Simba learned about the circle of life the hard way, and the Minnesota Vikings are about to as well.
The little lion prince went on a grand adventure to learn about the cycle of birth, life, and death. Some days you rule over everything the sun touches, and some days you’re getting curb-stomped by a couple hundred wildebeests.
The Vikings think they know their place in the circle. They’re in win-now mode, haven’t you heard?
That’s the peak of the circle of life in the NFL, or at least some theoretical version of it. A bad team gets good draft picks and brings in some savvy free agents with the cap space provided to them by shiny new talent on entry-level contracts. The team gels as they spend a couple of years ascending the playoff rankings. They win a Super Bowl! This is the fun part of the circle.
Then the veterans age out, the QB costs too much, the running backs and corners lose a step, and the team finds themselves stacking up more Ls than Ws. So they sell off their remaining marquee talent for draft capital and prospects while they are in rebuild mode, which is the business end of that crazy circle. But now new life blooms, the sun is back out, and pretty soon you’re the king of win-now mode again.
So we should just sit back and enjoy the ride, right? The meerkat and the warthog just told you there are no worries.
Trouble is, this is Minnesota, where Hakuna Matata means a second-round draft pick who failed to pan out at guard. There are worries.
Because the NFL’s circle of life is tough to square. You can fancy yourself as a future king movin’ on up through the process, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.
The Vikings are technically in win-now mode. They’re certainly acting like it, anyway. Their, um, star quarterback is prohibitively expensive and about to become even more so, half of their ace receiving duo is about to start aging like he drank from the wrong Holy Grail, and their coaching staff looks like a nepotistic family business that’s about to be handed down to the next generation.
To optimize what I guess we’re going to go ahead and pretend is their championship window, they signed a few veterans to mutually beneficial one-year prove-it deals and brought back a few familiar faces.
Promising tight end Irv Smith Jr. is out for the year, replaced by a guy who managed to stand out as a disappointment on the New York Jets. Some of the team’s biggest stars and the coach are sharply divided by COVID politics.
That coach, Mike Zimmer, is widely assumed to be on the hot seat with his fate likely predicated on their playoff performance — if they can even get there at all. So while Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman might be taking out a second mortgage on the future to eke out an extra win or two in 2021, not even the most Purple-brained Pollyanna thinks they’re going to seriously contend in the NFC come playoff time, much less represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
You can say you’re in win-now mode. Break out all the clichés. You’re pushing your chips to the center of the table? But you know who also does that? Losers with bad hands who are soon parted from all their lovely money. Go to a gamblers anonymous meeting sometime and ask them, “Did you guys ever try being in win-now mode and pushing all your chips to the center of the table?” (Prepare to dodge some hot coffee and cigarette butts.)
As for that circle of life, it sounds nice when you sing about it, but remember that even in the movie there’s only one king. Somebody’s also gotta be the loathsome scavenger hyena (that’s you, Dan Snyder) and the annoying but harmless birds (shoutout to Atlanta). The circle works out a little better for some than others. You don’t have to see your uncle toss James Earl Jones off a cliff to know that.
So, please, tell me again about this win-now mode?