In certain ways, some things never change when it comes to the NFL. The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl. Saints fans are whining after a playoff loss like they’re the only fan base in the history of the league that has ever had a bad play go against them. The Eagles are publicly sticking with Carson Wentz despite Nick Foles leading the team to an improbable postseason run. Vikings fans are spending the offseason researching potential offensive line draft picks that the team will likely pass over in April. Time is a flat football circle.
In other ways, the passing of a calendar year in the NFL can feel more like a decade. A year ago today, Vikings fans were only two days removed from being unceremoniously shellacked out of the opportunity to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Pat Shurmur was poached to be the Head Coach of the New York Giants next day. Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Bradford were all on the roster. Gary Kubiak had been retired for over a year after retiring from the Denver Broncos at the end of the 2016 season. The Vikings were just over two weeks away from signing promising Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo and just under two months away from signing promising quarterback Kirk Cousins. Despite the crushing defeat in the NFC Championship Game, Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman were widely lauded for building a team that came so close to the ultimate goal. The pieces were in place to be a serious Super Bowl contender in the 2018 season.
Smash cut to a year later. The outlook for the Minnesota on January 23, 2019 is decidedly less rosy than it was in 2018.
The Vikings are already on their next-next Offensive Coordinator after DeFilippo’s reign lasted all of 14 games. JDF is now in Jacksonville. No-longer-interim OC Kevin Stefanski will look to find a little more consistency than his “three touchdowns or zero first downs in the first quarter, nothing in between” performance from his three-game play calling stint to close the 2018 season.
Keenum just had a “yeah, that’s probably closer to the Keenum we should have expected” season in Denver. Bradford didn’t even stick around long enough with the Cardinals to garner the Vikings a compensatory pick. And of course, Bridgewater is living the Backup Bike Life in New Orleans.
Kubiak has made his return to the NFL with the Vikings, complete with a totally-not-made-up title of Assistant Head Coach/Senior Offensive Advisor and a cabal of the Denver Mafia.
And last but not least, despite the fact that Cousins has been in Minnesota for all of ten months, his presence has sparked an endless stream of debate that revolves around three groups of numbers:
- His three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract;
- The amount of games he has won as a starting quarterback, especially in games of significance and against winning teams; and
- The consistently impressive statistics he has accumulated for the past four seasons.
If you’re a member of the (seemingly growing) faction of Cousins detractors, chances are that most of your arguments will revolve around the first two groups of numbers. If you’re a Cousins apologist, you probably downplay the first two groups, emphasize group #3, and provide context that revolves around a poor offensive line and football being a team game.
Now if you think this article was going to turn into another exhausting Cousins debate, think again. (Besides, you guys already do that in the comments section of every article on this site, regardless of whether the article itself had anything to do with Cousins.) I’m simply using these examples of how much the perspective can change in one season. Entering the 2018 season, we had boundless hope of what the Vikings might accomplish. Sure, they had what seemed like a much tougher schedule, especially on the road. (It was—the Vikings went 3-4-1 on the road and six of their seven losses were to teams that finished in the top twelve of Football Outsiders’ DVOA.) And there were already plenty of reasons to be wary of Cousins, according to Washington fans that were a little too excited to see him go. (He is what he is at this point—a good, not great quarterback that will put up numbers but...crap. I promised you I wasn’t going to turn this into a Cousins debate. Sorry.)
While there has been more churn than an Amish butter farm on the offensive side of the ball over the past several years, the defense has remained surprisingly stable in Minnesota. After spending two seasons digging out of the crater that Leslie Frazier left, the Vikings defense has been in the top four of yards allowed and top eight in defensive DVOA in each of the past three seasons. Not a huge surprise there—after all, Mike Zimmer spent over two decades honing his craft on defense before taking the head gig with the Vikings.
Another reason why the defense has been so consistent? The coaching staff has followed suit. As Sam Ekstrom of Zone Coverage pointed out last week, Zimmer has had the same four core defensive coaches throughout his tenure in Minnesota. In a league that’s always looking for the next big thing, continuity and consistency have become criminally underrated in today’s NFL. Just look at two of this year’s final four teams. Sean Payton and Drew Brees have been together since 2006 outside of that one year Payton was suspended for blatantly cheating. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been side-by-side since the turn of the century. (Insert your own Pats cheating joke here.)
Of course, I’m not saying “keep Cousins and Zimmer together like that and watch the Super Bowl berths roll in.” Outside of the fact that Cousins is a sizable step down from all-timers like Brees and Brady, the’res a chance that the current Vikings’ QB/coach combo might not be intact on January 23, 2020.
When the Vikings made all the significant signings and re-signings last offseason—namely Cousins, Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter, and Eric Kendricks—the “window” was supposed to be three seasons. Most of the core talent was locked up through 2020. If the Vikings were going to take the next step and make the Super Bowl for the first time in over 40 years, surely it would happen in that 2018-2020 time frame.
After this past season’s thoroughly disappointing 8-7-1 campaign, it appears as though that timeline has been accelerated. If the Vikings struggle again in 2019, that window will likely be closed on this regime.
If Rick Spielman can’t orchestrate the moves necessary to field a competent offensive line, it puts a ceiling on what this offense can accomplish. Cousins has shown that he probably isn’t going to do it all by himself, and he certainly isn’t going anywhere next year with that contract. So if everyone else wants to stick around, they better give their quarterback every possible tool to succeed. That starts in the trenches. Not even a Bill Walsh/Sean McVay hybrid would be capable of leading this offense to consistent success, much less Kevin Stefanski.
If Mike Zimmer’s latest “get as many former head coaches as possible and see how they can take care of the offense” experiment goes awry, many of the coaches could be looking for new gigs after the season, Zimmer included. While I have been thoroughly impressed with Zimmer since he arrived, he still works in one of the most fickle and results-driven businesses imaginable. The incredible adversity Zimmer has overcome from an unfathomable amount of different avenues over the past five years isn’t going to buy him any extra time if the Vikings’ season peters out like it did in 2018. I personally think Zimmer has shown enough to be the Head Coach here well into the next decade, but I’m also fully aware that isn’t how it works in the NFL. “What have you done for me lately?” isn’t just a Janet Jackson song. The 2019 season will go a long way toward deciding the future and legacy of Spielman, Zimmer, Cousins, and a variety of other key members of the organization. If the Vikings fizzle and flounder again, there’s no telling who stays and who goes, both on and off the field.
I still believe the Vikings have a lot of great pieces, and they’re closer to seriously contending than most of us might think. With a couple of key tweaks in crucial places, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to think that the Vikings could be one of the two teams left standing a year from today. I liked bringing in Kubiak & Co., even if I am a little afraid of too many cooks blowing up the kitchen. I think the defense will still be among the league’s best in 2019, even if players like Anthony Barr or Sheldon Richardson end up leaving in free agency. I think the Marwan Maalouf hire could prove to be a nice net gain in special teams over the Mike Priefer regime. I trust Spielman and the front office to acquire a few players that could make an immediate impact in the draft and free agency, mostly because their jobs could literally depend on it. While most of us are still wallowing in self-pity about another lost season, there is a blueprint to jump right back into contention next year.
What the Vikings don’t have is much time to make those key tweaks. The moves they make this offseason will have to feature many more hits than misses in order to avoid widespread change throughout the team. For many important members of this organization, it’s 2019 or bust.