Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
It’s not hard to figure out what happened to the 2018 Minnesota Vikings. It’s a little tougher to place the blame.
Last season, the Vikings couldn’t beat anyone good. They were 0-6 against top-10 NFL teams, according to the ratings of USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin, and 8-1-1 against everyone else. Only the Buffalo Bills (0-6) and Arizona Cardinals (0-7) were as bad against top-10 teams.
Figuring out how the Vikings dropped after a nearly magical 2017 season is as easy as that. They shrunk against the best teams on their schedule. The worst performance came in Week 17, when the Vikings would have made the playoffs with a home win but lost 24-10 to a Bears team that had nothing to play for. The Eagles made the playoffs instead. But is it as simple as putting all the blame on Kirk Cousins?
Assigning a win-loss record to a quarterback is the worst trend in NFL analysis. There are too many moving parts in football to assume one player, even the most important player, singularly decides a game. Teams can win big with poor quarterback play. They can have a losing season with a fantastic quarterback. Yet, for many people the evaluation of a quarterback comes down to checking a team’s record and calling it a day. Therefore, everyone knew Cousins was going to be the one to blame for the Vikings going 8-7-1 and missing the playoffs.
“The next level really is all about winning,” Cousins said, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far, and I don’t think that’s where you want to be, and that’s not why you are brought in or people are excited about you. If I don’t play well, if I don’t have gaudy statistics, but we win multiple playoffs games, the narrative will be I went to the next level.”
That quote might lead the league in self-awareness.
It was always set up this way, once Cousins signed his historic, all-guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal. If the Vikings weren’t special in 2018, Cousins was going to get all of the scorn. They weren’t special, and what happened next wasn’t a surprise.
The criticism of Cousins is not entirely unwarranted, of course. He wasn’t very good against the best teams. When you give someone $84 million, it’s not to play well against the Jets and Cardinals.
Let’s look at Cousins in his six games last season against the best teams on Minnesota’s schedule (Rams, Saints, Patriots, Seahawks and Bears twice) vs. everyone else:
Cousins vs. best teams: 169-of-247, 1,584 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT, 6.4 yards per attempt, 90.9 passer rating
Cousins vs. everyone else: 256-of-359, 2,714 yards, 20 TD, 5 INT, 7.6 YPA, 105.8 rating
That’s a stark difference. Some of those games against the best teams were in primetime, and if you saw any of them you know that Cousins didn’t play well enough. The stats tell a story and so does the eye test: Cousins wasn’t the type of quarterback who can lift everyone else.
However, Cousins has never been that quarterback, and he wasn’t going to become one just because the Vikings paid him a lot of money. There only are a handful of transcendent quarterbacks on the planet and none of them are available. It’s not like the Vikings decided to pass on Andrew Luck to sign Cousins at $28 million per year; they passed on Case Keenum. The Vikings overpaid Cousins because he was the best option available, and better than what they had. The Vikings did the best they could do at quarterback, and needed to play well around him. They didn’t.
The Vikings offensive line wasn’t good. The running game failed as Dalvin Cook dealt with injuries again. And the defense, which was great in 2017, wasn’t quite as great in 2018 and didn’t cover itself in glory in those six games against top-10 teams:
Vikings defense, 6 games vs. best teams: 368.5 yards per game, 27 points per game
Vikings defense, 10 games vs. everyone else: 274.4 YPG, 17.9 PPG
Cousins doesn’t play defensive back, too.
The Vikings come into 2019 in the same situation. Their quarterback takes up a startling amount of the salary cap, but they still have to figure out how to put a good supporting cast around him. There are plenty of teams in the same situation, who aren’t lucky enough to have a good quarterback on his rookie deal or a Russell Wilson carrying whatever is around him. The Vikings are better equipped than most to build a winner around their good-not-great quarterback.
Minnesota’s defense was still among the NFL’s top 10 by nearly any measure. Cook can be a difference-making back if he can stay healthy. Very few teams can match Minnesota’s 1-2 receiver punch of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Minnesota’s subpar offensive line got some reinforcements. It was understandable, a year after making the NFC championship game, why the Vikings went about this offseason like they’re still in win-now mode.
Yet, let’s just skip ahead in the story. If the Vikings fail, everyone will blame Cousins again. Nobody should feel sorry for him. He knew the deal when he signed his contract. Cousins needs to play better against the Vikings’ best opponents this season. However, so does everyone else in purple.
“Our season wasn’t good enough,” general manager Rick Spielman said, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I think he did a very good job from a statistical standpoint; we just didn’t win enough games. And that’s not all on Kirk Cousins, either; there’s a lot of other reasons that we didn’t win games.”
Given the Vikings’ desire to attempt to recapture what they had in 2017, the offseason was mostly a success. Minnesota had to do some salary-cap gymnastics to keep players like linebacker Anthony Barr (who did a memorable 180 after agreeing to join the Jets) and tight end Kyle Rudolph, but got it done. The biggest loss of the offseason was defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, but the Vikings did the best they could in a cap crunch. The Vikings also were able to sign guard Josh Kline, then they drafted center Garrett Bradbury in the first round. Elsewhere in the draft, tight end Irv Smith Jr. and running back Alexander Mattison look like players who could contribute right away.
Some teams are looking for a true No. 1 receiver. The Vikings have two of them. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs both had 100 catches, 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018. Thielen was on a record-setting binge early in the season, and Diggs was more productive over the second half. Thielen made the Pro Bowl and Diggs didn’t, but either one could make it this season. Their raw numbers could drop because the Vikings want to run the ball more, but it would be crazy for Minnesota to stray too far from their two star receivers.
It’s a little scary to look down the road for the Vikings. They wanted to take another shot at a Super Bowl with most of the roster that almost made it two seasons ago. But 2020 might get messy. The Vikings have almost $219 million in contracts on the books for next year, including 11 players with a cap hit of at least $10 million. Kirk Cousins’ cap hit goes up to $31 million and as you’ve probably heard, that’s all guaranteed. There are going to be some very difficult decisions coming up for the Vikings, and the roster might take some significant hits. That puts a lot of pressure on the 2019 team to win big.
For Kirk Cousins, more play-action passing might unlock a more productive passing game. Last season Cousins ranked fourth in play-action passing according to Pro Football Focus, but in Cousins’ opinion the Vikings didn’t feature it enough.
“Our analytics department sent me a really good summary a couple of weeks ago … that just showed that play action is just effective, period,” Cousins said, via the Pioneer Press. “You’ve got to call it more, and so I don’t know that it’s me. I think any quarterback should be getting a lot of play-action opportunities just because the nature of what it does for your slowing down the pass rush and creating explosive plays and giving you outlets in the flat that are good easy throws for productive gains.”
The Vikings have overhauled their offensive staff. Coordinator Kevin Stefanski will run the offense. Assistant head coach Gary Kubiak will presumably have a heavy influence. The Vikings paid a lot for Cousins and need to do everything they can to maximize his ability.
Since the Vikings fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, the message has been clear: Mike Zimmer wants to run more. The Vikings want to win through physical football.
“We know what our identity is,” Vikings GM Rick Spielman said, according to the Pioneer Press. “We got away from that last year. Our identity with Coach Zimmer and how we win games with the Minnesota Vikings is we’re going to be tough, we’re going to be physical, we’re going to play great defense, we’re going to run the ball, we’re going to set up big plays by being able to run the ball and use play action. One of the things Kirk Cousins is best at is play action, and we didn’t do that enough last year.”
That puts Dalvin Cook in a spot to shine. First, Cook needs to stay healthy. He tore his ACL as a rookie two years ago and dealt with hamstring issues last season. He has played 15 of 32 games. Cook has been good in those 15 games but not yet great: 1,364 yards from scrimmage, six touchdowns. But he has flashed tantalizing potential, with 4.7 yards per carry and 51 receptions. He will have every opportunity he can handle this season.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The timing might finally be right for Dalvin Cook. He’s another year removed from the 2017 ACL tear, and the Vikings offense should be more run-centric. The club moved that way in the middle of last season, when Kevin Stefanski took over for John DeFilippo, and the offensive line is better this year. And don't forget running guru Gary Kubiak is here, as a consultant. Cook also has less gridlock in the backfield, with Latavius Murray gone.
“Cook is seen as a featured back but perhaps bell cow status goes too far — he’s just 210 pounds, after all. But his presumed backup — rookie Alexander Mattison — had a similar body frame. Cook won’t be challenged for status on his own team. And keep in mind many NFL teams are starting to accept that short-yardage and goal-line work are often best handled with speed and decisiveness, not basic brute strength. Cook won’t lead the league in touchdowns, but in something close to a full season, 7-9 is a reasonable projection. He’s also a capable receiver.
“Cook had a hamstring issue last year, to go with the ACL blowout his rookie year, so there’s obvious injury concern. But at the running back position, they all carry some medical risk. Cook has an early Yahoo ADP around 21, which feels reasonable; I’ll be strongly considering him in many of my drafts, depending on what went down with my first selection.”
This is a pretty remarkable fact from Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Of the 11 projected starters on Minnesota’s defense, 10 were with the team in 2015. Rand listed Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen (who returned to Minnesota this season after spending time with Seattle), Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. That type of continuity doesn’t happen in the NFL anymore. Considering how much star power there is among the 10 names listed above, it’s no wonder why the Vikings want to keep that group together as long as possible.
HOW IS EVERSON GRIFFEN DOING?
There’s not much introspective discussion about mental health in the NFL. But Griffen’s battle was public knowledge after the star defensive end made threats at a downtown Minneapolis hotel, then took some time off to focus on his mental health. Griffen did return last season, and said he’s happy and back to himself, “smiling, joking, that fun guy to be around.”
“I had a lot going on in my personal life,” Griffen said, according to the Pioneer Press. “This was a big learning experience, and I dealt with some stuff. Now I’m comfortable, I’m happy, my family is happy, my kids are happy, and that’s what matters the most to me right now.”
Showing how cold the NFL can be sometimes, Griffen was asked to take a pay cut of about $3 million by the Vikings after his tough 2018 and he did so, wanting to stay in Minnesota and prove himself again. While it’s awkward to put Griffen’s struggle into football terms, his absence did affect the Vikings defense. He had 5.5 sacks after posting 13 the year before. If Griffen is back to his old self that’s great news, for football reasons and beyond.
The Vikings are probably the first team in the rankings that I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if they made a Super Bowl. Maybe that’s chasing the ghosts of the 2017 season and too much optimism that Kirk Cousins plays at a higher level, but just look at the blue-chip talent on both sides of the ball. Not many teams can match it. Don’t forget the Vikings went 13-3 with Case Keenum at quarterback just two seasons ago. Maybe a new offensive staff finds the mix that works best for this team, and the talented defense has another big season. The ceiling for the Vikings is very high.
This isn’t a young roster anymore. The Vikings, who went just 8-7-1 last season, are unapologetically built to win now. What if 2017 was a mirage? That’s the only time the Vikings have been out of the wild-card round this decade. Pat Shurmur, the 2017 offensive coordinator, had a heck of a year and then moved on to coach the Giants. He was a big part of that special season. Maybe what we saw in 2018, when the Vikings barely finished .500 and couldn’t beat the best teams they faced, is closer to the reality. Perhaps Minnesota is chasing something that can’t be repeated. If that’s the case, 2020 could be a tough season with a lot of bloodletting as the Vikings get their cap situation back in order.
Perhaps I’m lower on the Vikings than I should be because I got burned being too optimistic last season. This season I like two other teams in the NFC North ahead of Minnesota. The Vikings also get seven games against projected top-10 teams this season, according to Warren Sharp’s strength of schedule (only Denver has more), and I need to see them do better against top-level competition before I believe they can be a playoff team again. It looks like another season in which the Vikings are good, but still a disappointment. The bar is high, for Kirk Cousins and the Vikings.
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