When Mike Zimmer says that 7-9 is the best the Minnesota Vikings could have done this year, given everything they went through, the response he got was warranted. It’s a sentiment that fell flat. People didn’t like it. Nobody wants to settle for mediocrity.
Sure, the Vikings essentially exchanged veteran Stefon Diggs for rookie Justin Jefferson and overhauled their defense in a year when COVID-19 affected training camp and canceled the preseason. Yeah, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter got hurt, and Michael Pierce opted out. Of course, losing guys like Everson Griffen and Marcus Sherels created uncertainty in places where the team was lacking — namely pass rush and the return game.
But every team dealt with COVID restrictions. All of them experienced some sort of roster turnover. Some of them had to play on Tuesday or without an actual quarterback. And either way, we always hear the next man up, no excuses mantra in the NFL. Doesn’t that apply here?
The Vikings weren’t destined to go 7-9.
They lost to the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks by one point. They were blown out by the hapless Atlanta Falcons before the bye week. They finally beat the Chicago Bears in primetime at Soldier Field… and then lost to the Andy Dalton-led Dallas Cowboys the next week. This could have been a playoff team, even with an 0-2 start.
The concern here is that Vikings ownership is going to settle for mediocrity. They don’t want to fire Zimmer and hire someone inferior and have the team fall into obscurity for the next 5-10 years. And that’s a valid concern. Zimmer took Minnesota to the NFC Championship three years ago. He works well with Rick Spielman and is respected by his key players. He’s never had a worse record than 7-9.
The truth is that ownership is justified in running this back next year with Zimmer, Kirk Cousins and the crew. Giving them a (hopefully) COVID-free year with players like Jefferson, Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney who improved meaningfully this year is a rational decision-making process. Stability is important in any organization — just look at teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets who churn through general managers, coaches and quarterbacks regularly and are typically league doormats.
Let’s acknowledge that the Vikings have typically done well in odd years under Zimmer, and both Zimmer and Cousins have had breakthroughs recently — most notably the playoff win in New Orleans a year ago and the Monday Night win in Chicago this year.
Zimmer will enter next season on the hot seat, as he should after a 7-9 season where the team started 1-5. And if they draft a project quarterback who may eventually replace Cousins? Perfectly rational, assuming that’s how the board goes and they don’t reach to draft that player.
The Vikings don’t have to be married to Zimmer and Cousins forever just because they enter 2021 with them. In fact, if they flop again, the organization should move on from both of them. But we don’t know that they will flop. They could be better than 10-6, especially with an easier schedule. Zimmer isn’t that far removed from a 13-3 season and the playoff win over the New Orleans Saints. Cousins was a top-10 quarterback according to PFF, despite his dismal start to the season.
What’s happening here is that we’re anticipating a lost season in 2021 before it even starts. One where Zimmer continues to insist on running the ball on 2nd and long and Cousins throws momentum-swinging picks in important games. It’s the fatalism that’s inherent in watching Minnesota sports teams, especially the Vikings, that build up hope only to have everything fall apart.
But burning it all down is a solution to a problem that hasn’t happened yet. And might not happen. It’s fixing something before it breaks. It’s assuming things will go wrong — as it does for nearly every team in the league every year. It’s hard to acknowledge that the right fix may be the least cathartic option. It’s hard to see the downside when there seems to be so much upside in trading up for the fourth-best quarterback option in the draft or taking a swing at a rookie head coach who might be a bust.
Nobody wants to oscillate between 10-6 and 7-9 every year. No Cincinnati Bengals fan is satisfied with the Marvin Lewis–Carson Palmer–Chad Johnson era. But the Vikings are already more accomplished than those teams. Let the 2021 season happen, see where it goes, and then adjust from there. If Cousins doesn’t elevate in big games and Zimmer insists on running a 1990s offense, draft a new quarterback and hire an innovative coach. Rolling it back for 2021 doesn’t mean that they’re committing to Zimmer and Cousins forever.