After starting the year as the Minnesota Vikings have, frustration is completely understandable. The Vikings sit at 3-5 on the season. The margin of defeat adds up to 18 points in those five losses. Following Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, an extremely disappointed Mike Zimmer summed it up, plain and simple.
“I thought we fought,” he said. “Had some guys step in for some other guys, but we didn’t play good enough to win.”
That’s about all anybody was able to get out of Zimmer on Sunday. He met most questions with a curt response. Zimmer has never been the chatty type in press conferences, but it was cold, even by his standards.
Remember, it was only a couple of weeks ago that he reassured everyone that this is one of the better teams he has ever been around. Minnesota has been competitive in every game they’ve played in. But the lack of finishing by the team has left much to be desired.
“We’ve got to come through with these wins,” Eric Kendricks said on Sunday. “We’re not making it happen right now. It sucks.”
While disappointment is a natural emotion, listening to some of the veterans talk raises some red flags about what the locker room is like.
“The same questions,” Adam Thielen said on Monday. “Concerns that people watching the games have been the same concerns everyone in this building has.”
That quote raises eyebrows. Thielen has always been open with the media, but this is kind of nuts. If someone who spends every day with the team is just as confused by what the Vikings have done this year as those who cover the team from the outside, that’s a problem.
“It’s getting old to talk about that,” said Thielen. “I know the fans are done with us coming in here every single week and saying we’ve got the guys we’ve just got to go execute.”
Thielen only caught two passes for six yards against Baltimore, but that wasn’t even the biggest injustice. For the second game in a row, Justin Jefferson was invisible after his opening-drive score. That’s now nine catches in the last two contests for the same guy who broke the single-season rookie receiving record a year ago. That stat alone is a significant concern, but Kirk Cousins’ response is even more problematic.
When asked about Jefferson’s involvement on Sunday, Cousins said, “I think we’re more concerned about what the Ravens are doing and what they’re giving us.”
This quote is a microcosm of Minnesota’s offense all season long: playing scared. Instead of prioritizing touches for your best players and being proactive, the Vikings have been reactive. This isn’t all Cousins’ fault. It boils down to a lack of trust from Zimmer.
There have been rumblings all season long that Cousins has wanted more freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage, but Zimmer hasn’t given him complete control. If you’re going to pay someone $33 million annually to be the leader of your team, you’d think that you’d trust him to do just that.
It’s clear that the guys on the team respect Zimmer and take a lot from him. But when he puts his fingerprints on every inch of the game, it feels overbearing at times — especially when it’s leading to heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss.
The Stefon Diggs situation is an example of what can happen in these sorts of conflicts. When you don’t prioritize your stars, they’re going to grow sour.
While nobody on the current roster is in that exact situation, you’d be naïve to think that something like that couldn’t happen again. It’s also precisely the reason why Zimmer can’t be so stuck in his master plan and should let the players dictate the game more often.
Zimmer’s most crucial duty as head coach is to get the people on the team to buy into what he’s doing. If he wants any chance of turning things around and saving his job, he will have to start prioritizing the players. This means making sure Jefferson and Thielen are getting targets and giving Cousins more flexibility on the line.
The dictator persona works for one coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick, and Zimmer’s clock is running out in Minnesota.
Football is a game that’s meant to be fun. Nothing about Vikings football is fun right now, and that ultimately will be the final nail in Zimmer’s coffin if things don’t change.
The formula is simple: Win the locker room, and victories will follow. Lose it, and you’ll be dragging your toes through the second half of the season.