Let’s flashback for a second. The Minnesota Vikings were coming off a thrilling win over the New Orleans Saints before losing 38-7 to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2017 NFC Championship.
The Vikings relied heavily on defense. They had so much cap space that they could take on Sam Bradford’s contract after Teddy Bridgewater’s horrific injury before the 2016 season. The team was flexible and had a pretty complete roster outside of quarterback.
The Eagles were a team that got lucky to some extent. That’s not to take anything away from them. But the Eagles lost their starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, and still ended up with a Super Bowl. A lot needed to happen.
Initially, the Eagles and Vikings went down similar paths. But Philadelphia has since recalibrated to think long-term — and that’s impacted how different these two franchises look today.
The Eagles extended Wentz in 2019. He looked good when healthy and commanded a large contract with plenty of guaranteed money.
The Vikings did something similar in 2018. Needing stability at quarterback, Minnesota landed a premier free agent in Kirk Cousins. He looked good without a lot of help in Washington, so Minnesota shelled out a lot of guaranteed money for him. But Cousins’ price didn’t seem outlandish with how many teams needed a good quarterback.
Then Philadelphia and Minnesota’s paths started to diverge.
Eventually, seeing that Wentz wasn’t working out as envisioned, Philadelphia benched him and brought in then-rookie Jalen Hurts in 2020. The team eventually cut its losses and traded Wentz last offseason, letting the dead money pile up.
The Doug Pederson era in Philadelphia ended with a Week 17 game that was meaningless from the Eagles’ perspective, where the head coach benched Hurts for career journeyman Nate Sudfeld in the second half. His team lost, and Pederson’s move led to shock and outrage amongst the team, per Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
So why did he do it? Pederson may or may not have been trying to throw that game to improve the team’s draft position. Fans watching the NFL that week also could have tuned in to a meaningless Vikings-Lions game, in which Mike Zimmer’s team won with nothing on the line to move to 7-9 overall.
Look at these two teams now. The Eagles, one year removed from a frustrated locker room, have the second-most dead money in the NFL, per Spotrac. But that hasn’t stopped the team from being competitive. Fair or not, Philadelphia fired Pederson and brought in Nick Sirianni, who has led his team to a 9-8 record this year.
Though the Vikings have elected to take a more short-term approach than the Eagles, Minnesota has less immediate success to show for it. The Vikings extended Cousins in the 2020 offseason. Minnesota has freed up cap space, cut important veterans, and signed a bevy of free agents to one-year deals to remain in a playoff window. (We should maybe put “playoff window” in quotes.)
The Vikings worsened their draft position with a meaningless win last year. The team has made emergency trades for players like Yannick Ngakoue and Chris Herndon. To the recent administration, all these moves made sense. Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman had been around for a long time. The duo might have not been able to sustain a rebuild. They chose to kick the salary cap money down the road to compete now. Look where that got them?
Minnesota’s playoff chances ended with a loss to Green Bay in Week 17. Despite that, the Vikings played their starters in another meaningless game to conclude a season. Asked about whether Zimmer wanted to get a look at project QB Kellen Mond for Week 18, the coach said, “not particularly.”
“This is a regular-season game, and we’ll approach it as we would the first game of the year to the last game of the year,” Zimmer said, per Jordy McElroy of Vikings Wire. “We grind the same. We do pretty much everything the same, other than maybe we back down a few reps, but we do that at the end of the year anyway. This isn’t the preseason. So we just go about our business like we always have.”
Say what you will about the Vikings, they mostly went about their business as they always did under Zimmer. Minnesota plays a pretty conservative style of offense. The Vikings rely on the other side of the ball, which ranked 30th in total defense, albeit a flawed stat. Looking at EPA/play on defense, Minnesota ranked No. 12.
But the Vikings are the Vikings. They beat the Chicago Bears 31-17 in Week 18. Minnesota looked at the Bears game like any other, and that’s been the problem lately. It’s time for the Vikings to start looking ahead. Zimmer was fired on Monday.
The Vikings should make some philosophical changes. They need an offensive-minded coach. The team must either convince Cousins to take less money or move on. If you’re a fan and you’re scared of what that could look like, that makes sense. The Vikings could end up doing poorly without Cousins. They may go back to whiffing on a plethora of quarterbacks in the draft. But sometimes, striving to be an elite team in the league means risking looking bad — whether that’s playing inexperienced quarterbacks on cheap deals, throwing interceptions in an aggressive offense, or benching players in games that are better for your team to lose. One day, I hope the Vikings start making those decisions because look at what happened when the Eagles did.