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Zulgad: Vexed over non-vaxxed: Vikings coach frustrated after Cousins enters quarantine

NFL: Minnesota Vikings Minicamp
Jun 15, 2021; in Eagen, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) talk during drills at OTA at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The suspicion that Kirk Cousins isn’t among the Vikings’ vaccinated players was confirmed on Saturday. Now, the question is what did the team’s starting quarterback learn from it?

Cousins was one of several players who was held out of the Vikings’ night practice at TCO Performance Center due to the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols. That left the vaccinated Jake Browning as the only quarterback available for the practice after rookie Kellen Mond tested positive for COVID-19, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network. Cousins is designated high-risk close contact. Nate Stanley, who was on the Vikings’ practice squad last season with Browning, also had to sit out because he’s not vaccinated.

The key guy here is Cousins.

He is the one in the midst of a three-year, $96 million contract that will pay him a base salary of $21 million ($31 million salary cap hit) in 2021 and $35 million ($45 million cap hit) in 2022. He is the one entering his fourth season with the Vikings, having made the playoffs only once so far. He is the one who has taken snaps in an NFL game, something no other quarterback on the roster has done.

Cousins hasn’t missed a game because of injury since becoming the starter in Washington in 2015 — he did sit out the last game of the 2019 season because the Vikings had a playoff spot secured — and this season would be a terrible time for that durability streak to end.

But this is where what happened on Saturday could prove to be the best thing that could have happened to the 2021 Vikings. That’s likely what coach Mike Zimmer is hoping. Zimmer was clearly annoyed that Cousins and several of his players could not take part in practice, but also was aware this could have happened on a game day.

“Something like this happens the day before a game that has a chance to get you to the playoffs or something like that,” Zimmer said, “this Delta variant is rough. You can see the cases going up every single day now. That’s why, for the sake of everybody’s health, I think it’s important (to be vaccinated). But some people don’t understand that, I guess.”

As for the potential that this could serve as a wake-up call, Zimmer said: “How do you know? Some guys are pretty staunch.”

For Zimmer this isn’t a political issue, but a football issue and right now that’s what he cares about. The Vikings are coming off a disappointing 7-9 season in which they missed the playoffs, and the pressure is on Zimmer, general manager Rick Spielman and Cousins. Zimmer and Spielman are signed through 2023, and Cousins’ contract runs through next season. Zimmer has a rebuilt defense and the Vikings’ offense has some of the best skill position players in the league. But if Cousins goes out and Browning has to play, a lot of people could end up losing their jobs.

While we don’t know if Cousins will test positive for COVID, the NFL’s strict rules mean he (and any of his teammates who were unvaccinated and exposed to Mond) must quarantine and be away from the team for five days. They can participate in meetings virtually but that’s it.

That likely will keep Cousins off the practice field and out of the facility until Friday. If Cousins was vaccinated, and the same goes for Stanley, they could have taken part in Saturday’s practice and missed no time. Mond is believed to be vaccinated and if he tests negative for two consecutive days he could be back as early as Monday.

So a quarterback who had COVID-19 could actually come back before two quarterbacks who did not.

“You know, quite honestly, after everything we went through last year, I’m not surprised one bit,” Zimmer said when asked if he was mad or accepting of the situation. “I am disappointed that this happened. I’m frustrated, not just with my football players who didn’t get vaccinated, but I’m frustrated with everybody (who didn’t). We’ll just do the best we can. It’s just disappointing.”

Zimmer said the Vikings weren’t keeping one QB out of the quarterback meeting room before this but now would consider doing so. For now, the Vikings likely will have to sign at least one quarterback, if not two, for practice purposes. The team also could consider signing a more established backup for Cousins, if he doesn’t get vaccinated.

Zimmer called Browning, “really smart,” adding, “he’s vaccinated, that helps to be the backup. So as we move forward here, he’s going to get a ton of reps tonight. I don’t know about saying ‘it’s going to go a long way (toward helping him win a job)’ because we’ve still a lot of camp to go. But we’ll see. He’s out there, he’s available, that’s important. It’s important to be available when you’re playing football, a team sport.”

Have to wonder if Cousins and Co., will get the message?