When the Minnesota Vikings lost to the previously winless Atlanta Falcons, 40-23, and entered the bye week, it seems like a certainty that they would start to sell off pieces and try to enter the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. The question wasn’t if they’d tank, but to what magnitude they would do so.
They had just traded Yannick Ngakuoe to the Baltimore Ravens. Who was next?
There was a vocal segment of the fanbase that wanted a full-fledged Miami Dolphins-style rebuild. That didn’t mean trimming around the edges. It meant dealing away Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr — popular players who still had something left in the tank. In the case of a guy like Kendricks, 28, they’d be dealing him in his prime.
As we sit here today, that’s a win for the anti-Mike Zimmer crowd. It’s also hard to see how Rick Spielman survives it, although I suppose if he’s the one executing the first sale, ownership may allow him to try and revamp the team.
It’s also a win for North Dakota State fans because there’s no guarantee that the Vikings would get the No. 1 overall pick. Remember, the New York Jets remained winless until Week 15, but they might be drafting high enough to get Trey Lance. The Marshall, Minn.-born quarterback is One of Us and would be entering a high-pressure situation after only playing one game of college football last season.
It’s not necessarily a win for the anti-Kirk Cousins folks, however. He still has an albatross contract with two more years left, and there’s no guarantee that Minnesota could move off of it. Whichever quarterback they take in this scenario, and we have to assume they are tanking to take a franchise QB, is spending a year minimum on the bench while the Vikings court suitors for Cousins.
Tanking always seems more attractive than tinkering with a flawed but talented roster, for some reason. Part of that is how important the quarterback is, of course. Urban Meyer isn’t coming out of retirement to coach the Jaguars if they have the 3rd pick. He wants to coach Lawrence.
But bottoming out isn’t a surefire way to succeed.
Remember, the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to take Patrick Mahomes, and they were lucky he was still there at 10th overall. The Chicago Bears had to hilariously take Mitchell Trubisky over Mahomes and Deshaun Watson at 2. Seven other teams had to select players like Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and John Ross instead of a player who could become the next greatest QB of all time.
Until this season, the Cleveland Browns hadn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2002 and blew through so many QBs it became a meme. They took Baker Mayfield 1-1, and nobody’s certain how good he is. They built an offense to mitigate his shortcomings, meaning Kevin Stefanski treats him like he’s Cousins.
Broadcasters are quick to note how bad the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been ever since Tom Brady headed south because of how hilarious it is to compare his accolades to Tampa’s franchise records — and the Bucs have been in the league since 1976. They drafted Jameis Winston first overall in 2015, put an arsenal of weapons around him and a stout defense behind him, and let him go after his rookie contract because he threw 30 interceptions last year.
Jacksonville provided Blake Bortles ample time to develop and ended up giving Gardner Minshew starts. Jared Goff was taken No. 1 overall and seems to be holding Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams back. Justin Herbert is phenomenal, but how certain are we that the Los Angeles Chargers will maximize him?
Honestly, we could have just started with the Dolphins. Miami burned it down, has a good coach and GM, and enters next year with a lot of uncertainty. They went 10-6, but they missed the playoffs, and Tua Tagovailoa was battling 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick for playing time all year. If they were all-in on Tua, they wouldn’t be in the Watson sweepstakes.
There’s also the question of if the Vikings pull off the 1-15 record. That means that they lose to the Detroit Lions twice and have to lose the Jacksonville game. It’s easy to look at a 7-9 team that was blown out by the Falcons, lost a must-win game to the Andy Dalton-led Dallas Cowboys, and went to overtime with the Jaguars and go, of course, they’re capable of going 1-15.
But consider this: Whoever is coaching the team isn’t incentivized to tank. Zimmer sure isn’t; he wants to keep his job. If he’s fired during the bye week, do you think Gary Kubiak wants to retire after a one-win season? Does Andre Patterson want 1-15 on his resume? Is there anyone in the organization that would?
It’s so funny that the Jets won two games, taking themselves out of the running for Lawrence, but Adam Gase doesn’t care if they get a franchise quarterback. He knows he’s getting fired. And many of the players on that team are going to end up elsewhere or out of the league next year. None of them want a winless season on their resume.
A stripped-down team also does a disservice to players who will be the team’s foundation for years to come. Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney would have to play without Harrison Smith behind them. Justin Jefferson doesn’t have the historic season he has without Thielen lining up next to him.
Cousins is never going to drive winning like Herbert, Watson, or Mahomes — few quarterbacks do. It’s fair to say Zimmer is too old-school. It would be fun to draft One of Us with hopes that he becomes a transcendent QB. But a great outcome isn’t guaranteed after a fire sale. In fact, it’s not incredibly likely.
A team with Thielen, Kendricks, and Smith is worth watching on Sundays. Players like them make the next wave of stars like Jefferson, Gladney, and Dantzler better. They still may find a steal, like Stefon Diggs or Everson Griffen, in this draft. And they may make a change at coach and QB in the near future if it’s warranted.
The Vikings probably made the right call during the bye week, even if it isn’t as fun as blowing it all up.