It was a late November afternoon, and Kirk Cousins had just slayed the Green Bay Packers. The win kept the Minnesota Vikings’ playoff hopes alive, and his performance included a last-minute laser to Adam Thielen that set up the game-winning field goal.
That throw should have been the moment where Kirk became the NFL’s version of Dirty Harry. Instead, he painted a grim portrait of his team.
“I keep saying we’re [on] a razor’s edge,” Cousins said via Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune. “That’s a play where it’s an example of it. The difference between him catching that and making the play he did and it going the other way is very small…you don’t want to live in that world.”
The Vikings have lived on that razor’s edge from the moment the 2017 season ended. Over the past five seasons, the Vikings have been a high-wire act, capable of launching themselves into contention and falling into football purgatory.
The blade finally cut Mike Zimmer after an 8-9 finish last season, and the Vikings wanted someone to get off that ledge. Kevin O’Connell has led the Vikings to a 3-1 start, but the way he’s done it has resembled Minnesota’s past ways. So are they still living on that razor’s edge?
The Vikings started with a 1-2-1 record in 2018, which forced them to play catchup to make the playoffs. Minnesota had nine games decided by 10 points or fewer, and they ultimately were bounced from contention in the final week of the season.
They started with an 8-3 record in 2019, thanks to a schedule filled with backup quarterbacks. Still, they never clobbered them like they should have. Eight games were decided by 10 points or fewer, and the Vikings played one more contest like that in a playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints.
The trend continued in 2020 when the Vikings had 10 games decided by a single possession. Minnesota was still able to post a 6-4 record in those games, but it took a toll on team morale. The Vikings marched into 2021 looking like an exhausted squad, and it showed on the field.
In 2021, the Vikings had 14 games decided by less than one possession, including six games by less than a touchdown. Their average margin in their games had gone from 11 points in 2018 to 7.2 points in 2021. At this point, everyone had enough and wanted to see Minnesota morph into a dominant team.
Turning over the roster would take years, so changing the coach was the easiest way to do this. Over O’Connell’s two years as an offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams, he watched Sean McVay lead his team to only 12 one-possession games. While the Vikings posted an average margin of victory of seven points during that stretch, the Rams beat teams by an average of 11.9 points per game.
Thus a concept was born. Get a new coach, watch him put his foot on the gas, and start smashing teams on the way to the playoffs. But there were some things that they didn’t account for.
The first is the state of the offense. O’Connell had every intention of bringing McVay’s offense to Minnesota, but it hasn’t produced in the first four games. After Sunday’s win in London, the Vikings rank 15th in points scored – one spot lower than they did a year ago.
McVay also pledged to have Cousins play with a quiet mind, but that hasn’t panned out either. Cousins has looked hesitant throughout the opening month, double clutching on throws, and taking an extra second to go through his reads. He’s posted his lowest completion percentage since 2017 — when O’Connell was his quarterbacks coach.
Cousins’ mind may be as loud as a death-metal festival, but he’s not the only one struggling. Drops and poor route-running have plagued the receiving corps. Justin Jefferson ran the wrong route in Philadelphia. Jalen Reagor had a mix-up in the win on Sunday. Nobody looks comfortable, including the head coach.
The defense has also had its share of trouble. Ed Donatell’s scheme provides a chance to play back and prevent the big play. However, several miscommunications have helped teams take advantage. While McVay benefited from working with many elite players in their prime, O’Connell inherited a group hovering in their 30s and moving a step slower than they were in 2017.
That has created the same issues that Zimmer dealt with every week. The Vikings come out with a scripted drive and march right down the field. They give up a couple of scores to let their opponent get back into the game. They take the lead back and start to run away with the game but make a critical play that gives it right back to their opponent.
Maybe it’s an interception. Perhaps it’s a bad call by the referee. Maybe it’s Harrison Smith getting kicked in the groin by his own teammate. There is no room for error.
Put it together, and you have the types of games that the Vikings played against the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints. Back and forth. Down to the wire. Right to the razor’s edge. O’Connell has come out on the right side of these games so far. It’s afforded him a cushion in the standings, but the pendulum always swings back the other way.
Look at the ways the Vikings lost games during the 2021 season:
- Week 1 vs. Cincinnati: Dalvin Cook fumbles in overtime and is upheld by review. The Bengals kick a last-second field goal to win 27-24.
- Week 2 vs. Arizona: Greg Joseph misses a last-second field goal. Cardinals win 34-33.
- Week 4 vs. Cleveland: Vikings held without a point in the final 53 minutes of the game. Browns win 14-7.
- Week 8 vs. Dallas: Cooper Rush leads a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive. Cowboys win 20-16.
- Week 9 vs. Baltimore: Cousins calls the wrong protection in overtime. Ravens win 34-31.
- Week 12 vs. San Francisco: Cousins lines up behind the guard on fourth down. 49ers win 34-26.
- Week 13 vs. Detroit: Amon-Ra St. Brown catches a last-minute touchdown. Lions win 29-27.
This is why some believe the Vikings are in for a big year. If Minnesota makes one different play in each of those games, they wind up winning 12 or 13 games and are dubbed NFC contenders. But that neglects the games they easily could have lost.
- Week 5 vs. Detroit: Up 16-9 in the fourth quarter, Vikings play conservative, and Alexander Mattison fumbles. D’Andre Swift scores a touchdown, and the Lions execute a two-point conversion. Cousins leads a game-winning drive, Joseph hits a 54-yard field goal, and the Vikings win 19-17.
- Week 6 vs. Carolina: Vikings hold a 28-17 lead going into the fourth quarter, but the offense stalls out, and Robbie Anderson scores a touchdown with 42 seconds left to force OT. Cousins leads another game-winning drive, and the Vikings win 34-28.
- Week 11 vs. Green Bay: See above. Vikings win 34-31.
- Week 14 vs. Pittsburgh: Vikings build a 29-0 lead with 2:11 to go in the third quarter. Pittsburgh goes on a 28-7 run and nearly ties the game at the end of regulation. Vikings win 36-28.
- Week 15 vs. Chicago: Vikings are held to 193 yards of total offense, but the Bears turn it over three times in a 17-9 victory.
The Vikings could have easily won 12 or 13 games this season, but this shows they could have also been a three-win team if things completely went sideways. This is what Cousins is talking about when he says this is the way no team wants to win. Sure, the Vikings will take a W by any means necessary, but they must find a way to put the hammer down.