It’s the bye, but Vikings decision makers should do anything but rest. Now could be a critical time for the team’s leadership to collect its thoughts, do a little course correcting for 2020 and do a lot of planning for 2021.
Yea, 2020 has been a disappointment for the Vikings to this point regardless of how you measure things. Whether you’re a casual fan, or a punter supporting the team by betting on DraftKings Iowa, or are someone who covers the team for a living…
1. Refine the ground attack
Everyone is excited about Justin Jefferson. Adam Thielen has been outstanding, per usual. But the Vikings can’t become illusioned by some flashes in the first six games. The pass protection is shoddy and Kirk Cousins is too inconsistent. The Vikings are not a team that will win by asking Cousins to drop back 30 times per game. The Vikings offense is at its best when everything is a derivative of what Dalvin Cook and the running game produce. Cousins is great with play action and bootlegs,tactics made more effective when the defense is strained, over-pursuing and tired due to chasing Cook all game.
The offensive staff should study the running game through the first six weeks. Which concepts fit Cook’s eye and style the best? Which calls lead to the most negative-yardage plays? And can those errors be corrected or should those plays just be scrapped? These are the types of questions and studies the Vikings should do as they look to adjust their offensive philosophy for the final 10 games.
2. Keep doing what you’re doing with those young CBs
Life comes at you fast when you’re a young CB in the NFL. We’ve seen that with the Vikings CB population in 2020. But in the first six games we’ve also seen what head coach Mike Zimmer saw in these kids that compelled Zim and the Vikings personnel department to select them. Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney and Harrison Hand may have a long way to go, but so far they’ve demonstrated they have what it takes to complete the journey. And they are being coached up by Zimmer, the same coach who nurtured Xavier Rhodes, developed Trae Waynes and made it work with Mackensie Alexander. Perhaps a silver lining in a season that seems to have gone amiss is that these young CBs can learn on the job and their missteps won’t have as steep of consequences as they would if the Vikings were serious contenders for the division.
3. Identify the babies and the bath water
Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water, they say. While this season has fallen far short of expectations, that doesn’t mean a fire sale should ensue and everything must go. Some things should go, but not everything. So, the Vikings should take inventory of what the babies (things worth keeping) are and what the bath water (things not worth keeping) is. We’ve started that process for them with this article – keep Cook and the young CBs because they are worth building around. The components of the team that don’t hold staying power should be jettisoned…if not now then they should yield playing time over the final 10 games in favor of players who stand a chance to be part of the 2021 picture.
4. Join in on the trade chatter
“Tanking” should not be part of the lexicon. Throwing in the towel is not in the DNA of a Zimmer team. But pride comes before the fall, and the Vikings would be wise to have an eye on the future as much, if not more, than having an eye on some sort of improbable 2020 turnaround that will result in a playoff chase in two months. As the trade deadline approaches, the Vikings could pick up the phone and inquire about other teams’ interest in their players. Need a veteran LT or TE? How about a stud safety or role-playing LB? These are assets the Vikings have. While those assets didn’t help the Vikings win enough games in 2020, they could in indirect fashion help the 2021 team win.
5. Increase your menu of 4th down and 2-point conversion plays
Every team in every season has multiple games where they’re required to convert 4th downs and two-point conversions. These are situations that teams practice every training camp and every week during the season, but there’s just nothing like live game reps in these situations. That’s where the best learning can happen. With an offensive roster that features plenty of youngsters, why not take the final 10 games of a season that has gone off track and take as many opportunities as reasonably possible to practice executing in these crucial situations? Feature Irv Smith, Jr. on a 4th and 4 play design. Ask Jefferson to create separation near the goal line on a two-point conversion route concept. Spend time in the meeting rooms and on the practice fields developing a collection of concepts and play designs for these crucial situations and continue to refine them between now and the start of 2021 to give the offense an added layer of sharpness and complexity.
6. Empower Zimmer, demand improved play
This one is last but it’s certainly not least. All but one of the aforementioned items have a “throwing in the towel” narrative. The intent should not be to give up on the season. That should never be the intent. Rather, the intent is to take a bad situation and make the most of it, and making the most of this bad situation includes trying to improve your chances for 2021.
One way the Vikings can start working toward 2021 is by empowering Zimmer. There is no question that if everyone cared about the team and did their job as well as Zimmer, the Vikings wouldn’t lose many games. Zimmer is not part of the problem…he’s part of the solution. Vikings ownership would be wise to empower Zimmer and send a message to the team that their head coach will be around next season, so if members of this year’s team want to be on next year’s team, they better get in line with what the head coach demands. And then Zimmer and his staff should demand improved play. They should keep instilling a work ethic and competitive integrity in their young and impressionable players so that next season they’re that much better because they’ve gone through – and survived – adversity this season.