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Where is this franchise headed?

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I have questions. Lots of questions.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The beginning of the 2018 season was one of hope and promise for the Minnesota Vikings. A 2017 season that saw the Minneapolis Miracle and advancement to the NFC Championship led to an off-season that saw the Vikings sign a couple big time free agents at two of their biggest positions of need. When the Vikings convened in Eagan for training camp, (it will be weird not writing ‘Mankato’ for a long time), a lot of people around the NFL thought the Vikings were one of the 2-3 teams that would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Yeah, it pretty much all derailed after that. As the Vikings stumbled to an 8-7-1 record with no playoff appearance, I felt more and more apathetic about the team as the season dragged on. And on...and on. When I looked back at 2018, I realized there was very little I had cheered about. I didn’t get particularly excited for many games, and didn’t get particularly fired up about most of them during the week. During the game itself, I found myself just sitting quietly watching during most of them, and even though the fan in me wanted them to make the playoffs, the realist in me looked at this collection of mostly overpaid underachievers and thought it would take another miracle to be more than one and done if they did sneak in.

Past seasons didn’t feel this way though, not at all. Even during the dark days of the 2010 and 2011 off-seasons, I found reasons to be fired up about the team. Whether it was young, up and coming players, a coaching change, or whatever, there was something that drew me in and kept me interested.

And even as disappointing as this season was, there should be plenty that keeps my interest. Although there are changes coming to the defense, it will be back, mostly intact, and they’ll be good—probably very good. On offense, the Vikings have an exciting running back, a legit QB, and arguably the best WR tandem in the NFL coming back.

Yet...whatever. I’m just not feeling it for next year. Why? I’m probably going to meander a bit to find an answer, so bear with me.

The Front Office

I’ve been a defender of GM Rick Spielman on here, and I think that overall he’s been a really good GM, but I’m just running out of energy sticking up for him. Once again, the biggest offseason question the Vikings face is ‘how will they fix the o-line’, and it’s gotten beyond frustrating.

To say he’s neglected the offensive line is wrong, but if you want to say the attention he has given the offensive line is at times the wrong position, with the wrong players, at the wrong time? Yeah, I’ll jump in that foxhole with you.

RT Brian O’Neill looks like he’ll be a fixture on the line for a long time, and that’s a good thing. I liked the pick then, and I still like it. But, you know, the Vikings didn’t need a tackle, they needed a guard. For the playoffs last year, the Vikings took a very decent to good right tackle in Mike Remmers, and moved him inside to play left guard. He wasn’t great, but at the time he was probably the best option, considering how late in the season it was, and the injuries the line had sustained. Stop gap fix, yes. I got it.

But the Vikings, in their infinite wisdom, decided to keep Mike Remmers inside, and moved him to right guard for 2018, where he was, to put it kindly, not good. Now, the Vikings are still looking to upgrade the interior of the line at both guard positions, and maybe even center if Pat Elflein doesn’t rebound next season. I can’t see Remmers coming back as a guard, and now the Vikings, already somewhat snug against the cap, will eat $1.8 million in dead cap money not to bring him back.

So, what’s your plan, Rick?

Head Coach

I like Mike Zimmer, a lot. Behind Bud Grant and Denny Green, I think he’s the third best coach in team history. He took over a rudderless franchise in 2014, and quickly gave it an identity. He did a 180 with the defense, turning them from literally the worst unit in the NFL, to one of the best. In his five years as head coach, the Vikings have won two division titles, one playoff game, and were a tantalizingly close 32 points away from playing in the Super Bowl last year. (That was a joke, kids. It’s okay to laugh about it from time to time.)

Zim slowly but surely put to rest every narrative that had been established about the Vikings over the last 30 some years or so, ever since they moved into the Metrodome.

Can’t win outside on grass? Check.

Can’t win on the road? Check.

Can’t win in Chicago? Check. (A more recent trend, but still a bothersome one for about 15 years or so.)

Can’t consistently beat Green Bay? Check.

Can’t win in primetime? Check.

Last year, it all came together, as the Vikings were a hard nosed team that won at home, on the road, and outside. The offense rallied behind Case Keenum and Latavius Murray after Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook were lost to injury for the season, and the whole became better than the sum of the individual parts. But this year? Other than going 1-0-1 against the Packers, the Vikings pretty much bombed in big moments. It wasn’t one player, it was a collective pratfall, by players on both sides, when the games mattered the most.

Was that Mike Zimmer’s fault? Maybe, maybe not. I do know that out of their 16 games, I count six games where they came out and looked like they wanted to be doing anything other than playing in a football game. In week two, they waited until the fourth quarter to start playing the Packers. In week three, they completely tanked against a bad Bills team. In week four, the defense didn’t look like they were even trying against the Rams.

In week eight, against the Saints, the Vikings came out fired up, right until Adam Thielen fumbled before halftime. After that, the whole team seemed to mentally check out for the rest of the game en route to an uninspired 30-20 loss. In week 11, coming off a bye and facing the Bears in a huge game, Minnesota just seemed to go through the motions. When they found themselves in what was essentially a must win situation for their final five games, they looked flat out horrid in three of them—Seattle, New England, and the season finale at home against the Bears.

Anyway, at what point does a team’s apparent lack of preparation get laid at the feet of the head coach and his staff? I get that sometimes, teams come out flat. It happens to every team, every year, at least once. But this many times, in this many big moments? It’s unacceptable.

What happened, Zim? Can you fix it? How?

Offensive Coordinator

When John DeFilippo got the axe after the Great Seattle Egg Laying, everyone thought Kevin Stefanski was the elixir that would cure what ailed the offense. For one game, they were right. The Vikings scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, en route to a 41-17 whippin’ of Miami. Yet, Stefanski really wasn’t the cure all, at all. Much like one of those magical elixir bottles, the potion quit working after a game and a half, the Vikings offense once again looked every bit as anemic in as it did under Flip.

Yet, everyone clamored for Stefanski to return as the OC, and as we found out earlier today, he is. Yay, I guess. Stefanski was rumored to be in the running for the head coaching gig with Cleveland, and while he went through the interview process, there were several names that were rumored to be linked to the Vikings, to include Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter.

None of these names fired me up, to be honest. The one thing Stefanski brings that the other guys don’t is continuity, which is good.

But if the continuity is from an offense that mostly disappeared when it mattered most...is that good?

Quarterback

Where do I go with this? Statistically, Kirk Cousins is the best quarterback the Vikings have had since Zombie Brett Favre in 2009, and it’s not particularly close. His 4,298 yards are the second most in his career (and more than Favre had in 2009), and his 30 TD’s is a personal best. Almost every week, he made at least one throw per game that made me think ‘no way any QB on this team between Favre and now makes that throw.’

BUT...I get a way different vibe from him than I did from Case Keenum in 2017. There are lots of reasons for it, probably, but I just don’t have faith in Cousins like I did in 2017 Keenum. And that’s not fair to either player, because you could argue that Keenum had a better offensive line and offensive coordinator in 2017 than Cousins had this past year. Plop Keenum into the 2018 offense and does he and the Vikings offense do as well as he did in 2017? No, I don’t think so, not even close.

But with Cousins, I see a robotic guy. By all accounts he seems like a really nice guy and a good dude, he’s got good career numbers, and has a reputation as a guy that can win a game in the fourth quarter, although the Vikings were the only team this year not to win a game after trailing in the fourth quarter. With Keenum, I saw a guy that could improvise on the fly, make a decision, and when he threw the ball he had complete faith in his receivers to come down with it.

I also see indecision, a guy that won’t take that chance, and a guy that mostly shrinks when the moment is the biggest. And again, maybe it was the circumstances with the line and the OC, and that will change next season—but people who watch the Redskins kept saying that’s who Kirk was, and is. And now, he’s 30, making a lot of guaranteed money the next two years, so there is no other option.

Can things be different for Cousins with Stefanski, a couple of new players on the offensive line, and a bigger commitment to the run? Sure. But at some point, when do we need to talk about ‘this is who Kirk is’, though? 2020? Next week?

Both Spielman and Zimmer have contracts that expire after 2019, with no indication that extensions are being discussed for either right now. It feels like things are coming to a head in the Mike Zimmer era, and if they don’t win, and win fairly big in 2019, the Vikings organization is in for some major changes. Does that mean Cousins is gone after his contract expires, too? Right now, it certainly feels like Spielman, Zimmer, and Cousins are inextricably linked to each other, and depending on how things go, at this time next year this organization could look much, much different than it does today.