Vikings’ championship chase never takes off in Cousins’ first year
EAGAN, Minn. — After finishing one game short of the Super Bowl last season and spending big to make Kirk Cousins their franchise player, the Minnesota Vikings were surrounded by high expectations from the start.
That championship chase simply never picked up any steam.
“It wasn’t what we wanted, what our fan base wanted. It’s OK to be disappointed. I think, if anything, it will sharpen us and give us an edge as we prepare for next year, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Cousins, who signed a three-year, fully guaranteed, $84 million contract to become the fourth primary quarterback in four seasons for Minnesota.
By losing 24-10 at home to Chicago on Sunday, the Vikings fell out of the second wild-card spot in the NFC that was claimed by Philadelphia. They missed the playoffs for the third time in five years under coach Mike Zimmer. They won the NFC North in 2015 and 2017 by finishing 11-5 and 13-3 respectively, but their records in the even-numbered seasons were 7-9, 8-8 and now 8-7-1.
“Every year’s a new year. That’s just how this league works. You’re going to have new guys. There’s going to be different coaches,” said wide receiver Adam Thielen. “You have to learn how to win with whatever you’ve got out there, so we’re going to go back to work and try to figure that out.”
Cousins will be back, of course. His megadeal has already dictated that.
His uneven performance in the four losses by the Vikings over the last seven weeks of the season, at New England and Seattle and twice to the Bears, has raised questions about his big-game ability. Cousins finished with career highs in touchdown passes (30) and completion percentage (70.1). The offensive line was largely in flux in front of him, and the Vikings finished with the third-fewest rushing yards in the NFL.
Thielen and Stefon Diggs became the seventh set of teammates with 100-plus receptions each and the first Vikings duo since Randy Moss and Cris Carter in 2000 with 1,000-plus receiving yards apiece. But the offense was not good enough to complement a defense that was still top tier despite more lapses than last year, let alone take over a game in the clutch.
Zimmer fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo with three games to go. Whether interim replacement Kevin Stefanski gets the job in 2019 or the Vikings go outside the organization, the new play caller will have to find a better way to keep Thielen, Diggs and running back Dalvin Cook from being neutralized so much.
The Vikings were seventh in the league in rushing in 2017 under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur while also using a more effective mix of play-action, bootleg and screen passes with quarterback Case Keenum.
“If we did have it figured out, then we wouldn’t be in here today talking about what could have been,” running back Latavius Murray said on Monday. “I think at times we played well and showed how good we can be, but then we mostly didn’t play good enough.”
The schedule for 2019 sure doesn’t promise any respite. Five of their eight road games will be against playoff teams: the Bears, naturally, and Cowboys, Chiefs, Chargers and Seahawks. That quintet has a combined record of 56-24.
With the 18th selection in the first round, they will have their highest draft pick since 2015, when they took cornerback Trae Waynes at 11th overall. That’s another opportunity to bolster the offensive line that was again a significant problem after some improvement in 2017. One bright spot was the development of rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill, the second-round choice out of Pittsburgh who replaced Rashod Hill in the starting lineup. But the status of guards Tom Compton and Mike Remmers is tenuous.
Murray will be the most prominent unrestricted free agent on the offense when the next league year begins in March. But with contracts expiring for linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson there are pressing issues for the front office on the other side of the ball as well.
Then there’s the matter of the special teams, which were problematic. Kicker Dan Bailey will also become an unrestricted free agent, and he didn’t fare well enough after replacing rookie Daniel Carlson to ensure a return.
Zimmer, now tied for the fifth-longest tenure in the NFC, will be back. The Vikings scheduled his season-ending news conference for Thursday.
“He’s going to tell you how it is whether you like it or not,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “He’s going to try to find ways to win, so he’s the guy.”