Christmas brought little joy for Minnesota Vikings fans in 2020 as they watched their team get run over by the New Orleans Saints, officially eliminating the Vikings from playoff contention.
It was a historic performance by the Vikings, and not in a good way. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense allowed Saints running back Alvin Kamara to score six rushing touchdowns, tying an NFL record. Additionally, the Minnesota defense surrendered 583 yards of offense to New Orleans, which is the most any Vikings defense has allowed in franchise history.
Strangely, per ESPN Stats & Info, the Vikings are also just the ninth team in NFL history to feature a 1,500-yard rusher (Dalvin Cook) and a 30-touchdown passer (Kirk Cousins) in one season. The 2020 Vikings are the first of those nine teams to win less than 10 games.
The Christmas Day performance caps an unusual season for the Vikings that continues a strange pattern during Zimmer’s tenure. After taking over in 2014, Zimmer has now coached four full seasons in even years on the calendar (2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020), and the Vikings have not won more than eight games in any of those seasons. They only finished above .500 once when they tied the Green Bay Packers in 2018 and finished 8-7-1.
On the flip side, Minnesota’s performance in odd years under Zimmer has been fantastic. They have finished the regular season in odd years with records of 11-5 (2015), 13-3 (2017) and 10-6 (2019) and won playoff games in two of the three seasons. If Blair Walsh makes a 27-yard kick in the 2015 Wild Card round against the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota would have won a playoff game in each odd year of Zimmer’s tenure thus far.
Is this a trend, or is it merely a coincidence? It’s possible that it is a coincidence, but a combination of factors have likely contributed to the pattern of Minnesota’s success over the past seven seasons. A quick look at what went wrong in each of those even seasons opens up three possible explanations for the Vikings’ inability to repeat a successful season.
Zimmer’s job status has become a hotly-contested topic during the 2020 season, both during Minnesota’s 1-5 start and its current three-game losing streak to fall out of the NFC playoff picture. Regardless of if you support Zimmer or not, it’s impossible to ignore how injuries have impacted multiple seasons during his tenure.
The 2016 season is probably the most notable. Teddy Bridgewater suffered a career-altering knee injury mere weeks before the regular season began, and the Vikings were left searching for answers. They ultimately had to send a first-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sam Bradford. Additionally, Adrian Peterson, who was the reigning NFL rushing champion, missed most of the season with a knee injury, and nearly every Week 1 starter on the offensive line missed significant time.
It’s also worth mentioning that Zimmer himself was injured and forced to have surgery several times to fix his eye, missing numerous practices and even a game.
Minnesota got off to a 5-0 start that season before the injuries finally caught up with the team, resulting in an 8-8 finish.
Injuries also drastically affected the Vikings this season. Star defensive end Danielle Hunter never played a down. Newly-acquired nose tackle Michael Pierce opted out due to COVID-19 concerns. Zimmer’s favorite UCLA linebacker duo, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, missed significant time. Plus, the Vikings’ cornerback group was decimated, namely 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes, who also missed most of the season.
The result was what happened Christmas Day in New Orleans. Most of the starting defense began the season on a practice squad in Minnesota or elsewhere.
Injuries are a part of football, no doubt about it. But the 2016 and 2020 seasons presented unique challenges that few coaches could overcome.
CONSTANT TURNOVER AT OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
It’s no secret that the NFL is an offensive game nowadays. A great offense can take a team further than a great defense can in 2020, which wasn’t necessarily the case 20 years ago. The Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers are just a few examples of teams that have found consistent success by building a reliable offense every year.
Building that consistency is difficult when the person in charge of the offense is changing seemingly every year — and sometimes, in the middle of the season. The 2020 season is the fifth season in a row in which Minnesota started the year with a new offensive coordinator. In both the 2016 and 2018 seasons, the Vikings changed offensive coordinators in the middle of the season.
Perhaps the most effective argument for those that want Zimmer gone is that consistency on offense is more important than on defense. If the Vikings find a system that works, the guy in charge of it is offered a head coaching position elsewhere (Pat Shurmur and Kevin Stefanski). On the other hand, if the offense doesn’t work, it results in a changing of the guard anyway (Norv Turner and John DeFilippo).
Andy Reid and Sean Payton have been mainstays in Kansas City and New Orleans, respectively, during Zimmer’s tenure and each of their teams have stayed competitive with relative consistency. Relying on defense year over year is more likely to disappoint, and perhaps finding an offensive-centric head coach is Minnesota’s best bet at sustained success.
A LOT HAS TO GO RIGHT FOR A TEAM TO WIN
This explanation is the simplest and perhaps the truest. Winning in the NFL is extremely difficult and it takes truly special individuals to create sustained success. Reid and Payton have been blessed with Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees as their quarterbacks. The New England Patriots just so happened to find the greatest coach and greatest quarterback of all-time and paired them together.
It’s rare for franchises to earn playoff berths multiple seasons in a row. And even the ones that do rarely turn it into a Super Bowl. In most cases, the teams that repeat success are equipped with an elite quarterback, elite coach or both.
Does the Vikings brass want to continue this pattern of playoff berths every other year? Or do they want to clean house and start over to try and find the right coach and quarterback of the future, which could result in years of bottom-dwelling until they finally find the right tandem?
Perhaps they feel like Zimmer and Cousins is the right tandem, and circumstances such as the injuries and the turnover at offensive coordinator have hindered success.
Regardless, Minnesota’s lack of consistent success is making many Vikings fans restless.