Last season, COVID-19 issues were an understandable and mostly sympathetic struggle for NFL teams. The pandemic was raging, the protocols were new and unusual, and even players who followed them to a T could still find themselves testing positive or being a close contact to someone who did.
That's no longer the case this year. COVID vaccines have been readily available for quite some time now, so the issues the Vikings are dealing with are entirely preventable. Quarterbacks Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond, and Nate Stanley needing to isolate for at least five days after Mond tested positive for COVID wouldn't have happened if they were vaccinated.
That's incredibly frustrating to head coach Mike Zimmer, who has been vocal in his pro-vaccine stance all offseason. Not only does he recognize the competitive advantages that come with players getting vaccinated, he's concerned about the nationwide spread of the Delta variant and has encouraged everyone — whether they're his players or not — to get vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them.
"This Delta variant is rough," Zimmer said. "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. But some people don’t understand, I guess."
Cousins, Mond, and Stanley all being unvaccinated forced Jake Browning to take every single rep at quarterback on Saturday night. Now the Vikings have had to bring in QBs Case Cookus and Danny Etling off the street just to be able to have somewhat normal practices this week.
More worryingly, Cousins is believed to just be one of several important Vikings players who are unvaccinated. Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, and Sheldon Richardson all shared back in June that they had not received a vaccine. KFAN's Paul Allen said on his show on Monday morning that he knows of at least three Vikings players who would rather quit football than get the vaccine.
Losing three quarterbacks now is an inconvenience, but what happens if Cousins or other important players have to miss games due to the league's protocols for unvaccinated players? Zimmer isn't just worried about that possibility, he's expecting it at this point.
"I just feel like we’re going to have guys miss games," he said. "There are so many cases going on right now. We’re going to have guys miss some games and we have to be prepared for it."
Last season, Thielen missed a game due to being on the COVID list. That was understandable then, but now, with vaccinated players being able to return significantly quicker from a positive test than unvaccinated players — and also being less likely to test positive in the first place — it's a personal choice that can actively harm your team.
All kinds of protocols are different for vaccinated and unvaccinated players. Vaccinated players can go essentially go back to the pre-pandemic normal, whereas unvaccinated players have to continue all of the unpleasant protocols and restrictions from the 2020 season.
"Going through all the things you had to do last year with masks, protocol, traveling, can’t leave for a day, can’t go out and see your family and all the things, can’t go out to dinner on the road, have to wear masks on the plane, all that stuff, it was just difficult," Zimmer said. "I just don’t understand. I just don’t understand. I think we could put this thing to bed if we all do this. But it is what it is."
"If you're not vaccinated, you're just living in a different world," Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said in June. "I just think, why put yourself at risk of going through that again? At the end of the day, if we're all in this and trying to win a championship, if there's a very small percentage of the shots affecting people, why not put yourself in the best position possible to win a championship?"
COVID vaccines have become a highly politicized issue in the United States. Even though the science and numbers all indicate that the vaccines are safe and effective, there remains a large portion of the population that is skeptical. That applies to the Vikings and the NFL too. Despite potentially hurting their team and going through countless inconveniences by declining to get vaccinated, there are players who are "staunch" in their stances, to use a word used by Zimmer.
“I talked to the team, and like I said before there are quite a few guys that are just against it," Zimmer said. "I’m not going to be able to change their mind. Once in a while, one player will come in or two players will come in and say 'I want to be vaccinated.' So, hopefully, that continues on. But I know there are some that just won’t do it."
“It’s their beliefs," Zimmer added when asked why he thinks some players refuse the vaccine. "I don’t know if it’s misinformation. It’s their belief, so whatever they’ve heard or read or been told. Maybe they don’t believe what Dr. (Allen) Sills and the NFL are telling them either. I shouldn’t say it, but some of the things they read is just, whew, out there."
Zimmer is clearly frustrated, disappointed, and fed up. He's been very passionate and candid when speaking about this topic, both earlier this summer and now that the Vikings are dealing with some high-profile consequences of having unvaccinated players. This has become a distraction and an inconvenience during a training camp where he'd rather the focus be about how his football team can improve from a 7-9 season in 2020.
If Cousins and other unvaccinated players end up costing the Vikings a game this season due to their unavailability — which is entirely possible — it's safe to say Zimmer isn't going to be thrilled.
“Probably won’t be happy we lost the game, first, and I probably won’t be happy we could’ve prevented this," he said.
For now, he's not worried about any internal friction between the vaccinated and unvaccinated players in the Vikings' locker room. But again, it hasn't had any serious effects yet. Being down to one QB for a practice is one thing. Losing a regular season game because backups were forced to play is another.
“I don’t think so," Zimmer said when asked if this issue could affect the leadership in the locker room. "I think maybe if some leaders miss games because of it and we end up losing games because of it, that might. Guys that are leaders of your team and they don’t play and you lose the game, that might."
"Hopefully we don’t have to find that out."
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