The Vikings entered their first-round playoff game last Sunday in New Orleans surrounded by discussion about Mike Zimmer’s future and with a feeling that significant changes could be coming if Minnesota got blown out.
The Vikings shut that down with an overtime victory that featured Zimmer’s defense playing one of its better games in two years and an offensive game plan that put the ball in Dalvin Cook’s hands and ended with Kirk Cousins making a couple of huge throws.
The performance led many of us to predict the Vikings would remain on a roll in their second-round game Saturday at San Francisco and thus would be headed to the NFC title game in Green Bay or Seattle. Zimmer’s future? That was no longer an issue and, given what happened in New Orleans, a Cousins contract extension beyond the 2020 season also seemed possible.
When will we (I) learn? Just like the Twins were swept out of the playoffs by the Yankees after I predicted they would win in five, and just like the Gophers football team was easily handled by Wisconsin in a regular-season finale that I predicted P.J. Fleck’s club would win, the Vikings were run out of Levi’s Stadium.
The 49ers won by 17 points, 27-10, but it might as well have been a 30-point loss for the Purple. This was no better than the 2017 NFC title game in which the Vikings lost, 38-7, at Philadelphia. The 49ers were the superior team physically, and the Vikings spent the second half looking as if they had no clue and no chance. Any optimism that came from the fact the Vikings only trailed by four points at the half was long gone shortly after the third quarter started.
Should the #Vikings’ loss in San Francisco result in changes being made?
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) January 12, 2020
The offense was brutal, or worse than brutal. You can blame Kirk Cousins if you want but I’d prefer to blame everyone from a side of the ball that accounted for 147 yards, including 21 on the ground. This from a Zimmer-led team that spends many of its waking hours focused on how to successfully run the ball. Cook had 18 yards on nine carries. Cousins threw for 172 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Vikings managed seven total first downs, compared to 21 for San Francisco.
The Vikings’ statistical ineptitude goes on and on but this might be the most troubling. The 49ers had 47 rushing attempts on Saturday; the Vikings ran 45 offensive plays total!
So what happens now? The euphoria that surrounded the win over the Saints is long gone. Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf must now ask themselves some tough questions about the direction of a franchise they thought was on the doorstep of a Super Bowl berth in 2018 when they signed Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract.
Cousins is set to begin the final season of that deal having played for two Vikings teams that are a combined 19-14-1 with one playoff appearance. Has that earned him a contract extension? Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman had their options for the 2020 season exercised after 2018, but letting them work in the final year of their contracts would be very unusual. So do both of them get extensions?
Perhaps a close loss to the top-seeded 49ers could have led Vikings ownership down the road of thinking everything would be fine. But this is now three consecutive years in which Zimmer’s teams have suffered one-sided losses in their final game of the season. It’s unlikely there will be big changes with the Vikings this offseason, but ownership’s patience is being tested.
If the win over the Saints quieted the speculation, the loss to the 49ers is sure to spark plenty of discussion about what’s next. The Wilfs bought the Vikings in 2005 determined to bring two things to the franchise: Stability and a Super Bowl championship.
They managed to get the former by hiring Spielman and then Zimmer. But it’s a fair question to ask if those two can get the Wilfs the latter after the way the 2019 season ended.