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Zulgad: Don't call it a tank: Terrible start presents Vikings with excellent opportunity

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FILE – In this Jan. 13, 2020, file photo, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence looks to pass against LSU during the second half of an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game in New Orleans. The top-ranked Tigers are 29-1 over the past two seasons and have won five straight ACC championships. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

In the aftermath of the Vikings’ embarrassing loss to the Colts on Sunday, coach Mike Zimmer’s message to his 0-2 team was simple. “I’ve been telling them, ‘We can’t start winning until we stop losing,’” Zimmer said. “Right now we are doing things to beat ourselves with the turnovers and sacks and safeties and penalties on third downs on defense. I’m just not going to deal with it anymore.”
That sounds good but Zimmer’s problem is he might not have a choice. The Vikings are a flawed team that appears set to try the patience of their impatient coach over the final 14 games of their schedule. Much of this is of their own doing. How so? There are several examples.
Plenty questioned the decision to not bring in a veteran cornerback after three veterans departed. Yet, the Vikings are playing two rookies (Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler) and two relatively inexperienced corners (Mike Hughes and Holton Hill) because they thought it would work.
Zimmer spent much of the Vikings’ shortened training camp assuring everyone that Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter was sitting out practice because of a “little tweak” and would be fine. Hunter ended up going on the injured reserve because of a neck injury, which is anything but little, and it’s unknown when he will return. Suddenly, the surprise trade with Jacksonville for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue went from the Vikings adding a top-notch rusher to complement Hunter to general manager Rick Spielman and Zimmer simply trying to replace Hunter.
Standout wide receiver Stefon Diggs spent last season trying to tell the Vikings that offensively they weren’t doing things the right way and then, the day Cousins received a two-year, $66 million contact extension in March, Diggs forced his way out of Minnesota and was traded to Buffalo. Cousins was the guy the Vikings signed to a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract in 2018 because he was going to be the final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle. Cousins has as many contract extensions in Minnesota as he does playoff victories and this year likely will be the second time in three years the Cousins-led Vikings have missed the playoffs completely.
Cousins needs near perfect conditions to be successful, at least consistently, and that means he has no chance for success this season. Especially since Spielman did nothing to address his team’s issues at the guard positions.
Put all of this together and Zimmer is going to have no choice but to deal with what figures to be the most trying season of his seven years as Vikings’ coach. You know what? That’s OK.
Spielman and Zimmer received contract extensions this offseason — each believed to be for three seasons and running through 2023 — and both figure to have job security. The smart play for the duo would be to accept what appears to be happening to their team and make the most of it. The Vikings rarely have awful seasons and this might be one of them. Embrace it. The 2011 Vikings went 3-13 under Leslie Frazier and just missed out on being bad enough to have the opportunity to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Meaningless victories over Carolina and Washington proved costly.
Injuries helped to derail Luck but he was considered the type of quarterback that could change the fortunes of a franchise and that’s the exact type of quarterback that Spielman has been searching for since the day he walked in the door at Winter Park in 2006. The Vikings have been looking for a franchise changing quarterback since Fran Tarkenton departed after the 1978 season.
The 2021 draft has a quarterback who could solve the Vikings’ problems for years to come in Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance also will be available.
The response to this from many is that you can’t tell players and coaches to tank — as in Tank for Trevor — because no one is going to lose a game on purpose. This is absolutely true and this is where I want to get away from the use of the word tank. It’s an ugly word that isn’t really fair to what we’re getting at. The way Spielman and Zimmer can control this is by doing exactly what they have been doing and even more.
The Vikings’ young corners need to continue to play and should improve as the season goes along. But when you look at many of the quarterbacks Minnesota will face, keeping the youngsters on the field and making sure there is no pressure put on them provides the best of both worlds. It will help guys like Gladney, Dantzler, Hill and Hughes to gain experience with no threat of being embarrassed by Zimmer or his coaches. The concern would be that the young corners could have their confidence destroyed, but making it clear this is a learning season would help.
The Vikings also need to get Ezra Cleveland playing time as soon as possible, either at left tackle or left guard. Cleveland might not be ready to play yet, but he’s a second-round pick and another guy who needs to start developing in games the second he’s ready. Spielman took an NFL record 15 rookies in the draft, so get the key ones as much playing time as possible and put up with the results.
What the Vikings can’t concern themselves with are any of the veterans who might not like how things are handled. Given the performance in losses to the Packers and Colts, it’s too bad if Cousins and a few of his teammates don’t approve of how the Vikings go about their business for the remainder of 2020.
Best case for those guys is that the rookies begin to develop and Minnesota wins a few more games than we expect at this point. Best case for Zimmer and Spielman is that the youngsters start to develop, but Minnesota continues to drop games in a less-ugly fashion than what we’ve seen of late. The more the losses mount, the better the Vikings chances of finding their long-term solution at quarterback.
Spielman has yet to hit on a player at that position — the most important in sports — and the worse the Vikings are this season the better the chance that Spielman can point to the fact that he drafted Lawrence and, maybe, even ride off into the sunset with a Lombardi Trophy.
All it would take is one brutal season in a year that already is off to a terrible start. You can call it tanking if you want, I prefer to look at it as seizing an opportunity.