And so, with a meek shot at the end zone that sailed 10 yards past Justin Jefferson, the Minnesota Vikings’ season ends. With no fight, no heart, and no chance, the Vikings fell 37-10 on national television to the despised Green Bay Packers. That knocks the Vikings out of playoff contention and puts us all on Black Monday watch. Backup Sean Mannion took the helm for Kirk Cousins (COVID-19) in one of the worst offensive performances Minnesota fans have witnessed since Josh Freeman‘s infamous 2013 debacle. Mike Zimmer’s once-feared defense gave up more than 30 points to the Packers for the fourth time in the last five games.
However that happened feels deeply irrelevant considering the doomed nature of this iteration of the Vikings. But make no mistake — the Vikings deserve to be exactly where they are. Their staunch commitment to surviving over thriving, their top-heavy salary cap roster, and their refusal to leverage player-to-player mismatches all contributed to tonight’s drubbing. For years, those things have plagued the Vikings through several offensive coordinators and supporting casts. It’s only fitting that they all show up in the team’s final grasp at survival.
The Vikings got punished for their depth issues
Cousins missed this game on the COVID/reserve list. It’s the first meaningful game he has missed since 2014, and it came for a predictable reason. But instead of careening deep into the vaccination weeds, let’s focus on Sean Mannion, the best backup quarterback the Vikings could muster. The Vikings resolved to have Jake Browning and Kellen Mond battle it out for the second quarterback job in the offseason. Browning didn’t make the team, and it doesn’t sound like Mond would have either, were it not for the third-round draft choice stapled to him.
Instead, the best the Vikings could do was Mannion, who got cut from the Seattle Seahawks before training camp. That’s partly due to a lack of salary cap space, but that cap crunch comes thanks to a notoriously “top-heavy” roster, as Zimmer put it before the season. At the tippy top is the heaviest contract: Cousins, and his $31 million cap hit. But also included are Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith. Those four defenders would never all play together this season.
That led to an excruciating lack of depth. The Vikings tried to compensate by maximizing their number of draft picks, but we’ve learned that is simply not enough. Young players can be backups, but general manager Rick Spielman’s strategy required a hit rate that very few draft classes can ever achieve. Even as James Lynch and K.J. Osborn improve, it wasn’t nearly enough to replace Michael Pierce and Adam Thielen.
These contracts aren’t the only thing limiting the Vikings’ depth. They’ve neglected to sign even the cheapest players to fill their depth needs at every turn. Ryan Kerrigan only counts for $1.3 million against the 2021 cap, and the Vikings instead have trotted out a catastrophic parade of edge rushers. The Cincinnati Bengals have enjoyed reasonable play from Alex Redmond for even less while Oli Udoh becomes public enemy No. 1.
The Vikings weren’t forced to play ailing draft picks. They had all the outs in the world, even if you forgive the large contracts — which you shouldn’t. But they’ve constantly neglected to address critical depth issues on their team, instead opting to trust rookies and second-year players who haven’t proven anything.
The Vikings Can’t exploit matchups
For the last two years, the Vikings have utterly failed to leverage the bevy of talent they do have. This game was a perfect example. Dalvin Cook was entirely shut out of the game. Some of that is due to game script — when you’re trailing by several scores, it’s much more difficult to justify the run game. But like Mike Zimmer said after the game, they went away from that too early. Cook only touched the ball 12 times for 13 yards. Considering the run defense issues Green Bay has had for years, that’s inexcusable, even if trailing.
Jefferson had 11 targets in this game, a comparably high amount. He only caught six of those. Some of that is thanks to Mannion’s misses, which is a separate problem. But looking at Jefferson’s usage, his targets very rarely had big-play potential. The only target beyond 20 yards down the field was the game-ending hail mary that Mannion sailed 10 yards over Jefferson’s head. Beyond that, the Vikings could only muster spacing plays and quick game. That does not give Jefferson a chance to beat a cornerback, nor does it leverage his excellent downfield talents.
The Packers played a lot of two-high safety looks. That means that Jefferson would be bracketed in most instances, with a safety covering anything deep and a cornerback in “trail” position, covering anything underthrown or short of where Jefferson was. Green Bay played a lot of zone. Instead of exploiting those zones, the Vikings decided to rein everything in. The result was an anemic offense that got one first down before the final drive in the first half for the second week in a row.
On a play-to-play level, the game kept coming down to terrible mismatches. Davante Adams was one-on-one with Kris Boyd and Tye Smith all night, as Cameron Dantzler was too hurt to play, and the Packers gleefully moved Adams away from Patrick Peterson. On one occasion, the Vikings called a seven-step play-action dropback with C.J. Ham protecting one-on-one with defensive end Rashan Gary. That turned into a sack. Tyler Conklin failed to haul in a reception when matched up with a cornerback. These issues are not willful decisions but matchups the Packers tried to dictate. Minnesota simply failed to deny them that.
The Kirk Cousins Chaos Meter
It’s an odd week for the meter, which had a pre-determined value set for if Cousins missed a game with COVID-19.
Instead, let’s go a little deeper into the rest of the quarterback room. While Mannion struggled, many asked for Mond to go in. Zimmer said after the game that Mond would not play in the now-meaningless week 18 game against the Chicago Bears. That has baffled many people who just watched Mannion struggle, so let me try to explain what’s going on here.
The bottom line is that Mond is bad right now, and Mannion is marginally less bad. This isn’t about ceilings and floors or rookies and veterans. This is about one player being better at the sport than the other on this day in 2022. Could Mond become better than Mannion? Sure, why not. But Mond’s rushing ability does not give him a higher ceiling than Mannion.
Mannion threw some bad passes and some good ones. On a fourth-and-three in the third quarter, he botched a mesh play that left Jefferson wide open with a chance to convert. But he also threw a couple of gorgeous fades to K.J. Osborn, as well as the night’s only touchdown for the good guys.
Mond was only involved in three plays while Mannion dealt with a minor injury, and they did not go well. Mond contributed one of the night’s six three-and-outs with two short completions to Alexander Mattison and an awful near-interception. What’s worse, that near-pick came on a relatively simple slant-flat read. Mond’s throw came several beats late, and the window had closed. It’s only one play, but it’s a particularly damning one.
Considering that Mond struggled with late throws in college, and camp, and the preseason, this implies that he hasn’t bucked this habit yet. It would have been pretty surprising if he did so in just one year. But the Vikings are probably justified in keeping Mond in the slow cooker for now. It won’t do anyone any good for Mond to trot out, throw a bunch of interceptions, and hobble to the bench feeling like he’s lost his touch. Mond always had to learn. Let him learn.
The Vikings’ cowardly approach to offense and brash, hubris-filled approach to roster construction doomed them in 2021. They directly doomed the Vikings in this game against Green Bay, but that it came down to this game is an indictment all itself. Zimmer has probably coached his final meaningful Vikings game. Spielman may not keep his office, either. Whatever comes in 2022, this is how 2021 ends — with a powerless team getting absolutely clobbered by the best team in the NFC.