Vikings

The Vikings Are At A Crossroads and Need To Rediscover Their Vigor

Photo Credit: David Reginek (USA TODAY Sports)

The 2021 Minnesota Vikings season has officially come to a close. While the Vikings played plenty of games with climactic finishes, the season itself couldn’t have ended on a sleepier note. The last three games were lethargic affairs. Don’t take my word for that. Take Justin Jefferson‘s after the Vikings’ home loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

Anthony Barr echoed the same sentiment. The Rams took the crowd out of that game despite being one of the best of Barr’s career.

The Vikings echoed that sentiment in the entire week leading up to their do-or-die primetime game against the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately, Kirk Cousins tested positive for COVID-19, which basically stripped Minnesota’s chance of winning that game. Sean Mannion couldn’t get the job done, and the Vikings took a second-straight elimination before the final game of the season.

U.S. Bank Stadium is a famously energetic building. Every time the Vikings gear up for an opening kickoff, there is palpable electricity. But in a meaningless week 18 tilt featuring two dead men walking at head coach? It’s understandable if the fans weren’t as jazzed to watch Minnesota enter a probable rebuild. At least, not until Justin Jefferson had a shot at breaking the franchise’s single-season receiving record.

 

To be clear, this isn’t a critique of effort in any way. NFL players cannot survive without working harder than I ever have in my life. We can respect that but also understand that the intangible “juice” isn’t there. It’s difficult to measure a concept like that, let alone assign blame. That means, instead of looking back, we can all finally look forward. Leave the mistakes of Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer in the past. Instead, ask what this team needs in the coming offseason.

So, at 8-9, ownership has parted ways with Zimmer and Spielman, leaving the Vikings at a crossroads. They can hire whomever they want. They can become whoever they want. The sky’s the limit for the Wilfs as they embark on the next chapter. That means we can finally look forward instead of wondering what could have been if this or that had broken differently. It’s the “new beginning” Stefon Diggs tweeted about two years ago.

There will probably be plenty of hindsight analysis about what went wrong in Minnesota: Whether Zimmer influenced the offense too much or not enough, what Diggs was really angry about, and why the Vikings could never build an offensive line. But let’s look forward. There is a new regime coming to Minnesota. Maybe it’s the one that brings the state its first men’s major championship trophy in 30 years.

The last regime motivates the next one

If you must think about hindsight, apply it to the future of the Vikings. Minnesota’s failures took on some maddeningly consistent patterns. The offensive line was never good. Even after the Vikings achieved consistency at quarterback, they utterly failed to turn it into an explosive offense. They overprioritized the run game and played it safe too often. When thinking of future candidates, think of the taste in the Wilfs’ mouth as they go through the process.

After Mike Tice seemed to lose his handle on the locker room, the Vikings brought in a disciplinarian in Brad Childress. When it turned out that everyone hated him, players’ favorite Leslie Frazier took over. When Frazier’s Cover 2 defense couldn’t hold a lead, the Vikings brought in Zimmer. What comes next may be the inverse of Zimmer’s time here.

Maybe that will turn the Vikings off of a coach like Eric Bienemy, whose experience is mostly in the run game. It may endear them to someone like Doug Pederson, whose analytically inclined decisions helped the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl. Maybe the stink of Tice and Childress has worn off, and the Vikings will hire an offensive coach again. Or perhaps they’ll go with a forward-thinking and adaptable defensive coach like Dennis Allen.

The Vikings need their energy back

It’s no secret that the Vikings have struggled to get their juice up this year. Players have pointed it out, and we can all sense it. To get that back, they need that energy in their veteran leadership. Some of that is already in place. Multiple players have referred to Dalvin Cook as an emotional core of the franchise. Hopefully, as Jefferson gets older, the younger players can look to his unshakeable spirit.

Still, the Vikings need more than a couple of players. In all likelihood, the defense is going to fracture after this season. Barr’s contract is up. Multiple players, including Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Woods, are on single-year contracts. Who replaces those players? Perhaps in Minnesota’s free-agency and draft processes, they should keep an eye on those players’ leadership capabilities.

The Vikings need to focus on that juice. It’s difficult to measure, but it needs to be a priority in the offseason. Maybe that means moving on from the self-described CEO at quarterback. Nobody wants to run through a wall for the CEO.

The final Kirk Cousins Chaos meter

For the 2021 season, we’ve been tracking Kirk Cousins’ progress toward a possible extension in the 2022 offseason. The chaos meter doesn’t necessarily track Kirk’s progress but rather the level of chaos he injects into the game. The ideal Kirk Cousins game has some chaos, but not too much.

Kirk didn’t really add much chaotic energy in this one. His three touchdowns went to open receivers, and the team’s deficiencies had more to do with the players around him. There’s no shame in that. It turned into a three-touchdown, 250-yard victory by multiple scores.

If you averaged out all of the chaos meters in the season, it would land around the same range. Cousins has had plenty of games in the gray and plenty of games in the green. If you’re a Cousins detractor, you may argue that it should be lower. Cousins’ most ardent supporters would tell you that the play calling and offensive line let him down. They’d argue that struggles on defense have wasted an otherwise good performance. When your season is defined by those around you, the meter measures that in the yellow.

Perhaps that will come to define Cousins’ time in Minnesota. Whether or not it continues into 2022, he has always been defined more by his supporting cast. He has been a quality executor of concepts. He is a below-average pressure eraser. And he rarely creates plays out of structure. In the NFL, can you live like that? With no production out of the structure, when so many other teams ride quarterback heroics to the playoffs?

I’m sure you’d find the NFL itself divided on that, let alone Vikings fans. But that question will heavily influence the next few decisions the Vikings make. Who coaches the team, and who manages the roster? The next few years of the Vikings hang in the balance.

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