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Zulgad: Flat-out inexcusable: Justin Jefferson’s assessment serves as indictment of Vikings

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 26, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Los Angeles Rams linebacker Travin Howard (32) tackles Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings arrived at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday with the opportunity to strengthen their hold on the seventh and final playoff seed in the NFC and to climb above .500 for the first time since finishing 2019 with a 10-6 record. In a year of more downs than ups, this was a chance to beat the 10-5 Los Angeles Rams and establish some late-season momentum.

That’s what made Justin Jefferson’s revelation following the Vikings’ 30-23 loss so damning. The second-year wide receiver said as soon as he entered the locker room he could feel a lack of energy. “I was trying to pick up the guys and everything, but we still came out slow,” Jefferson said. “We didn’t come out with the energy that we needed to, especially (against) this type of team.”

Excuse me? If not now, when will that energy exist? The answer is never as long as the status quo remains at TCO Performance Center.

There have been signs for a while now that Mike Zimmer’s tenure as Vikings’ coach is nearing an end. Jefferson’s remarks are the only latest thing owners Zygi and Mark Wilf can add to the folder of reasons why it’s time for a fresh start.

Jefferson wasn’t being malicious but he was being truthful — something we don’t get nearly enough of in the NFL these days — and his words can’t be ignored. Jefferson has turned into one of the top receivers in the league and is a key part of the future. The last thing the Vikings need is to turn Jefferson against them, like they did with Stefon Diggs, because they feel the current regime knows what it is doing.

That isn’t the case and hopefully the Wilfs have realized this.

It doesn’t matter if the Vikings somehow manage to grab the final playoff spot in the conference — a longer shot now that the Vikings have fallen out of the postseason picture. What matters is that change is necessary and that also includes general manager Rick Spielman. The Vikings have felt stale for much of this season and that was crystal clear on Sunday. There was little excitement in the stadium, until the Rams and quarterback Matthew Stafford tried to give away the game. Jefferson confirming that lack of excitement extended to the players on the field makes it far worse.

In a season in which close games have become the norm and an undeserving playoff spot is being given out, how is it even possible that a 7-7 team showed up thinking that going through the motions would be enough? And why is a 22-year-old kid the one who is trying to get his veteran teammates excited and then having to call them out?

“I felt like after the first half we had a little bit more energy than what we came out with,” said Jefferson, who spent much of the afternoon matched up against Rams standout cornerback Jalen Ramsey and finished with eight catches for 116 yards. “Second half, I think we came out with a little bit more energy so it’s just all about starting with that energy from the get-go. Especially with a good team, a good offense that can move the ball. We had the time of possession for a good minute. We’ve just got to come out firing off the jump.”

Think about that for a second. This is Week 16, there are two games remaining and this was as close to a must-win as a team can get.

The Vikings trailed 13-3 at halftime and quarterback Kirk Cousins was 11-of-16 for 89 yards with an interception (on a tipped pass in the end zone) and a woeful 56.6 passer rating. Cousins, as he so often does, finished with a satisfactory stat line of 27-of-38 for 315 yards with a touchdown, a pick and a 93.6 rating. He also was sacked three times and had three fumbles (none of which he lost). Compare that to Stafford’s atrocious line of 21-of-37 for 197 yards with a touchdown, three picks and a 46.8 rating. Yet, it was Stafford and the Rams who departed the Minnesota cold with a win and in first place in the NFC West.

The Vikings’ offense did the team no favors by scoring only 10 points off Stafford’s three interceptions. This included two picks by linebacker Anthony Barr that set up the Vikings at the Rams’ 11 and 2-yard lines. The first ended with a Greg Joseph field goal after the offense stalled at the 4, while the second did result in a 2-yard touchdown run by Alexander Mattison that pulled the Vikings within three in the third quarter.

The Vikings went 2-for-5 in the red zone, twice ending with field goals. Jefferson did not try to sugarcoat the truth about that lack of success. “I think we should be more aggressive when we get down there,” he said. “As soon as we get down there. But I’m not the one calling the plays. I’m just here to do my job and do what’s told of me. But we can’t get down in the red zone that many times and come out with three points.”

So the Vikings lacked energy when a key game began, and play-calling remained a season-long issue with rookie coordinator Klint Kubiak.

“I can only control what I can,” Jefferson said. “I definitely will keep the energy up, keep talking my guys up, trying to pick them up. But at the end of the day I can’t go out there and play for them. … It’s not totally over yet. We’ve got some juice left, but you’ve just got to go and win these two games. Be aggressive, be emotionally into it and just be mentally prepared to go in there and fight our butt off.”

If that didn’t happen Sunday, why would it happen next week in Green Bay? The Vikings’ season likely has eight quarters left before the inevitable changes begin. Jefferson’s candidness was the latest indication of just how badly those changes are needed.