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Zulgad: Not a total loss: Vikings might be inept, but that doesn’t mean they are boring

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Atlanta Falcons safety Ricardo Allen celebrates in front of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) after a defensive stop during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

The Vikings are a bad football team with little hope for this season after winning only one of their first six games. But as Mike Zimmer’s club spends its bye week reflecting on a brutal 40-23 loss to the previously winless Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, there is one important distinction that must be made: Bad does not mean boring.

These Vikings are anything but that and the more games they lose the more interesting they will become. How can this be the case? Let us count the ways.

  1. The Vikings are one of nine teams that have only one win this season, making those clubs better than the laughably pathetic New York Jets (0-6). That means there is going to be an intense race to get a top five pick in the NFL draft next spring and, make no mistake, the majority of the teams with one win thus far would be much better off getting a high draft position than chasing a playoff berth from which they would be quickly bounced. Right now, the Vikings would pick sixth behind the Jets, Jaguars (.485), Washington (.542), the Giants (.571) and the Falcons (.588). How are the 1-5 teams separated you ask? It’s based on strength of schedule and that’s the percentage by each of the final four teams listed above. The Vikings’ strength of schedule is .606. The Vikings have to hope that a few teams go on a winning streak, while they continue to pile up the losses.
  2. But how is that possible when players don’t tank, you ask? This is true. Players do not purposely lose most of the time, although the Vikings’ performance against the Falcons had me rethinking that statement a bit. That’s why the Nov. 3 trade deadline — it’s on Election Day because Tuesday is a day off for players — is important to the Vikings. General manager Rick Spielman will be presented with the opportunity to deal some veteran players and get back draft picks in return. This isn’t called tanking; it’s called looking toward the future. So guys like safety Anthony Harris, left tackle Riley Reiff and tight end Kyle Rudolph should be prepared to pack their bags and head to playoff-caliber teams that could use an upgrade. In Reiff’s case that would give rookie Ezra Cleveland, who is now starting at right guard, a chance to get valuable reps at the position he should be playing on opening day next year. Harris is a very good player, but he’s playing on the one-year franchise tag and replacing him with a lesser player (for now) is how you get a higher draft pick.
  3. Spielman and Zimmer got contract extensions before this season — Zimmer’s new deal will run through 2023, and Spielman’s likely will do the same — so it’s unclear if both or either would be fired after this season. We are in the middle of a pandemic in which the Vikings’ revenues are going to go down and bringing in a new GM, head coach and coaching staff, while paying off the previous regime might be more than owners Zygi and Mark Wilf want to do. But at some point a decision is going to have to be made and the only question is how they are going to go about it? The Vikings’ one-point losses to Tennessee and Seattle in Weeks 3 and 5, respectively, were tough to take but a case could be made that Minnesota’s younger players got a chance to grow in those games and progress was made. The Atlanta loss looked like a complete no-show and that has to be difficult for ownership to stomach. Trading veteran players and either going younger, or with veterans who are a step down, could set up the Vikings for more one-sided defeats, so the Wilfs’ call could have to be made on the eye test of whether the team looked engaged or checked out.
  4. Of course, the decision also could be made based on what looks to have been a massive mistake that starts at Spielman’s desk. That would be giving Cousins a two-year, $66 million contract extension last March in order to free up $10 million in salary-cap space so more moves could be made. The Vikings took a chance when they signed Cousins to a three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed contract in March 2018 after going to the NFC title game with Case Keenum the previous season. Minnesota missed the playoffs in 2018, but rebounded to win a first-round game against the Saints last season before being bounced by San Francisco. That means Cousins should have been entering the final season of his contract. That would have been perfect since it had become clear in his first two years that he’s a good, not great, quarterback who isn’t going to win a Super Bowl when he’s eating up a significant portion of his team’s cap space. But the Vikings were up against the cap and wanted to makes moves this offseason, including signing free agent defensive tackle Michael Pierce to a three-year, $27 million contract. Pierce opted out for this season because of concerns about COVID-19 and there’s no question his presence in the middle of the line has been missed. Zimmer almost certainly will point that out to ownership if his job security becomes an issue. Spielman, however, must accept that he identified Cousins to play QB in Minnesota and then signed him to an extension that is going to make him difficult to jettison.
  5. The Vikings would be wise to move on from Cousins, but doing that is going to be very difficult given his contract situation. On one hand, it makes sense for the Vikings to do everything in their power to try to get themselves in position to draft a guy like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields, but those guys figure to go within the top two or three picks. Still, could the Vikings put together a package to move up if they are set to draft fifth or sixth? It’s possible. Especially, if Lawrence’s camp tells the Jets he isn’t going to play. The Vikings wouldn’t be the only team trying to position themselves to get their next quarterback. And if they do that, could they find a team willing to take Cousins and his contract? That seems unlikely. It’s also an issue that if Spielman now admits he made a mistake in extending Cousins, the Wilfs might decide he isn’t going to get the opportunity to make another mistake with a quarterback. What intrigue.
  6. The Vikings will next play on Nov. 1 at Lambeau Field. Since it’s clear that under no circumstance will Cousins be benched for veteran backup Sean Mannion, Jake Browning (signed by the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2019) needs to be put on the active roster and elevated to the primary backup position. The reason why Cousins talked Sunday about knowing he would be benched if he continued to play like he did against Atlanta, is he knows there is no way this coaching staff will sit him for Mannion. It’s easy to talk about losing your job, when you know it’s not going to happen. I have no idea how Browning would do if put into a game, but that doesn’t matter. It was football malpractice to see Cousins left in after halftime so he could pad his stats. If Mannion isn’t going to be allowed to play, get a look at a young quarterback you like, while Cousins is forced to live with the box score line he deserves.