The Vikings’ 17-point loss to San Francisco on Saturday in their second-round playoff game brought an end to the season but that means the work is only beginning.
There are plenty of decisions to be made about the direction of this franchise, beginning with who is going to replace Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator. Stefanski took the Cleveland Browns coaching job on Sunday.
Here are four predictions about how things will play out in the coming weeks and months.
ARE SPIELMAN AND ZIMMER BACK?
Firing general manager Rick Spielman and/or coach Mike Zimmer right now would be easy. The pair is each signed through 2020, meaning owners Zygi and Mark Wilf wouldn’t be faced with having to make payments for several years. So would ownership seek a fresh start after the Vikings missed the playoffs in 2018 then failed to win the NFC North in 2019 and got blown out by the 49ers?
Don’t count on it.
The prediction here is Spielman and Zimmer will get contract extensions at least through 2021 and maybe the following season. If the Vikings had followed their 10-6 regular-season finish by getting blown out last Sunday in New Orleans, Zimmer might have been in trouble. In fact, there were rumblings that his rights might be traded to Dallas, if the Vikings had lost to the Saints.
But a brilliant game plan in the Superdome put a halt to that talk and almost certainly means the Vikings GM and coach will not be fired.
DOES COUSINS GET A CONTRACT EXTENSION?
Kirk Cousins has led the Vikings to one playoff victory since signing a three-year, $84 million contract in March 2018. At the time, that made him the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL and the Vikings believed they were getting the final piece to a Super Bowl puzzle.
That didn’t happen and at this point a decision has to be made on whether Cousins will be allowed to walk after the 2020 season. If the Vikings go in this direction, they would be wise to draft a quarterback this April to begin the process of replacing Cousins.
So what will happen?
If the Vikings are smart they will approach Cousins about a short-term extension but explain to him it has to be a team-friendly deal so other players (namely offensive linemen) can be brought in to help him. The question for Cousins is simple: Do you want to win or do you want to get paid because you aren’t close to being good enough to win games by yourself.
If Cousins tells the Vikings to buzz off, and he probably will, then the wheels need to be put in motion to replace Cousins. One option that should receive strong consideration would be making a trade to move up in the draft to take Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the first round.
Tagovailoa is recovering from a significant hip injury but the luxury the Vikings would have is putting him behind Cousins in 2020 and then having him take over as the starter in 2021.
WILL SHURMUR RETURN AS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR?
Pat Shurmur’s brilliant play-calling throughout the 2017 season was one reason the Vikings made it to the NFC title game. That landed Shurmur the head coaching job with the New York Giants but two disappointing seasons means he’s looking for work.
So with Stefanski leaving for Cleveland could Shurmur and Zimmer reunite?
That seemed unlikely even before news broke Sunday that Shurmur was set to be named offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos. That made more sense than the speculation that Shurmur could become Stefanski’s offensive coordinator in Cleveland — a move that would have required Shurmur to again work for Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. Shurmur was fired by the Browns after going 9-23 as their coach in 2011 and 2012.
What made little sense about Shurmur landing back in Minnesota was that it would have meant he would be agreeing to work for assistant head coach and offensive advisor Gary Kubiak. Remember, this is Kubiak’s offense that Stefanski was helping to run and for which he was calling plays. It seemed unlikely Shurmur would want to fill that role with the Vikings.
Zimmer has told various people that hiring Kubiak was the best move he has made since becoming the Vikings coach so odds are good the team’s next offensive coordinator is going to be a guy that Kubiak picks. That guy likely will be Kubiak’s 32-year-old son, Klint, who served as the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach this season.
DEALING WITH DALVIN
We are only one day after the season and I can tell you I’ll be surprised if running back Dalvin Cook takes part in the Vikings’ offseason program or is present at the beginning of training camp.
Cook, a second-round pick by the Vikings in 2017, will be entering the final season of his rookie contract in 2020 and is scheduled to make a base salary of $1.3 million. The Cook camp is going to want far more, just as the reps for Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott’s and San Diego’s Melvin Gordon wanted more last offseason. Cook’s agent also isn’t going to want to risk his client playing in the final season of his contract.
Elliott’s holdout helped to get him a six-year, $90 million contract extension that included $50 million guaranteed. He signed the deal in early September. Gordon held out until late September but never got the extension he wanted. He played for a base salary of $4.6 million and will be an unrestricted free agent in March.
Cook is a marvelous running back when healthy, but that’s the key. He missed 12 games in his rookie season, four games last year and two games this year. He was slowed in a few other games when he tried to play through a chest/shoulder injury. Cook rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 53 passes for 519 yards but that doesn’t mean the Vikings can break the bank to make him happy.
Rookie running back Alexander Mattison impressed when given a chance this season and could be looked at as Cook’s replacement. As far as Cook’s impact, sometimes it’s great. That includes in the first half of last Sunday’s game at New Orleans. But the 49ers held him to 18 yards on nine carries Saturday.
The Vikings need to be smart with how they spend in a salary-cap league and if Cook wants a rich multiyear extension this offseason the smart play would be to let him hold out and hope he eventually shows up. If he doesn’t, the job becomes Mattison. There are certain positions where NFL teams have to spend but running back isn’t one of them and Cook might soon find that out.