OK, I’ll admit it. Wandering around the interwebz these days, it feels like the Minnesota Vikings’ season is already over. The team went in to Los Angeles on a short week, after a total breakdown against the Buffalo Bills, without their best defensive player, against a Super Bowl favorite, gave up roughly six thousand yards of offense to a team that featured both the reigning offensive player of the year and coach of the year, and had a game-clinching forced fumble caused by the reigning defensive player of the year. The backfield rushed thirteen times, for twenty six yards. The offensive line gave up four sacks and at least seven hundred and fifty two hurries. Trae Waynes left with a concussion (it could have been PTSD, for all we know). Kevin McDermott can only count to 9 ½ after losing the tip of his finger. Hell, even the refs got involved in the curbstomping, pulling Adam Thielen out of the game at a critical moment and picking up an “illegal block in the back” flag that totally wasn’t an illegal block in the back. Well, that’s what they told us, at least.
Yup. It’s over. O-V-E-R, over.
Of course, I mean Kirk Cousins did throw for 422 yards. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen combined for 258 of them. Danielle Hunter got another sack - which gives him four in four games. Our kicker was perfect, theirs wasn’t. Our punter even “out-puntered” theirs. The Vikings lost the game, but it was by only seven points. On a short week. In Los Angeles in front of the Rams’ home crowd. Without one of their best defensive players.
And they did have the ball, with time on the clock, and a chance to tie or win the game.
The NFC’s last two representatives in the Super Bowl, the Falcons and Eagles, both lost on Sunday in heartbreaking fashion. At 1-2-1, the Vikings are still only a game and a half back of the Bears, who seemed to look pretty good against the Buccaneers (2-2), but struggled with the Seahawks (2-2) and the Cardinals (0-4).
Pardon me for a moment. All this typing is making me thirsty.
*Walks to kitchen, opens refrigerator, sees no cold beverage. Walks to cupboard, grabs glass pitcher. Walks to other cupboard, opens door, grabs sugar container, and two packets of Grape Kool-Aid. Commences mixing. Takes large gulp. Takes another.
Ahhhhhhhhh! Much better. Refreshing!
OK, where was I? Oh yeah!
Yeah, I’m not done with this team. Not by a long shot.
So. Let’s talk about this team, heading into week 5. Let’s look at all three facets - offense, defense, and special teams. And let’s have a good, old-fashioned Sally Jesse Raphael talk (Click the link if you’re too young to remember SJR, or just to check out the style).
The Vikings at Week 5 on Offense.
Purple Kool-Aid Version: “The Minnesota Vikings offense was transformed this offseason with the addition of John DeFilippo and Kirk Cousins. Forget balanced offense, and forget backs who can get you a hundred yards on the ground in a game. It’s all about moving the ball - any way we can! That’s the new way of thinking on the NFL, and three yards and a cloud of dust is about as archaic as an episode of “Sally!” Diggs and Thielen can get their ten catches for 125 yards, and Rudy and Treadwell can add another hundred combined. Give Cook, Murray, and Ham another five-for-forty, and we have an offense! I don’t care if we rush for twenty yards, as long as we are putting up total offense.”
Optipessimistic version: “Yeah, that’s great. But what about those bad-weather, close, run-out-the-clock games. If you spend the whole game chucking the ball around, and Kirk decides to go all Buffalo-Bills-Game, where he can’t hit a receiver, then what? I mean, I get it. If he throws for 400 yards, we probably score thirty points. That should be good enough for a ‘W’. It would be nicer to see Cook and Murray combine for a-hundred-yards-plus on the ground, though.”
Burn-It-All-Down version: “Dude. Kirk is nice. I mean, really nice. But what good is he gonna do us when he’s running for his life all damn game long? Our offensive line has the pass protection skills of an elderly woman, Treadwell can’t catch, and Cook can’t stay healthy. This team is going to turn into Sam-Bradford-Vikings, and we’ll see an endless supply of three yard checkdowns.”
The Verdict: Optipessimistic is probably closest to the truth on this one. The Minnesota Vikings offense can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. Looking at the skill positions, is there a better total group of players? I’m not sure. Offensive line woes aside, Cousins is playing at a level not seen around here in many, many years. Don’t look now, but Adam Thielen might just be the best wide receiver in the game - no hyperbole. And Stefon Diggs isn’t far behind him - if at all! I’m not sure there’s a better one-two punch in the league than Cook and Murray - again, with a proper line. But the truth is, the offensive line stinks to high heaven right now. It’s “bad” bad. We’re beginning to see the effects of the passing of Tony Sparano, and I expect that the line’s play will get worse as teams continue to figure out how to beat them. The Vikings need a legitimate line coach, and they need it
before training camp ends before the season starts last week right ****ing now. Put that call out to Mike Tice again. Or Mike Mularkey. Offer one of them as much money as it takes to get him in the building. Now. Before it really is too late.
The Vikings at Week 5 on Defense
Purple Kool-Aid Version: “This is still a great defense. Smith. Rhodes. Hunter. Richardson. Joseph. Kendricks. Barr, Waynes, Sendejo? Hughes? Alexander? Iloka (paging Mr. Iloka. Mr. Iloka, please pick up the green courtesy phone)? And if we get Griffen back? Hell, even Stephen Weatherly has been playing well! There’s too much talent on the defensive side of the ball to say that this is how they’re going to play all year. They’re absolutely better man for man than any other team in the conference. Something’s missing, and Mike Zimmer is a defensive genius who’ll figure it out. We pretty much shut down Rodgers and the Packers offense in their house, and should have won that game. The Rams scored at will, but they’re a damn good team! The team was probably reeling with the Everson Griffen situation, so we’ll chalk the Buffalo game up to that. By the end of the season, they’ll be back where they should be.”
Optipessimistic Version: “Yeah, there’s a pile of talent there. They were one of the best defenses in football last year, and - with the exception of Griffen right now and Newman chasing a coaching dream, and B-Rob being cut at the end of camp, they’re the same group of guys - with the addition of Richardson and Iloka (paging Mr. Iloka. Mr. Iloka, please pick up the green courtesy phone. Seriously. Where is he?). But at the same time, since the second half of the Saints game, teams in the league have figured something out. They’re just not playing the same way. They’ll get better, but they’re probably not better than average the rest of the year.”
Burn-It-All-Down Version: “If not for Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith, this could be the worst defense in the league right now. Linval Joseph can’t generate a push. Anthony Barr is playing at half speed and out of position. Xavier Rhodes needs the boxing gloves again. Trae Waynes is… yechhh… he’s just awful. And he’s concussed. I’d rather see a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese on the field right now than Mac Alexander. Sendejo refuses to tackle unless he can lead with his helmet. And Mike ZImmer isn’t doing a damn thing about it! This defense sucks, they forgot how and when to use the double A-Gap blitz. They play off when they should press, they press when they should play off. They’re in zone coverage when they should be in man. It’s a mess, and no amount of coaching is going to change that fact. Nearly 500 yards passing for Jared Goff? Really?!?”
The Verdict: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the Purple Kool-Aid version is probably closest to the truth. Anthony Barr has become a liability, yes. He can be blamed for the Buffalo loss. Josh Allen leapt over him for a big third-down conversion. And ran around him for the diving touchdown. And he had the horse collar tackle on Chris Ivory. And he didn’t help his cause against the Rams, either - even if he wasn’t solely responsible. But he has to play better - he can’t possibly fall off that far from one year to the next. Zim will get him coached up. And the young defensive backs will learn, game by game. Games against the Cardinals and Jets coming up should go a long way in giving the young guys some confidence. Heck, maybe we even get Sack Daddy back. By the end of this season, though, the defensive woes will be long forgotten.
The Vikings at Week 5 on Special Teams:
Purple Kool-Aid Version: “Yes! We finally have a kicker again. Remember the days of Ryan Longwell? We didn’t have to worry about him kicking a 58-yarder and then missing a 28-yarder. Because the Vikings wouldn’t ever let him kick from 58, and he wouldn’t miss a 28-yarder. Well, that’s what we have with Dan Bailey. If we have to line him up for a 55 yard field goal to win the game, the offense didn’t do its job. But he is money. And he’s a veteran. We don’t need someone to hit it from the far side of the fifty. Cousins and company will get them where they need to be. It’s really nice to know the team has someone who is just plain-old steady.”
Optipessimistic Version: “Yes, it’s nice to have someone like Dan Bailey back there. He is steady. Is he going to be perfect all season? Probably not. But the Vikings beat the Packers if he’s back there instead of Daniel Carlson, no doubt in my mind. He did hit the uprights on his first kick as a Viking, though. And that should remind everybody that the kicking game is still a crapshoot.”
Burn-It-All-Down Version: “They allow the Packers to block a punt deep in our own end, then give them the game by missing field goals from every angle and distance. And did you hear that loud chime in the first quarter of Thursday’s game against Los Angeles? That was the sound of another shankopotamus hitting the upright. Jeezus! When did being the Vikings kicker mean you automatically get the yips? Our long snapper had a mid-game fingerectomy, our punter is seriously giving me thoughts about trading up to draft one next April, and for the love of everything good, can we please stop returning kickoffs to the fifteen yard line? Like, now?”
The Verdict: Oof. On this one, the Burn-It-All-Downers have it. Mike Priefer and Ryan Ficken better figure this out in a hurry. Did you know that Pro Football Focus rated the Vikings special teams number one in the league last year? Did you know that ex-punter Ryan Quigley tied an NFL record by not allowing a touchback on 71 punts in 2017? And did you also know that his 29 punts downed inside the 20-yard line were 4th most in Vikings history for a single season? Did you know that Kai Forbath’s 53 yard field goal versus the Saints in the Divisional Playoff game is the longest playoff field goal in Vikings history? Yeah, we didn’t need any of that. Is Bailey an improvement over Daniel Carlson? Absolutely. Is the jury still out on him? Probably. Is Matt Wile an improvement over Ryan Quigley? Not so sure about that. Does the team miss Marcus Sherels’ punt return skills right now? Definitely. It’s a shaky unit overall, with the exception of punt coverage, which has been outstanding so far. It’s a unit that - like the offensive line - needs to improve in a big hurry.
The Vikings at Week 5, Coaching:
The Purple Kool-Aid Version: “Mike Zimmer and Andre Patterson know how to run a defense. John DeFilippo was the reason for Carson Wentz’s spectacular season, and has really opened up the playcalling - and has Cousins on pace to break every single season passing record in the Vikings record book. Coaching didn’t cause Cousins fumble issues. Coaching doesn’t cause Xavier Rhodes to lose his cool against the Rams. Coaching didn’t cause Daniel Carlson to miss a chip shot. They’ll get this figured out. Just like every other season - the cart looks magnificent coming out of the barn, the horse gets explosive diarrhea and sprays it down, and Zim comes in with a pressure washer and cleans it up. Happens every year, and it’ll happen again this year.”
Optipessimistic Version: “Yes. Zimmer, Patterson, and DeFilippo know how to coach. They didn’t get this far in life by accident. But something is definitely missing. Maybe it is the loss of Tony Sparano. If he’s still there, is the offensive line this bad? Does he fix the craniorectosis that is running rampant through the offensive linemen right now? Zimmer has had some time now to absorb what happened in the first four weeks, and he’ll settle things down. And the clock management issues keep flaring up like a bad case of the Herp.”
Burn-It-All-Down Version: “Sixty is the new Forty? Tell that to Mike ZImmer, who just got waxed against the Rams and their thirty-two year-old head coach, Sean McVay. At least bacon-neck NORV! had the good sense to quit - for a while. Zimmer’s famed Double-A-gap defense had the lid pulled off of it starting last season. The Saints, the Eagles, the Packers, the Rams. All of them figured it out. I mean, the Tampa-2 defense was all the rage at one time, too - until someone figured out how to beat it. Now, it sits on a shelf somewhere in Tony Dungy’s study, next to a globe that still has countries like Yugoslavia and East Germany on it. Zimmer needs to come up with a new plan. Maybe take a look at what’s going on in Chicago, for instance. And, while we’re at it, can we make sure that Terrance Newman isn’t telling Xavier Rhodes to do the opposite of what Zim wants him to do?”
The Verdict: The Purple Kool-Aid version wins by a nose over Optipessimistic. Zimmer’s record speaks for itself. He’s 40-27 as the Vikings head coach. He’s had them in the NFC Championship game. He’s won the division half the time he’s been here. He’s had to deal with one eye, two stadiums, three offensive coordinators, four quarterbacks, four kickers, three late-season trips to Lambeau, two running backs lost for the season in the first month, one tragic death, and one prominent Defensive player under psychiatric care. You know, just your run-of-the-mill coaching challenges. Stuff you can scheme around, no problem. And yet, he still wins. And - for all the rancor on the interwebz these days - his team is literally a few plays away from being tied for the division lead right now. Zim knows what he’s doing, and he’ll get his team going in the right direction. Maybe the Thursday Night game - win or lose - was a blessing. Maybe this team needed to unplug and reset the electronics for an extra day or two before getting down to business with the Eagles. Mike Zimmer has earned the benefit of the doubt here.
Pass me that sugar, sugar, and let’s get to mixin’!