The best thing about the Vikings’ 37-35 win at Detroit on Sunday, Jan. 3, is that it’s over.
Thankfully, so is the Vikings season.
It was a season in which Minnesota bottomed out in September and October, spent most of November flirting with the possibility of becoming a playoff team, only to bottom out even further on Christmas Day, then close the season with meaningless victory that assured the team of another blah first-round position in the NFL Draft.
It’s really easy to wring our hands and think “if only the Vikings had hung on against Tennessee, or made one play at the end against Seattle, or had one more scoring drive against Dallas, they would’ve been a playoff team.” True. And if Carolina could manage the clock in the fourth quarter and if Jacksonville’s Chase McLaughlin had made one extra point or one field goal, the Vikings would be 5-11 instead of 7-9.
We can ‘what-if?’ ourselves until Dru Samia learns how to stop a blocking sled from sacking his QB, but the best teams in the NFL know how to put an opponent away when they have it on the ropes. The Vikings didn’t do that enough, or really at all, in 2020.
Now it’s time to answer some questions, the biggest of which involves the head coach.
Reading the tea leaves over the past few weeks, it’s become increasingly clear that Mike Zimmer is likely back with the Vikings in 2021. He guided a young team and a bad defense to seven wins, though not without plenty of faults of his own along the way.
That said, Zim shouldn’t exit the 2020 season with a pat on the back and a “we’ll get ‘em next year!” from GM Rick Spielman and owner Zygi Wilf. There has to be more than a hand slap. It has to be an awakening of sorts, a willingness to to change or at the very least, be more flexible.
Where to begin?
It’s time to embrace analytics, or at least tolerate them. By most accounts, Zimmer has dismissed their value, while his and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s play-calling has wreaked stubbornness at times.
Special teams. They were noticeable this season for all the wrong reasons, some little, some gigantic, some excusable, many more not. They had two punts blocked IN THE SAME GAME. They had a rookie plant his feet on the goal line while downing a punt at the 1. Kris Boyd had two key penalties on back-to-back special teams plays in a three-point loss to Dallas. The Vikings had the second-fewest punt return yards in the league — 49 TOTAL, for the whole season — going into Sunday’s game. Dan Bailey suddenly forgot how to kick. Marwan Maalouf isn’t on the field making those mistakes, but he’s in charge of the people who are. After so many mistakes over the course of the season, he shouldn’t be in charge of those people anymore.
The challenge flag. Treat that thing like poison ivy.
Talk to the players. Do they still want to play for Zimmer? Odds are safety Ant Harris won’t be back in purple next season, but he is a veteran who was playing this season trying to earn a big-money deal. He quit trying weeks ago. That reflects poorly more on Harris than on Zimmer, but it’s a question worth asking.
All of that taken into account, there is plenty of reason to believe the Vikings can be a playoff team next season under Zimmer and (most of) the current staff.
Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Michael Pierce and Mike Hughes (not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but at least he’s better than Chris Jones or Kris Boyd ... right?) will return.
DJ Wonnum, Jeff Gladney, Cam Dantzler, Justin Jefferson and Ezra Cleveland all a year older
Kirk Cousins will be the team’s QB in 2021, so let’s look at the upside. He’s been better than average — dare we say good?! — since the 1-5 start. There’s always the danger that we’ll get the 1-5 Kirk again next season instead of the post-2020 bye week Kirk, but the only other option is to eat a $30 million cap hit for a year and go a different direction. Unless the Vikings are willing to use a first-round pick on a QB (and why would they when they have so many other needs), Cousins will be their guy next season. And for all the talk of Cousins’ salary being way out of line with his performance, the reality is his cap hit was only the 15th-highest in the NFL.
The Vikings had a top-6 offense in the NFL. Invest some money or draft picks in the right linemen, with a healthy Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson on the outside, and think of where the ‘O’ could go.
Jason Feldman covers the Vikings for Forum News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com