Worn out. Spent. Exhausted.
That’s the sentiment Vikings players and coaches share heading into the bye week. You’d think by the way the team is talking that it’s Week 10, but we’re not even halfway through the season. There are still 11 more games to be played. It’s natural for any team to feel this way since the NFL is a physically demanding sport.
But it’s more than general soreness and ailments that are bugging the Minnesota Vikings heading into the bye week. For many players, the emotional toll is just as prominent and can even significantly impact their well-being. Out of the six games that the Vikings have played thus far, four of them ended in a dramatic, anxiety-inducing fashion.
The Vikings lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime when the refs ruled Dalvin Cook had fumbled the football before his knee was down. And they had a chance at a game-winning field goal with three seconds left against the Arizona Cardinals, but Greg Joseph missed it wide right.
However, not all hectic games the team endured resulted in a heartbreaking loss. After the Detroit Lions took the lead on a successful two-point conversion, Kirk Cousins led the offense in a two-minute drill to set up a game-winning field goal. This time, Joseph redeemed himself as the Vikings stunned Dan Campbell’s Lions. Most recently, the Vikings won an overtime matchup against the Carolina Panthers after Cousins threw a 27-yard touchdown to K.J. Osborn.
While it’s great that the Vikings seem to be winning close games lately, the fact that so many games have been decided on the last possession is concerning.
This isn’t a new trend. Under Mike Zimmer, the Vikings have been notorious for holding themselves back, and I believe it’s a psychological problem, one that has only gotten worse over time. Part of what makes a franchise successful is how they think of themselves. A team is more likely to succeed if they expect to win on any given Sunday.
Tom Brady is a perfect example of how having a winning mindset can completely change a franchise for the better. He’s a sixth-round quarterback who won six Super Bowls for a team that wasn’t very successful before his arrival. Despite that, people thought Bill Belichick was the person responsible for the Patriots’ success. Brady then left Foxborough for Central Florida and won a Super Bowl in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He brought a winning mindset that proved to be contagious.
Cook understands this. When asked about the high level of competition the Vikings are set to face after the bye week, he said, “They’ve got to play us, too. Everyone says, ‘Oh, you’ve got to play these teams.’ Well, what about the Vikings?”
Yet, this Vikings team seems to have a tendency of second-guessing themselves at times, which usually results in them overcompensating against a superior opponent or playing outside of their comfort zone. This, in turn, creates unnecessary pressure, increases the likelihood of miscues, and can cause a snowball effect of poor decisions that ultimately contribute to losing a crucial game.
For example, last year, the 1-4 Vikings played the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium, and the stakes were high because it was a must-win if they had any hope of clawing back into the playoff race. With Cook sidelined by injury, the Vikings completely abandoned their identity and opted to run more of a pass-first offense. Cousins frequently forced the ball downfield and threw three interceptions in the first half. Minnesota’s depleted defense wasn’t much help either, allowing 462 total yards. This game was over before it started, and the Vikings gave the 0-5 Falcons their first win of the season.
The best way the Vikings can help resolve some of the issues they are facing is to fall back on their identity and have confidence in the system they’re running. The most successful teams in the NFL approach crucial moments with a level of calmness because they have practiced the same plays numerous times. Practice makes perfect and reduces anxiety.
It may be daunting to some that physical and emotional exhaustion is starting to kick in when there are still 11 more games to be played in the regular season. However, that means there’s plenty of more opportunities to prove the Vikings can compete and beat the NFL’s elite, and they’ll get their chance these next four weeks. The Vikings will play the Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, and the Green Bay Packers. All of those teams look like playoff contenders. If Minnesota can go on a run against tough opponents like these, maybe opposing players will start to have nightmares about playing the Vikings.