The Minnesota Vikings just wrapped up their 2020 regular season with a record of 7-9. This, of course, fell below the expectations of optimistic fans and left the Vikings out of the playoffs after winning a postseason game a year ago.
Mediocrity isn’t always a bad thing. For example, in Mike Zimmer’s first year as head coach, the Vikings finished the season 7-9. After that 2014 season, Zimmer’s mantra of toughness and his potential as a defensive developer was still new and exciting. Dramatic improvement was made from the 2013 team, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, and it seemed like Zimmer’s style just might work.
Today, the Vikings are back where they started, wallowing in third place in the NFC North after a 7-9 season. But this 7-9 season immediately followed a 10-6 season in 2019 that included a playoff win. Several key contributors to Minnesota’s success during Zimmer’s tenure joined new teams either by trade or by free agency. The roster was a shell of what it was just a year prior, and it showed on the field.
In many ways, the Vikings embodied mediocrity in 2020. The 7-9 record already showcases it. There were some good moments, such as the win in Lambeau against the eventual No. 1 overall seed in the NFC. There were also some bad moments, such as an embarrassing home loss to the (at the time) winless Atlanta Falcons.
But Minnesota’s embodiment of mediocrity is much deeper than that. The franchise extended Zimmer prior to the 2020 season because of the defensive-minded attitude he’s brought to the team. He made the defense the strength of this team during his tenure. That is, until 2020. Minnesota ranked 27th in yards allowed for the season. It was the offense that picked up the slack, finishing fourth in total yards gained. So, the Vikings have a defensive-minded head coach at the helm leading a team that ranked bottom-five in defense and top-five in offense.
Overall, Minnesota gained exactly as many yards on offense (6,292) as it allowed on defense (6,292) in the 2020 season. It doesn’t get more mediocre than that.
The 2020 season was also the team’s third season with high-priced quarterback Kirk Cousins at the helm of the offense. The gaudy box score numbers are there, without a question. But the win totals don’t quite match up to Cousins’ success on the stat sheet.
A 7-9 record this season brought Cousins’ career record as a starting quarterback to a perfectly mediocre and symmetrical 51-51-2. And yes, the Vikings also gave him a lucrative contract extension prior to the 2020 season.
Overall, the Vikings have two playoff wins since Zimmer took over in 2014, one of which came with Cousins at quarterback. That’s two playoff wins in seven seasons, and one playoff win in three seasons with both Zimmer and Cousins.
Perhaps the most concerning part about Minnesota’s predilection to mediocrity is that the franchise seems to embrace it. It starts with the head coach, who seemed to indicate that 7-9 was the best the Vikings could have accomplished in the unique 2020 season during his press conference after the Week 17 win in Detroit.
“With the turnover that we had, the injuries that we had on defense, we just weren’t good enough,” Zimmer said. “We fought like crazy. 7-9’s not great, but with all the circumstances and everything, maybe it’s the best we could have done.”
This isn’t just settling for mediocrity. This is celebrating it. The best we could have done?
This is the same head coach who led one of the best defenses in the history of football just three seasons ago. The same head coach who has developed numerous defensive players into Pro Bowlers.
Zimmer had the No. 4 offense in the NFL in terms of yards gained on his side, including 1,400 by rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson, the most prolific season by a wide receiver in the Super Bowl era. And 7-9 may be the best he could do?
That is a tremendous shot at not only himself and his ability to coach, but also a shot at the players he coached this season and the front office that assembled the 2020 Vikings roster. Sure, they are set to get a handful of key players back from injury next season. But for a team that was apparently lucky to earn a 7-9 record, do those players coming back suddenly turn this team into a contender?
And make no mistake about it, Zimmer isn’t going anywhere. He’s under contract through the 2023 season and is tied to Cousins and Rick Spielman for the foreseeable future, who both also received extensions before the 2020 season.
The Vikings are stuck. The trio of Zimmer, Cousins and Spielman is sticking around for a while. Yes, each of them has shown flashes of brilliance in their respective roles. But is any of them consistently great enough to inspire hope for more than mediocrity?