordinators, so, I guess I got what I wanted.
So why am I so down on the Vikings’ prospects in 2020?
A few reasons. First of all, the Vikings gave Zimmer the keys to the franchise to the point that he essentially got every draft pick and free agent he wanted. That freedom lead to a roster in 2019 that maxed the cap and also was arguably the best position-by-position Vikings roster I’ve ever witnessed.
And they went 10-6 and got so badly exposed by the 49ers that the team fired Zimmer’s scapegoat George Edwards a week after releasing a statement about their confidence in him. Sure, he was just extended, but ask Brad Childress about the Wilf family and extensions.
How then are they going to do better in 2020 with three new/young/rookie starting corners (including the nickel spot), in a system that took veteran Xavier Rhodes and 11th overall pick Trae Waynes (as well as Mackenzie Alexander) years to master (or in Alexander’s case, to try to master)?
People said to me not to panic because Michael Pierce is an upgrade over Linval Joseph! Then he opted out. Then people said that PJ Hall graded better in 2019 than Pierce! Then he failed his physical.
But the offense has a lot of veterans!
Okay. Well, who knows what will happen with Dalvin Cook and his contract. Beyond that, with Gary Kubiak confirming that Riley Reiff will stay at left tackle, the team essentially needs Ezra Cleveland to clone himself to really give the team any chance to improve their 27th ranked pass blocking (in 2019) line.
We spent WEEKS ignoring the fact that $45 million dollar a season QB Kirk Cousins literally needed to roll out of the pocket on every pass play for the passing offense to function because he was putting up staggering numbers.
How has that improved?
Because another coordinator says he is confident in the players already on the roster? We’ve heard that SO ‘many times under Zimmer.
So, sure, they have Adam Thielen, Cousins, Cook and Kyle Rudolph. But if we are to expect the offense, sans Stefon Diggs, and a barely changed line that only had one bright spot (the cut Josh Kline and stud Brian O’Neill on the right side) that they cut off at the knees to save $1.4 mil and to get more “athletic”, and an unhappy Cook, to carry the young defense?
Yeah. We’ve got problems.
Perhaps the youth will come around early. But this new look Vikings team looks more like a team that could bounce back in 2021 (and I’m being generous) than one that we can expect to improve on their 10-6 2019 record.
But maybe I’m just unable to see past the 36 years I’ve spent watching this team disappoint. Or rather, the last six years under Zimmer, where again he has been granted EVERY luxury from a new stadium and world class facility, to a contract for the “final piece” that was to be Cousins that changed how the league did business. What was the result? Why did that result happen?
If you, like me, have a hippocampus, you’ll probably point to two things. We may disagree on why (some say bad luck, others say it’s common sense) but really it is pretty much as close to an objective fact we can have in our reality that the two reasons the Vikings haven’t capitalized on the above are as follows.
The lack of investment in the interior of the offensive line and Zimmer being out-coached by the new era of offensive minded head coaches like Doug Pederson and Kyle Shanahan. Zimmer himself will tell you that.
So. We can hope that Gary Kubiak and company will both improve an offense that lost it’s main deep threat and double coverage magnet in Stefon Diggs. That despite the fact that Rick Spielman had been unable to even find a third receiver behind Thielen and Diggs, and has swung and missed on SEC receiver after SEC receiver (Cordarrelle Patterson, Laquon “Pro Ready” Treadwell, Percy Harvin, etc.) in the first round, that he somehow found a 1B in Justin “Pro Ready” Jefferson and a third receiver in Bisi Johnson that’ll contribute anywhere near the level of Diggs/Thielen.
I mean. Are we just ignoring gigantic red flags here?
If we are to say, “Hey! Sure, the line is widely being called a mess by even the most optimistic of Vikings sites, and was so bad at protecting Cousins that we would scream at Kevin Stefanski through our TVs to call a rollout or bootleg in 2019, and we lost one of the best receivers in the league, and replaced him with a receiver that most said was a one trick pony and reach by the Vikings, and that receiver could actually hurt the Vikings’ pass game more than the loss of Diggs because Thielen is primarily a slot receiver that especially does most of his damage downfield from the slot, and the other receiver the team drafted was ALSO a slot guy, and the oft-injured Dalvin Cook wants to hold out but can’t because of the new CBA, and the defense has 75% turnover on the defensive line, 100% turnover at the three corner spots, and this is a system that requires every man to do his job otherwise it falls apart, and is also a system that takes veteran/formerly elite corners years to master and even when we had top 10 defenses the team went 8-7-1 and 10-6 the last two seasons…
They had 15 picks in the draft! And Thielen/Cook/Rudolph and Cousins know each other!”
How is that narrative anywhere near contending for a division title let alone the Super Bowl?
That’s not to say that Diggs had a reason to feel like his talent was wasted here. It is just frustrating that this organization hasn’t learned from the successes and failures it has has under both Spielman and Zimmer.
For example, it doesn’t take a ton of draft capital or even cap space to take or sign an offensive guard. Outside of the four taken between Mike Hughes and Brian O’Neill in 2018, most guards are fourth rounders at best.
Instead they spent ONE of their record breaking fifteen 2020 picks on a guard. I’ll let you recall which of those picks it was, but I’ll give you a hint. It was the pick before the infamously nicknamed pick that rhymes with “Twister Tree Elephant”, after not one, not two, or three, or even four but FIVE defensive backs were taken.
“But Kubiak confirmed that Ezra Cleveland will compete at guard!”
He also said that Cleveland had never played the position and essentially said that he was lost and was… I’ll just post it in its totality:
“We’re going to take it a day at a time, but he’s a very bright player, and we felt like we should start somewhere where he hasn’t had many reps, make sure he gets them there. We know he has a comfort zone to go back outside. We’ll settle him down probably after about a week, and we’ll take a look at exactly where we think he should be and what gives him the best chance to help our team.”
Lets dissect this.
“We’re going to take it a day at a time, but he’s a very bright player”
Have you ever heard “we’ll take it one day at a time” in a good context? Like, if your partner came rushing in and said “We won the Powerball!” would you say “We’ll take this one day at a time”.
That is code for he has zero experience doing this and so far it hasn’t been great. The same goes for the comment about his intelligence. It does mean that Kubiak is implying that Cleveland should be able to pick up the position, but that he hasn’t yet.
“Obviously, you idiot, he hasn’t had a chance to play at guard yet?”
But that is my point! Why can’t they draft someone who has, you know, has played the position that has almost single-handedly imploded the Vikings’ potential?
While the rest of that quote is self-evident, this line just broke my brains:
“…and we felt like we should start somewhere where he hasn’t had many reps, make sure he gets them there.”
From what I saw from our draft specialists Kirby O’Connor and DeSean Vaughn weren’t enamored with the draft until the Cleveland pick. Many in the Vikings writer or fan sphere and even national talking heads all said the Cleveland pick was a slam dunk.
So why risk his development by TJ Clemmings-ing him?
Why did they feel compelled to make him get his reps there?
It is as if Kubiak was trying to come up with a justification for moving Cleveland to guard that covered the fact that it is a move done to compensate for the lack of genuine investment at the spot(s) and just gave up halfway through on the justification as well as basically speaking English.
“… where he hasn’t had many reps, make sure he gets them there”
I feel like that sentence is missing a word, which feels right considering the Vikings offense is missing core pieces we’ve been hoping they’d bring in with their 12 then 15 picks.
Instead we reached for a one-trick, objectively hard to convert receiver (if Justin Jefferson was moved inside because he couldn’t handle press coverage in college, how can we expect him to do so against grown ass men?), then used five of the next six picks on defense…
What has changed? Positively?
I’m sorry. But, I just think it is a mix of wishful thinking and selective memory to consider the Vikings as currently constructed an UPGRADE over the unit in 2019 that was loaded with talent on defense.
Remember that it was a defense that had incredible continuity for today’s NFL, with eight of the starters having played together for five years and 10 of 11 starters returning from 2018, with the one non-returning starter being a player who left the Vikings for one year and then returned in Shamar Stephen (who had been with the team since 2014).
The team also had Stefon Diggs. Who objectively sucks, but was essentially the sole deep threat on the team (although Thielen is no slouch).
I am not saying the team is doomed. Zimmer is good enough in the regular season to get to six or seven wins, like the Wild under Jacques Lemaire, but I don’t understand how anyone thinks this team will get to 11 wins or especially compete with the new powerhouse NFC team(s) like the 49ers.
The 49ers absolutely decimated the Vikings. Why? Because they were in the backfield almost before the ball was snapped just like the Packers’ Za’Darius Smith on Monday Night Football.
Again. What has changed to fix that?
Considering that the biggest story this week was the fact that the team is KEEPING Reiff at tackle, I’ll let you all answer that in what I fully expect to be super supportive comments.
But I’ve bern wrong before.