With two division titles in three years, the transformation Mike Zimmer sought when he became head coach is getting nearer to completion.
Since the end of the Purple People Eaters era (Your grandpa’s Minnesota Vikings and also shut up), the Vikings have had a few characteristics or traits that have applied to almost every version of the team, regardless of players or coaching staff. There were exceptions, yes, but for the most part this franchise had a list of maddeningly consistent things that became a yoke around this team, at least for the fans. They were, in a nutshell, your father’s Minnesota Vikings. And because most of you love your Dad and you wanted to bond with him, you became a Vikings fan.
Not because of these traits, mind you, but in spite of them.
Mike Zimmer has taken those calling cards that the Vikings have become known for, like playing down the level of their competition, not consistently winning on the road, or coming up small in big moments, and has gone about dismantling each one.
The Vikings are not only a good football team, they’re a complete one. And they’re also young at every key position within their core group of players, on both sides of the ball. This team is built to last for awhile, on both sides of the ball.
So it begs the question: Is the torch about to pass from the Packers to the Vikings for divisional dominance? Let’s take a look.
The obvious place to start is at quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is the oldest starter on Green Bay’s roster, at age 34. His Barrfight injury is well documented, and in his first return to action last week he was as inconsistent as he’s ever been. As long as Aaron Rodgers is on the Packers they are a threat, but his time as a Packer is closer to the end than the beginning. And it’s legitimate to ask if the collarbone will be an issue moving forward.
In the first extended quarterback play we’ve seen in Green Bay from a player not named Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre, what they have coming up behind him isn’t promising. There is a talent void, and if Brett Hundley is the answer, you might be asking the wrong question.
And a new deal for Aaron Rodgers looms. The Packers (not Aaron Rodgers) can opt out of the deal at the end of this season, and walk away from a 2018 contract that pays Rodgers $19.8 million with no dead money against the salary cap. It seems dumb to want to do that, because according to Spotrac, a contract extension for him at the going market rate for him is north of $28 million.
He becomes a free agent at the end of 2019, though, and an extension seems like a near certainty. But Green Bay is in kind of a ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ situation with Rodgers.
The Packers have to address talent issues elsewhere, and they are presented with one of two scenarios: either cut bait with a Hall of Fame quarterback and use the money they won’t spend on him to upgrade the roster elsewhere, or pay Rodgers and keep using the same playbook they’ve used for most of his career—rely on Rodgers to carry an otherwise mediocre team as far as he can take them. That’s worked once in 10 years, and you’d think that with Rodgers getting older, the chances of that working again become more remote with each passing season.
Green Bay has issues elsewhere, too. They haven’t had an effective running game for most of the Rodgers era. This year’s answer was a converted wide receiver, who is now on IR. The offensive line has struggled and could move on from the 34 year old Jahri Evans at the end of the year, causing more upheaval. At 34, Jordy Nelson has become ‘just a guy’, and hasn’t posted numbers this low since before he became a starter in 2010. They have a really good receiver in Devante Adams, but he’s suffered two devastating concussion injuries this year, and those can have an impact on his career moving forward.
On defense, they’ve struggled and played inconsistently for years under the Dom Capers 3-4, and there’s a sense the Packers may fire Capers at the end of the season. Clay Matthews is still really good, but like Rodgers is coming due on a contract extension as well, and also like Rodgers the Packers have an opt out for 2018. I don’t see them opting out on this contract either, but they’re going to be spending a lot of money for two players that are both north of 30 and have more playing time behind them than in front of them.
Although the Packers have one of the younger rosters in the NFL, it’s who’s aging that is really a cause for concern.
With the Vikings, though, things look a little different. They only have three starters 30 or older—Joe Berger, Everson Griffen, and Tom Johnson. They have locked up all their core guys on both sides of the ball with long term extensions, save for Anthony Barr and Stefon Diggs. They have a coaching staff that knows how to coach as opposed to one that looks at the film and sees nothing but correctable mistakes that never seemed to get corrected.
And most importantly, it appears they have a quarterback of the present and future. In Case Keenum, they appear to have a guy that can move the offense, make plays, and score points. On defense, they have a young aggressive group that runs a havoc-filled Double A Gap scheme that can cause fits for an opposing offense, and it’s one of the best in the NFL.
Finally, on the field, it appears Minnesota has gotten the upper hand after a mostly one sided rivalry for a better part of this decade. The last time Minnesota swept the regular season series was in 2009, and from 2010 through 2014 the Vikes posted a miserable 1-9-1 record against the Packers, including playoffs. The lone win was the 2012 regular season finale that clinched a wild card playoff berth.
The Vikings promptly lost the following week to...wait for it...the Green Bay Packers.
But the Vikings have split the season series in the last two years, and can sweep the Packers with a win Saturday night. They have won three of the last four from Green Bay to include two huge games in this series history—a 20-13 week 17 win in 2015 at Green Bay to clinch the first division title for Zimmer, and the first for the Vikings since 2009. The other one was the 17-14 victory last year to officially open the Vikings new US Bank Stadium in Sam Bradford’s Viking debut. And a win Sunday would give Mike Zimmer a .500 record against the Packers. The last Vikings coach with a .500 record against Green Bay was Mike Tice, who went 5-5. The last coach with a winning record against them was Dennis Green, who was 11-9.
By almost any metric, it looks and feels like the Vikings have finally pulled even with the Packers, and at least for this season have them in their rear view mirror.
And Mike Zimmer has his foot on the gas.