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Zulgad: Open Mike: Zimmer doesn’t hold back in discussing Cousins, other unvaccinated players

NFL: Minnesota Vikings Training Camp
Jul 30, 2021; Eagan, MN, United States; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer takes the field at training camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Zimmer’s list of concerns as Vikings’ coach is a long one. In a season that likely will determine whether he’s back for a ninth year in 2022, Zimmer is overseeing a team that has a rebuilt defense, a new starting left tackle and right guard and expectations of going from 7-9 to winning the NFC North.

So it’s understandable that Zimmer seems dismayed that another significant issue already has crept up less than a week into training camp. That would be the fact that starting quarterback Kirk Cousins landed on the COVID-19 reserve list Monday because he’s among the Vikings players who haven’t been vaccinated. Fellow quarterbacks Kellen Mond and Nate Stanley and rookie wide receiver Myron Mitchell also went on the list.

Mond tested positive for COVID on Saturday and because Cousins and Stanley aren’t vaccinated they  had to go into a five-day quarantine that will end late this week. That assumes neither one has COVID-19. The quarantine is part of the NFL’s protocols for this season that say high-risk close contacts designate that a player is not fully vaccinated.

With Cousins, Stanley and Mond absent on Monday afternoon, Jake Browning threw the majority of passes during practice at TCO Performance Center and newly signed Case Cookus (25-year-old who played college football at Northern Arizona) received limited work.

Talking about Cousins’ absence before Saturday’s practice, Zimmer seemed frustrated. On Monday, Zimmer’s tone was more one of bafflement about why there are some key players on his team taking the risk of having to sit out games when there are such high expectations for the Vikings. Zimmer, who along with general manager Rick Spielman is signed through 2023, also knows that another sub-.500 season likely will cost him his job.

“Going through all of the things that you had to do last year, masks and protocol and traveling, you can’t leave for a day, you can’t go out and see your family, all the things,” he said. “You can’t go to dinner when you’re the road, you’ve got to wear masks on the plane, all that stuff, was just difficult. I just don’t understand, I just don’t understand  … I think we could put this thing to bed if we’d all do this. But it is what it is.”

Zimmer said he addressed the team about the situation, and also cautioned that he expects some of his players will miss games because of the NFL’s protocols.

“Our guys have been pretty good about it really,” he said. “I’m probably the most vocal one of all of them, but I just feel like we’re going to have guys miss games. There’s so many cases that are going on right now. We’re going to have some guys miss games and we’ve got to be prepared for it. … I talked to the team about it. There are quite a few guys that are against it. I’m not going to be able to change their mind, So, it’s like half the country, I guess.”

The question is whether Cousins will get vaccinated, considering what is happening could occur several more times this season, if he’s considered to be in close contact with someone who has COVID-19? Zimmer did say that some unvaccinated players continue to change their minds and get the shot.

Cousins isn’t the only key Vikings player who isn’t vaccinated. Wide receiver Adam Thielen and safety Harrison Smith said during the offseason that they aren’t vaccinated, as did defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. It’s not clear if any of those players have changed their minds.

“These guys, some of them just won’t do it,” Zimmer said. “I shouldn’t say it, but some of the things they read is just, whew, out there. … It’s their beliefs, so … I don’t know if it’s misinformation. It’s their belief, so whatever they’ve heard or read or been told. Not from — maybe they don’t believe what Dr. (Allen) Sills and the NFL is telling them either. ”

Zimmer knows it could be much worse than this. Cousins and a few others are missing valuable training camp time, but that’s certainly not the same as missing a regular-season game. What will be interesting to see is if a player like Cousins still refuses to get vaccinated, and does begin missing more time, if that will cause issues in a locker room where there is certainly a division on how players feel. Usually the goal of doing whatever it takes to win games is what helps a team bond, but that’s clearly not the case when it comes to this issue.

“I don’t think so,” Zimmer said when asked about a potential negative impact in the locker room. “I think maybe if some leaders miss games because of it and we end up losing games because of it, that might. Guys that are leaders of your team and they don’t play and you lose the game, that might. Hopefully, we don’t have to find that out.”