EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings 2017 season has gone from evidence that the franchise was on the cusp of its first Super Bowl to a ghost.
Just 13 months ago, 2017 was viewed as not enough. Now it’s legend. With tensions rising and patience running short and few answers coming, the Vikings’ run to the NFC Championship two years ago feels more like folklore than a reality that can be repeated or topped. Yes many of the faces are the same but the looks on those faces are very different.
On Thursday, wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who caught the Milleapolis Miracle walk-off touchdown in the NFC divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, rocked back and forth in front of the media answering questions in disjointed sentences. He first claimed to have missed practice on Wednesday because of illness but nobody bought it and he quickly copped to being frustrated. It was later reported by NFL Network and the Star Tribune that he did not come to the facility on Monday.
“There’s a lot of speculation about me being frustrated,” Diggs said. “Being a receiver and wanting to have success, and wanting to win. If you want to win and you’re not winning of course you’ll be frustrated.”
A year-and-a-half ago, who would have dreamed that Diggs, a young star with a fresh $72 million contract and Geico commercials would be asked about trade demands? Furthermore that fellow receiver Adam Thielen would be taking jabs at the media over the team’s (apparently debatable?) frustration level.
When the Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to an $84 million contract to be the final piece to a puzzle that included the two elite receivers and a No. 1 defense in yards and points, nobody would have predicted that Cousins would be roasted by former players like ex-teammate Ryan Clark on national TV for a podcasted apology to Thielen for an overthrow.
You would have expected some type of support from the innocent bystanders in the locker room but Everson Griffen said he was “not here to talk about” Diggs’ issues. Tight end Kyle Rudolph told the media he’s enjoying his new role as a blocker.
Even Thielen said of Diggs’ recent actions, “that’s between him and coach Zimmer.”
Zimmer refused to answer questions, keeping the matter “internal” but did say that Diggs had been punished (via fine, per NFL Network).
In 2017 the Vikings’ locker room had reasons to be unhappy. There were concerns that Case Keenum would eventually turn back into a pumpkin and some felt Teddy Bridgewater, returning from his severe knee injury prior to 2016, should be given back the job.
Back then the Vikings also focused on the run game, as they have been this year (much to the annoyance of outside observers and people inside the locker room). Former offensive coordinator and current New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur talked via conference call this week about Zimmer’s approach.
“I was telling our guys, having been up there for two years and coached with Zim’, I know their mindset. I know how they function,” Shurmur said. “This is an old-school team. They have a progressive mindset, certainly, but they’re old school.”
Zimmer called it a “misnomer” that his team wants to run the ball first but ranking 31st in passing and second in rushing through four weeks and struggling to pass the ball in two key NFC North battles hasn’t done anything to dispel the notion that the head coach would like to take the air out of the ball — and the game out of the hands of his turnover-prone quarterback.
But the 2017 group worked its way through these types of things. They weren’t shaken by the fact that Zimmer openly criticized Keenum, who he said had a “horseshoe around his neck.” Receivers were not outraged when the Vikings passing game only cleared 300 yards twice with Keenum at the helm. Nobody seemed jealous over who the real No. 1 receiver was and nobody skipped OTAs or — in Rudolph’s case — talked openly about the idea of playing for other teams during contract negotiations.
During an interview with SKOR North this offseason, former defensive end Brian Robison said the ’17 locker room was unlike any other during his long NFL career. It feels a tale from many, many years ago.
Zimmer knew at the end of the Vikings’ disappointing 2018 season that something was off. It wasn’t just schemes and interior O-line play. The beat of the team was different.
“I think quite honestly this football team for the four years that I’ve had been here had that nasty, ‘we’re going to win regardless or no matter what the situation is’ mentality,” Zimmer said in January. “I don’t know that we had it this year. I talked to a couple of people during the season around the building and I actually said to them, ‘It’s just kind of a different vibe with this football team.’ And I can’t figure out why, because we have a lot of the same guys back. We have good football players. I wasn’t really different than I normally am. But for some reason, we didn’t finish the games like we’d finished before. I don’t know why. We had the lead in a bunch of games last year that we finished, and this year we were playing catch up more so, so I don’t know if that’s it or not. But we’re going to get that mentality back, I can promise you that.”
There’s plenty of theories. Players like B-Rob, Terence Newman, Keenum and Bridgewater were major parts of the ’17 leadership group. It’s possible their presence has been severely missed.
Cousins has been accused of being the root of all the team’s problems. Since arriving in Minnesota he’s had enough good games against bad teams to believe he should be much better against good teams. But teammates and fans have come to expect his knack for the big miscue, whether it’s missed opportunities like an overthrow to Thielen or key turnover on a fumble to open the second half against Chicago last week.
Cousins’ confounding play has made it difficult to decipher whether the team’s anxiety comes from a culmination of many forces or if it’s just one: The lack of belief that this quarterback can get them back to where they were in ’17.
The irony is that the Vikings let ’17 influence the decision to bring in Cousins. They believed a stronger passer would give them a chance in case opponents penetrated their top-notch defense. But they seem to be right back to where they were, hoping the defense shines and trying to paper over the quarterback’s weaknesses.
As an aside: Maybe the right direction was to have Cousins throw the ball all day and take the bad with the good.
Anyway, here’s the crazy thing about 2017: The Vikings were 2-2 through four weeks. They are presently 2-2.
“I know everybody jumped off the bandwagon this week, two years ago we were 2-2 and we won 13,” Zimmer said on Monday. “Three years ago we were 5-0 and we won eight. This isn’t going to define us where we are right now. What’s going to define us is how we prepare for this game and the next and the next game. I tell the team all the time, the teams that I respect the most, are the teams that when they go out there, no matter what happens the week before.”
But over the last week, this team hasn’t come across as one of those teams that can shut out the noise and go on a winning streak.
Then again, Keenum didn’t come across like the type of quarterback who could lead a team to the NFC Championship either.