When Justin Jefferson arrived at the US Bank Stadium last Sunday, there was plenty of reason to be excited. The Minnesota Vikings were in position to take the final playoff spot in the NFC. If they won their remaining three games, they had a chance to control their destiny and get into the postseason.
The Los Angeles Rams were in town and are legitimate contenders in the NFC. A win would show the pundits that the Vikings could not only get into the playoffs but make some noise. After all, they already own a victory over the top-seeded Green Bay Packers.
And on the opposite sideline stood Odell Beckham Jr. Jefferson entered Sunday’s game needing just 21 yards to pass his mentor for the most receiving yards by a player in his first two seasons.
Put everything together, and there was all the motivation Jefferson needed to lead the Vikings to victory. But when he got to the stadium, he saw a team that lacked energy.
“I felt it as soon as we came into the locker room,” Jefferson said. “I was trying to pick up the guys, but we still came out slow. We didn’t come out with that energy that we needed to. Especially with this type of team.”
It’s the latest example of a growing problem. Mike Zimmer worked hard to re-establish the culture after he arrived in Minnesota, but his work seems to be coming undone this season. The Vikings’ season is coming apart. After Sunday’s loss, they stand at 7-8 and need help to get into the playoffs.
If there was ever a reason to make a franchise overhaul, all the Wilfs need to do is look at No. 18.
Jefferson has shown he has all the makings of a superstar in his first two seasons. He surpassed Beckham’s record with 118 yards on Sunday and has two more games to create some distance. The Vikings are a better team when they get him involved in the offense. He has already established himself as the franchise’s best receiver since Randy Moss.
But one thing he doesn’t have is team success. While Jefferson has done his part, the Vikings have floundered to a 14-17 record over the past two seasons. That’s no indictment of Jefferson’s performance. It’s to emphasize he’s directly tied to Minnesota’s three franchise cornerstones.
Let’s start with the head coach. Zimmer has done everything to stay true to his roots, which center around running the football. On Sunday, Zimmer was without Dalvin Cook but still thought it was necessary to hand the ball to Alexander Mattison 13 times. Most of his runs went directly into the arms of Aaron Donald.
Jefferson was forthcoming in his post-game presser, where he lamented the Vikings’ aggressiveness in the red zone.
“I think we should be more aggressive when we get down there,” Jefferson said. “But I’m not the one calling the plays. I’m just here to do my job and do what’s told of me.”
It’s one thing for Jefferson to be upset with the play calls. It’s another when the person throwing him the ball feels his criticisms aren’t warranted.
Kirk Cousins had a sporadic game against the Rams. After starting slow, he began to find a rhythm when Sean McVay backed off, up 14 points. Cousins had his usual statistics with 315 yards, a touchdown, and an interception that bounced off K.J. Osborn’s hands when the smoke cleared.
“I think when you look back at the plays, right off the turnover, we called a pass and took a sack,” Cousins said. “That drive kind of got set back because the first play we didn’t have a good, productive play with the sack. … I think there are plenty of times where we were aggressive and took our shots. We just didn’t make it happen when they were called.”
That thought is on-brand for Cousins. Rarely will he admit that he didn’t try to get the ball to his best player. He’s more likely to cite the offensive line giving up a sack or a receiver running a wrong route. Cousins rarely says he got rid of the ball too quickly or didn’t want to turn it over. It’s the same reason why Jefferson said Joe Burrow had more “swagger” than Cousins this past offseason.
But the front office deserves some blame here. Rick Spielman has created a top-heavy roster after drafting Jefferson last season. With a penchant for drafting developmental offensive linemen, Spielman took Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis early in the 2021 NFL Draft, hoping he had solved the problem.
Darrisaw has shown promise but has been in and out of the lineup due to injury. Davis showed up to minicamp overweight and faded into the background on a roster that is screaming for a guard. Mix in a $45 million spending spree that was headlined by a second nose tackle and it’s not hard to see where frustration could set in.
On Sunday evening, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio suggested that Jefferson could be the next receiver to demand his way out of Minnesota. The Vikings lost Randy Moss, Percy Harvin, and Stefon Diggs during the Wilf regime. If things don’t change, it could be interesting several years down the road.
Such is a problem for the Wilfs. They clearly believe that Spielman and Zimmer can lead them to the Super Bowl, but they have also seen how players have reacted this season. By keeping them in charge, the Wilfs risk alienating Jefferson. However, the Wilfs could also maintain the continuity with the hope of building something around him.
It’s a double-edged sword for the Vikings. But to keep their best player, they’ll have to choose the right side.