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Feeling Minnesota

Learing to look for the upside in bad situations is a Minnesota survival skill. It works especially well when cheering for the Vikings.

Minnesota Vikings v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Sometimes it hits me just how very Minnesotan I am.

During the disappointment of the 2010 season through to 2013 I could hold onto optimism because that’s just what my people do. We can hack it during a winter that seems to last a little longer each year, we can deal with tornadoes, mosquitoes, and former wrestlers turned governors because we know that nothing lasts forever. But that kind of thinking, while handy when things are difficult, doesn’t do much for me when things are going well.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Minnesota Vikings’ reign (brief though it was) as the final undefeated NFL team during 2016. The problem was I never quite got comfortable with that perfect record. Maybe it’s the Minnesotan thing, or maybe I’m just a born pessimist, but perfection makes me uneasy.

Perfection is capricious. It takes very little to destroy it. And, sometimes, it is an illusion—like with the 2016 Vikings.

While the Vikings’ record may have been perfect, the team was not. And that fleeting perfection came to a screeching halt on Week 7 at the Philadelphia Eagles.

Once again, I’m back in familiar territory with my Vikings. I’m looking for something to be gained or learned from a loss. It should probably bother me more than it does that this is normal.

The Minnesota Vikings are a good team with a great defense. This 2016 defense, the Zim Reapers, is so good that history may talk about it the way the Purple People Eaters are talked about. And, with a defense that is potentially legendary, the offense doesn’t have to be brilliant. The offense doesn’t have to be above average. The offense doesn’t even need to be solidly good. No, the offense just needs to not suck.

In Philadelphia, the Vikings’ offense sucked.

Here are couple ways in which the Vikings offense struggled.

  • Sam Bradford was good in his first four games when Norv Turner orchestrated a game plan that played to his strengths with a quick passing game and not so many long-developing routes. Those long-developing routes worked for Turner when he had an offense with a great offensive line like he did in Dallas—Earth to Norv, those days are gone. In Philadelphia, behind a shaky offensive line, Turner had Bradford dropping back while constantly under pressure. Bradford was sacked six times, hit around 20 times, threw his first interception, fumbled four times, and lost two fumbles. The offensive game plan just wasn’t suited to the Vikings’ offensive reality.
  • Tony Sparano was hired to bring a gritty toughness to the Vikings’ offensive line that it had lacked under previous line coach Jeff Davidson. That’s also why the team signed reputed mauler Alex Boone in the off season. But injuries (and retirement prompted by injury) decimated the anticipated competition for starting linemen and Sparano has been left coaching, quite literally, the last men standing. Less than ideal, the offensive line struggled through their first five weeks of the season, also losing Matt Kalil to a hip injury, Andre Smith to an arm injury, and Brandon Fusco (temporarily) to a concussion. The team signed veteran Jake Long over the bye week for depth, but rust is an issue for Long who has had only a handful of practices with the team since signing. Then, on the road in front of a...let’s say spirited Philadelphia crowd, Sparano chooses to cycle in his linemen. Constantly changing personnel during a game means communication was key for a line desperately trying to gel, and they couldn’t communicate well/at all because of the crowd noise. It contributed to their ineffectiveness at both run blocking and pass protection. After the game Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer called the line out for being “soft” which, I gather, in the machismo world of the NFL is right up there with kicking them in the testicles and calling them eunuchs. Truly, the line was a mess and deserved that dinger from Zimmer, but Sparano did not put his guys in a position to be successful.
  • To make matters worse for Sam Bradford, when he did manage to survive pressure from the Eagles' defense long enough to deliver a catchable ball to a member of his own team, the receivers struggled to hang onto the ball. Stefon Diggs was getting mugged and, just when it seemed like the second year receiver would benefit from a defensive pass interference call, the official picked up the flag. In fairness, the officials let the Vikings' defense (particularly Jayron Kearse) get away with a few penalties too. Charles Johnson, who had showed such chemistry with Teddy Bridgewater, struggled in Philadelphia to get on the same page as Bradford. Whether from distraction, timing, or voodoo, the passing attack struggled much of the game in Philadelphia.
  • Sometimes weird, very bad things happen. When those things happen on special teams they can change the momentum of a game quickly. The Vikings’ coverage fell apart on Philadelphia’s touchdown return, with Blair Walsh being the last hope of saving the play. For a guy as ripped as Walsh is (dude isn’t big, but he’s wiry), that half-hearted tackle attempt was just sad. Even more mindboggling was Marcus Sherels fumbling a punt. Sherels is one of the best punt returners in the NFL, fumbling is just not the sort of thing he does. But that’s the kind of day it was in Philadelphia. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Okay, we know the Vikings aren’t perfect. Now what?

In 2015, after the Vikings were so awful in Week 1 at the San Francisco 49ers, we got a glimpse of what I think we will see in Chicago on Halloween. Mike Zimmer absolutely hates a lack of effort. He has said that losing is bad, but his team giving up and getting its butt kicked won’t be tolerated. At all.

Also, the Vikings’ faceplant of a loss may be a motivational boon for Zimmer. Zimmer is most in his element when he can convince his team that they are underdogs and no one outside of the organization believes in them. That underdog message is a harder sell when the team is topping power rankings with a perfect record, but it resonates when the team is shell shocked from an embarrassing loss. Now, any time during the season when he thinks his team is believing the hype about them or getting complacent, all Zimmer has to do is drag out the cautionary tale of the Vikings’ Week 7 loss in Philadelphia. For example, “You guys think you’re so great you don’t have to work hard in practice, how’d that work out for you in Philadelphia?” An embarrassing loss could be the motivational gift that keeps on giving for Mike Zimmer.

This may be Zimmer’s first head-coaching job in the NFL, but he’s not afraid to lay down the law with his staff. Some of us have speculated that hiring Pat Shurmur to be a position coach was also a quiet threat to Norv Turner along the lines of “make the offense effective or step aside.” I could easily see Zimmer telling Turner to go back to what works—quick passes, not holding the ball too long, getting the ball to the running backs in space, etc. Zimmer may be a defensive guru, but he’s not going to turn a blind eye to the offensive struggles when the team has the opportunity to be great. Look for him to turn some screws.

Personnel-wise, there are no quick fixes for the offensive line. GM Rick Spielman and vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski probably have a few tricks up their sleeves and, if absolutely necessary, could create some salary cap space. But unless the team is willing to sell the metaphorical farm and go all in on a big trade (one that likely would involve players, draft picks, or both players and draft picks), there just aren’t a lot of good offensive linemen available. Even if the Vikings were able to find a good offensive lineman who is both available and cheap, there are still the issues of getting him up to speed with the Vikings’ offense and developing chemistry with the other linemen.

I think this is where Zimmer’s comment about the line being “soft” could actually be very clever.

There have been times in 2016 when the offensive line, that was supposed to be developing a nasty streak, looked downright forlorn. By insulting them and describing their play as “soft,” Zimmer could be trying to encourage his line to get pissed off—to play with a chip on their shoulders in order to prove him wrong. Hopefully, the guy with the biggest chip on his shoulders will be Sparano. Sparano needs to find something that will be at least moderately effective so that the Vikings can run the ball and keep Bradford upright. And, if having his players labeled “soft” after cultivating a reputation as a guy who can coach players to toughness doesn’t piss Sparano off, then he probably shouldn’t work for Mike Zimmer.

While there were mistakes on special teams and the receivers weren’t doing much to help Bradford, both of those elements seem to pale in comparison to the issues with the offensive play calling and the performance of the line.

In 2015, after every loss Zimmer refocused his young team and coached them to comeback performances, all but one of which resulted in a win. The lone comeback performance that resulted in a loss was a gritty Week 14 game at the Arizona Cardinals. Considering the way the Cardinals had been playing and all the defensive starters who were out for the Vikings, the Cardinals were the obvious favorites to win, but the Vikings turned in a surprisingly solid performance and the 20-23 loss came down to the final seconds.

I don’t know if the 2016 Vikings will comeback to win in Week 8 at the Chicago Bears, but I feel like Zimmer’s team will at least get back to being solid competitors. They can’t be perfect anymore, but I like to think the Vikings can find a way to chase excellence and get back to winning. But maybe that’s just me being Minnesotan.