Make no mistake about it: It’s extremely difficult to have sustained success in the National Football League when your stars are not playing between the lines on Sundays. It’s no secret that the 2020 Minnesota Vikings sorely missed a handful of their top defensive players this past season.
Circling back to Christmas Day, here is what Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer had to say following his team’s embarrassing 52-33 defeat to the New Orleans Saints in front of a national television audience:
We’re a little undermanned, but they should play better than that. Really it wasn’t so much the six touchdowns. It’s more that they just mashed us up front. We couldn’t slow them down. It would be eight-yard gain, seven-yard gain. … It was one of those kind of days.
We’ve got to get [defensive end Danielle] Hunter back, we’ve got to get [defensive tackle Michael] Pierce here, we’ve got to get [linebacker Anthony] Barr, [linebacker Eric] Kendricks, Pro Bowl players, good players that we have, they need to be back, and then we lost another corner again today.
If you go back, and honest, I’m not trying to make excuses. It was embarrassing today. We’re missing four defensive linemen, we’re missing a safety, we’re missing three corners, we’re missing six linebackers, I believe, from where we started. We’re just a little undermanned. That’s still no excuse. These guys put on an NFL jersey, they’ve got to play.
Before we unpack Zimmer’s point-the-finger-not-the-thumb “I’m not trying to make excuses” quote from Week 16, let’s set the stage for what we’re trying to accomplish here today. I hope by now that most of us understand that injuries are not exclusive to Zimmer and the Vikings. Football at its highest level is arguably the most universally celebrated form of violence that we’ll ever see in our lifetimes. With the best athletes on the planet, who possess out-of-this-world size, speed, strength, and competitive desire, you can bet your bottom dollar that a slew of injuries are going to occur.
Now that we’ve got that established. Today, we’re going to take a look at a few NFC ball clubs that were greatly impacted by the injury bug this past season, and the results that came of it for their respective units. First, let’s start with the hometown Skols and Zimmer’s depleted defense. The chart below provides a full breakdown of key defensive players and the amount of games they missed this past season.
In 2020, the defensive struggles were on full display from the opening kickoff against the Green Bay Packers. Minnesota’s defense finished 29th in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed. Even with an active Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and recently acquired Yannick Ngakoue for the first two weeks, the defense surrendered an average of 32 points and 438 yards per game to the Packers and Indianapolis Colts.
Considering that Kendricks only missed the final four games of the season, it’s important to note that Zimmer’s unit continued to struggle mightily, even with his 2019 All-Pro linebacker healthy and active. Minnesota gave up an average of 27.4 points per game — including a 40-point embarrassment at home to the previously winless Atlanta Falcons — and 382.7 yards per game over the first 12 games of the season.
Let’s not forget, Mike Zimmer had another one of his All-Pro defenders, safety Harrison Smith, healthy and active for all 16 games. Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ngakoue, for whom GM Rick Spielman traded a 2021 second-round draft pick to essentially serve as Danielle Hunter‘s replacement. The former Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowl defensive end racked up five sacks in his six games in Minnesota.
But did it translate to success for Zimmer’s defense? Not so much. With a healthy Smith, Kendricks, and Ngakoue, the Vikings allowed an average of 32 points and 413.7 yards per game over the first six games of the season. With the season already lost, Spielman shipped Ngakoue off to the Baltimore Ravens for a third-round draft pick. Swing and a miss.
Was Zimmer banging the injury excuse drum when he had All-Pro and/or Pro Bowl-caliber players at all three levels of his defense over the first six weeks of the season? Didn’t think so.
Now let’s take a look at another NFC team that was forced to deal with significantly worse injury misfortune on the defensive side of the ball than Zimmer’s Vikings. The chart below shows the number of games that the San Francisco 49ers had to pay without their All-Pro and/or Pro Bowl players Nick Bosa, Ezekiel Ansah, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman, and Kwon Alexander.
Despite getting dealt a two-seven off-suit at the NFL Injury Fortune Poker Table, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and his 49ers defense finished the year ranked 17th in points allowed and a very impressive fifth in yards allowed. All this while playing in the NFC West, a division that features the high-flying offenses of the Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, and Arizona Cardinals.
Imagine where Saleh’s defense would’ve ranked had the 49ers drawn the lowly Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions on four occasions.
Was Saleh clinging to injury excuses this past season? Quite the opposite. Saleh was promoted and landed a head coaching job with the New York Jets because, simply put, that’s what good coaches do.
Let’s take a look at another NFC team decimated by injuries on the offensive side of the ball. The chart below shows the Dallas Cowboys, who were forced to play an overwhelming majority of their season without All-Pros and/or Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, and Dak Prescott. The Cowboys were also without their starting right tackle, La’el Collins, for the entire 2020 season.
Led by Andy Dalton and an offensive line with backups at both tackle spots, this Cowboys offense went into U.S. Bank Stadium and hung 31 points on Zimmer’s defense en route to a Week 11 victory. All-Pros Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith were healthy and active for this contest, which saw the Vikings’ defense allow 180 rushing yards to the depleted Cowboys. The 180 rushing yards at the expense of Zimmer’s unit were a season-high for Dallas.
Over the final five games of the season — with Prescott, Smith, Martin, Collins, Frederick, and their second-string tackle, Cameron Erving, all inactive — the Cowboys offense closed the year by averaging 28.8 points and 354.2 yards per game.
Good coaches figure out a way to make it work, especially when obstacles are presented to them.
Just like when Andy Reid was forced to play his third-string quarterback, Matt Moore, against Zimmer and the Vikings in Week 9 of 2019. Even though Zimmer had quite literally all of his All-Pros and/or Pro Bowlers in Hunter, Smith, Kendricks, Barr, Xavier Rhodes, and Linval Joseph healthy and active against a signal-caller who was coaching high school football two months prior, the better coach figured out a way to get a W when adversity struck.