Zulgad: Vikings’ 2018 season went from high hopes to embarrassing exit

EAGAN, Minn. -- When Anthony Barr was forced to sit out three games with a hamstring injury for three weeks, he had time to assess his game. "When you're injured you get some time to look yourself in the mirror and figure out things you can do better and different ways you can help," Barr said. For the first time in his career, the Vikings' 2014 first-round pick picked up multiple sacks. Barr has said he's interested in more opportunities to rush the passer because it fits his skill set. The numbers back that up. According to Pro Football Focus, he has 21 QB pressures in just 89 pass rush snaps this season -- good for fourth best among traditional linebackers. Over the last two weeks his usage has been noticeably different with 30 snaps between Week 14 and 15 on the defensive line. Barr had only lined up on the D-line 52 times in the other nine games (per PFF). "I feel like we've been playing to my strengths the last few weeks, going forward, doing stuff like that, rushing the passer," Barr said. "That was something we worked on pretty tough all offseason. Starting to see those things come to fruition a little bit and that's a positive for myself and the team." Head coach Mike Zimmer has noticed that Barr has been more effective since he returned, especially when being used as a rusher. "He’s played outstanding, really the last month or so, maybe a little longer," Zimmer said. "Playing with great physicality, effort to the ball. He is doing a lot better in his pass rushing. I think there were some times the other day that he showed up quite a bit on it." While the Dolphins had great difficulty blocking him, Zimmer pointed out that some of the hidden value to Barr's game is that opponents have to focus on him each week. "A lot of times team always account for him," Zimmer said. "You don’t want to say all the time, because certain play actions are designed to go certain ways. But drop back passing game, we’ve had several teams this year that make him the fifth rusher every time and if he doesn’t come, he doesn’t come." Earlier this year the Vikings' defense struggled when opponents -- especially the Rams -- found ways to isolate Barr in coverage with wide receivers. Since then Zimmer has made tweaks and Barr has only given up 10 receptions on 13 attempts and zero touchdowns. The Vikings' head coach pointed out in an impromptu press conference to dispel a trade rumor involving Barr that the team's versatility on defense was improved by Barr's football IQ. "He has a really good grasp on what we’re doing defensively," Zimmer said. "He has a good grasp on what the offense is doing. He can communicate to the defensive line and the other linebackers and I think that helps a lot to be able to do the things we are trying to do." With Barr in the final year of his career, the team will face a decision on whether to either franchise tag him, negotiate a long-term deal or let him walk in free agency. The salary cap is expected to rise once again, giving some flexibility to the cap-strapped Vikings. Still they will have to make decisions on whether to re-sign Sheldon Richardson or work on an extension for cornerback Trae Waynes. "That will take care of itself when it gets here, for now we're trying to get two more wins," Barr said. As far as his value, it would be higher as a dominating pass rusher than a pure inside linebacker. Top edge rushers routinely make upwards of $15 million per season whereas the Vikings signed fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks to a deal worth $10 million per year last offseason, which ranked within the top 10 at his position. On Tuesday, Barr was named to his fourth Pro Bowl in five NFL seasons. He said that the team and players inside the Vikings locker room have a better view of what he's brought to Minnesota than traditional stats like tackles and sacks would suggest. "If you look at the stats and stats aren't jumping out at you, then you assume [a player] isn't playing well but I think our defense is different," Barr said. "We're a very unselfish group and we play together and a lot of the success we have is due to being unselfish. Some guys have better stats than others but at the end of the day we're helping everyone be successful."

MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings have had one-game meltdowns worse than what took place on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, but that doesn’t mean the 2018 Vikings didn’t accomplish something significant by embarrassing themselves in a 24-10 loss Sunday to the Chicago Bears.

This collection now holds the distinction of being perhaps the most disappointing team in franchise history and certainly the most disappointing in 46 years. The only challenger would be the 1972 Vikings, who coming off an 11-3 finish in 1971, brought back quarterback Fran Tarkenton from the New York Giants and then proceeded to go 7-7.

This was a greater choke than the 1999 team that, coming off a 15-1 season and run to the NFC title game, lost in its second-round playoff game at St. Louis. This was a greater choke than the 2010 team that, coming off a run to the NFC championship game and with basically everyone back, fell apart and got coach Brad Childress fired during the season.

These Vikings felt they had solved the issues that held them back in 2017, when a 13-3 season was followed by a loss at Philadelphia in the NFC title game. Kirk Cousins had been signed to a three-year, $84 million contract that made him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL and, combined with one of the league’s top defenses, made this a Super Bowl or bust type of season.

The bust ended up being bigger than almost anyone could have imagined.

In a season filled with missteps, the Vikings fell flat on their collective faces against the Bears and finished with an 8-7-1 record. That was good for second place in the NFC North, behind Chicago, only because the Packers (6-9-1) turned into a dumpster fire and the Lions (6-10) went back to being the Lions. The Vikings were dispatched from the playoffs, when the Eagles (9-7) beat Washington on Sunday. Honestly, the Eagles did the Vikings a favor by bouncing them.

“It’s disappointing,” Zimmer said. “We didn’t play good enough to win.”

Zimmer was talking about Sunday’s game, but he could have been talking about the entire season. Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf made quick exits after the loss and didn’t stick around to discuss whether Zimmer or general manager Rick Spielman’s jobs are in jeopardy. Both reportedly have one season left on their contracts and one has to believe they will get another shot in 2019.

But both will start next season on the hot seat, one year after they earned accolades for their work with Case Keenum subbing at quarterback for the injured Sam Bradford. Say this for Zimmer, he has perfected the art of having a team that is consistently inconsistent.

The Vikings went 7-9 in Zimmer’s first season but followed that with an 11-5 finish and an NFC North title the next year. The Vikings then started 5-0 in 2016 before falling apart en route to an 8-8 finish. That was followed by the unexpected success of last season that saw the Vikings capture another division crown and then shock the Saints with the improbable Keenum to Stefon Diggs touchdown pass. That made some think the Vikings were going to become the first team to play host to a Super Bowl.

The magic of that win over the Saints was long forgotten Sunday as the Bears cruised to a victory over a Vikings team that looked uninterested in playing another game. Cousins, signed because Spielman thought he would be an upgrade on Keenum, instead looked lost playing on the big stage and provided his one highlight of the day when he got into a verbal sparring match with wide receiver Adam Thielen on the sideline late in the second quarter.

The Vikings’ playoff hopes never should have come down to this game — there were Daniel Carlson’s missed kicks in Week 2 in Green Bay, the brutal loss to Buffalo in Week 3 at home, the missed opportunities to win late-season games in New England and Seattle — but all Minnesota needed was a win on Sunday and it would have been in the playoffs.

The theory among some was that Bears coach Matt Nagy would rest his starters early if the Rams took a big lead on the 49ers — and they did en route to a 48-32 victory that secured the No. 2 seed in the NFC — but Nagy spent the entire game making sure his team delivered haymakers to the Vikings.

Zimmer has broached the topic before this season of having asked his players if they had quit on him during difficult times. Each time, Zimmer said he had been assured that wasn’t the case. After Sunday, you had to wonder if Zimmer would ask the question again and, if he did, what the answer might be this time.

Nearly four months ago, it would have been next to impossible to believe the Vikings would end the season like this. With Cousins looking inept and completely overmatched, Thielen chastising his quarterback, Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (of all people) making big plays and Zimmer looking helpless on the sideline.

But that’s how the Vikings season came to an end.

As for the 1973 Vikings, they rebounded to go 12-2 and make the Vikings’ second Super Bowl appearance. Having expectations even close to that for the 2019 Vikings would seem foolish. Right now, it appears that 2017 was nothing more than fool’s gold.