While it lacks a certain amount of discussion about knee or eye surgeries, the 2018 Minnesota Vikings season is starting to resemble the disastrous campaign from two years prior when the Vikings lost their franchise quarterback to injury, wasted a 5-0 start and collapsed down the stretch.
No, Kirk Cousins didn’t suffer a career-threatening injury like Teddy Bridgewater. No, Mike Zimmer hasn’t missed a game to undergo emergency eye surgery. But there are still parallels that enraged Vikings fans two seasons ago and are presently infuriating them again.
Zimmer’s Vikings — currently sitting at .500 — have developed a disconcerting Jekyll-Hyde pattern of even-year excellence and odd-year mediocrity. It can be chalked up to coincidence, since NFL success is heavily influenced by personnel, injuries and other extenuating factors. But the habitual failure to meet high expectations — which has become the mark of myriad Vikings squads — might be the greatest parallel of all.
“I don’t want the year to be wasted now,” Zimmer said on a conference call Tuesday afternoon, just hours after he fired first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
Both the 2015 group and 2017 rode a wave of momentum into the playoffs, only to lose in disappointing fashion. But those teams each returned a majority of their core to make a concerted Super Bowl push the following season.
While the 2016 group was backed into a trade for Sam Bradford after Bridgewater’s injury, the 2018 team acquired Kirk Cousins for the hefty $84 million sum to be their franchise quarterback.
Both new quarterbacks, however, regressed as the season went along.
Through 13 games, Cousins is a 70.5 percent passer with 24 touchdowns and 16 turnovers (including fumbles), 7.0 yards per attempt, 32 sacks and a 98.0 rating.
Bradford, through 13 games in 2016, was a 71.3 percent passer with 14 touchdowns, eight turnovers, 6.9 yards per attempt, 33 sacks and a 96.6 rating.
Cousins has more touchdowns and yards than Bradford thanks to the Vikings’ pass-heavy playcalling, but he has also turned it over twice as much. Bradford was perceived as risk-averse; a conservative passer that often settled for checkdowns. Cousins has been viewed at times as a gunslinger not afraid to take chances (though this seems to have changed in recent weeks, perhaps at the urging of Zimmer, who criticized some of Cousins’ mistakes). At this juncture, Cousins has 40 completions of 20 yards or more through 13 games. Bradford had 41.
And both were asked to perform behind spotty offensive lines. Two years ago, the Vikings lost tackles Matt Kalil, Andre Smith and Jake Long to season-ending injuries. This year, Nick Easton was lost for the year, Joe Berger retired, and all four other starters have missed time.
In both campaigns, the line’s ineffectiveness threw the running game out of whack. In 2016, it was ranked 32nd. This year, it’s 30th. That put an inordinate amount of pressure on then Bradford and now Cousins, neither of whom possess the mobility to escape collapsing pockets.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t really put the whole complimentary football together enough this season to really be the team that I think we’re capable of,” Cousins said after Monday’s loss.
Bradford’s Vikings started 5-0 before regressing to 7-6 after 13 games. Cousins’ Vikings began 4-2-1 and now sit at 6-6-1.
And all it took was a two-game road swoon for both teams to undergo a change at offensive coordinator.
The 2016 Vikings dropped two ugly games at Philadelphia and Chicago before then-OC Norv Turner stepped down. The 2018 Vikings lost at New England and Seattle before firing DeFilippo Tuesday morning.
There’s speculation that Turner resigned because of philosophical differences with the head coach. Zimmer relieved DeFilippo of his duties because he said he didn’t see progress from the offense. Though Turner was an old-school offensive mind and DeFilippo was part of the new, pass-first breed, neither found the balance Zimmer desired.
Now interim Kevin Stefanski takes over as Zimmer’s fourth offensive coordinator in three seasons. It’s the second time he’s had to endure a mid-season switch.
“I don’t think two years ago has anything to do with this year,” Zimmer said, when asked about 2016. “Kevin has been here, so he’s been through all this. He knows the ins and outs of everything that’s going on here.”
The 2016 Vikings entered Week 15 with their playoff hopes alive and an AFC opponent meeting them at U.S. Bank Stadium. They lost to Indianapolis Colts 34-6.
This Sunday the Vikings host the AFC’s Miami Dolphins hoping to begin a three-game winning streak en route to a playoff berth. Another flop, and the 2016 cloning will be nearly complete.
“I just felt like in the best interest of the team in these last three weeks, which are important weeks for us during the season, we had to shake things up and try to get better as a football team together,” said Zimmer, “and I didn’t feel like we were going in that direction based on the last four or five weeks.”