Who Deserves The Most Blame for the Vikings' Disastrous Start?
The Vikings have been arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL through the first two weeks of the 2020 season. After reaching the playoffs for the third time in five years in 2019, they started this season with two remarkably ugly losses. They've been out-coached and thoroughly outplayed on both sides of the ball, and a season that looked promising just a couple weeks ago is now an unmitigated disaster that seems unlikely to magically get better anytime soon.
There will be plenty of talk about where the Vikings go from here, especially if the losses continue to mount, but it's worth discussing how they got here. How does a roster with this much talent look like the worst team in the league this side of the Meadowlands? How does a team go from winning a playoff game to essentially dashing all hopes of a postseason appearance by Week 2?
As is tradition in sports when a team is struggling, it's time to point some fingers and assign blame. There are four people who stand out as deserving of criticism, so let's go through each one and break down how they've contributed to this debacle.
Rick Spielman, General Manager
In my opinion, Spielman is at the very top of the list of people who are at fault for the Vikings' current situation. He's the one who constructed this roster, and he's the one who signed off on what now seems like a major mistake: extending Kirk Cousins this offseason.
It's hard to fault Spielman for signing Cousins in the first place back in 2018. Despite all of his success during a special season, Case Keenum clearly wasn't the long-term answer at quarterback and there weren't any better options available for a team in win-now mode. It made sense.
Cousins has mostly been as advertised, going 18-12-1 over the past two seasons. He followed up a disappointing 2018 by leading the team to the playoffs and knocking off the Saints in the divisional round last year, which was great. But Cousins had a career year in 2019 because the circumstances around him were excellent. Stefon Diggs became one of the best deep threats in the league, Kevin Stefanski dialed up play-action passes with great frequency, and Dalvin Cook stayed healthy enough to have a breakout year and take some of the pressure off of the quarterback.
Spielman's decision to extend Cousins this offseason is emblematic of a larger issue: believing that the Vikings could remake their roster on the fly and still be competitive instead of committing to a rebuild. We've got the benefit of hindsight after just two games, but the front office's decisions this offseason – trading Diggs and letting a ton of key defensive players leave in free agency, yet extending Cousins and Cook and franchise-tagging Anthony Harris – don't make much sense in the context of this ugly 0-2 start.
The thing with Cousins is that he needs his supporting cast and environment to elevate his play, not the other way around. Knowing that, it's hard to justify extending him while also trading away his best receiver and failing to address the team's weakness at guard. With Adam Thielen as his only trusted target and the guards being beaten for a ton of interior pressure in both games, it's not shocking that Cousins has regressed from being a top-ten QB last year to looking like a major liability this season.
Given the guaranteed nature of his contract, the Vikings are almost certainly stuck with Cousins through the 2022 season. That's the No. 1 thing making the immediate future of the team look somewhat hopeless, and it's on Spielman. There are also several other important decisions of his that can be questioned, including spending big money on a running back, paying both safeties despite having a young cornerback group, and extending underperforming veterans like Anthony Barr and Kyle Rudolph in recent years. Those moves have combined to make the Vikings' financial situation a mess.
For all of the credit Spielman gets in the draft, much of which stems from a spectacular 2015 class and an analytically-savvy philosophy (trading down and accumulating lots of picks), it's impossible to deny that he had a brutal stretch from 2016 to 2018. None of the eight players the Vikings drafted in 2016 are still with the team, highlighted by a spectacular bust in first-round pick Laquon Treadwell. Only Cook and Ifeadi Odenigbo look like strong picks from the 2017 class. And Brian O'Neill is the lone clear hit from 2018, although Mike Hughes still has time to join that group. Those misses over that three-year period have helped create some of the major holes on the Vikings' roster, which have stood out more than ever during this winless start. It's still too early to fully evaluate the large and mostly promising 2019 and 2020 classes, but NFL teams are designed to rely more on guys in years three through five than rookies and second-year players.
Lastly, as I've already alluded to, it's a major knock on Spielman that the Vikings seem to have question marks on the offensive line on an annual basis. Entering the season content with having clear backup-quality players in Dakota Dozier and Pat Elflein starting at guard is borderline inexcusable from a GM. Only recently have the Vikings actually spent major draft capital on attempting to address the never-ending struggles up front.
Spielman has had a mostly successful run leading the Vikings' front office, and it's certainly possible that he could overcome this rough stretch. But his poor decisions with free agency and extensions, combined with a cold streak in the draft, are the driving force behind the Vikings' horrendous start to 2020 and bleak outlook going forward.
Mike Zimmer, Head Coach
As the head coach of the Vikings, Zimmer has to be included in any discussion of blame, both when it comes to this season and the team's inability to get over the hump in previous years. It's also worth noting that he has more say in the team's personnel decisions than many head coaches do, so the mistakes I detailed in the Spielman section can also be partially attributed to Zimmer.
There's no question that Zimmer is one of the better coaches in Vikings history. He came in back in 2014 and changed the culture of the organization. He assembled an outstanding defense that was impressively sustainable over the years – until now. He's an elite defensive mind, a strong motivator of players, and a high-quality person. I completely understand why the team's ownership decided to extend Zimmer this offseason.
However, all of that doesn't absolve Zimmer from receiving a significant portion of blame for what has transpired thus far in 2020. He's been out-coached in both losses to start the season, much like he was out-coached in the team's two biggest games of the past few years: the NFC Championship disaster in Philadelphia and the loss to the 49ers in the divisional round last year.
Yes, Zimmer is working with the personnel he has. This defense is incredibly young at cornerback, saw its nose tackle opt out of the season, and has had to deal with the loss of probably its best player (Danielle Hunter) early on. But Zimmer's preseason declaration that he's never had a bad defense and doesn't anticipate that changing looks silly in the wake of allowing 71 points and nearly 900 yards combined to the Packers and Colts.
The circumstances haven't always been in his control, but it's also fairly troubling that the Vikings are on their fifth offensive coordinator in seven years under Zimmer. Until he's able to get over the hump and reach a Super Bowl – or at least make the playoffs in consecutive seasons – there will be people who believe Zimmer is better suited as a defensive coordinator than a head coach.
Gary Kubiak, Offensive Coordinator
Zimmer deserves blame for the struggles of his defense, but at least he has the excuse of a ton of roster turnover and youth on that side of the ball. Kubiak doesn't have that excuse, at least not nearly to the same degree.
Coming into this season, the Vikings talked up their continuity on offense. They had Cousins, Cook, Thielen, both tight ends, and four of five starters on the offensive line returning. They had the same scheme that Kubiak put in place last year when Stefanski was calling plays. The combination of those two things was supposed to mean that the offense would remain efficient and make up for any potential growing pains on defense.
Instead, the Vikings' offense has arguably been even worse than their defense. Outside of the opening drives of each game and garbage time in the fourth quarter, they've been incredibly bad at moving the ball and putting points on the board. That falls primarily on the shoulders of the offensive coordinator.
It's been a rough two-game start for Kubiak the play-caller, as he's trying to get back into the swing of things after three seasons away from that role. He hasn't been particularly creative so far. He's cut the Vikings' usage of play-action roughly in half, which is a curious move given how much success Cousins had with that last year. He also hasn't used much tempo or nearly any motion at the snap, which has been shown to be a great tool for offenses. And Kubiak has mostly been unable to get the ball in the hands of exciting young pass-catchers Justin Jefferson and Irv Smith Jr., though that's not entirely his fault.
Kubiak admitted on Thursday that he needs to improve.
"I’m focused on myself," he said. "Hell, I’ve got to do a lot better job for the guys and getting them in position. We’re playing hard, our guys are playing hard, preparing hard. We’ve got to figure out a way to keep us on the field, get our snaps, those type of things. I’ve got to coach better and we’ve got to do a better job."
Hopefully he can start to shake the rust off against the Titans, but criticism of Kubiak is clearly warranted at the moment.
Kirk Cousins, Quarterback
I already talked about Cousins plenty during the Spielman section, so I won't belabor the point here. Still, I'd be remiss not to give him his own section. Spielman probably shouldn't have extended him and Kubiak needs to give him a better chance to have success, but Cousins simply hasn't been good so far.
Losing Diggs and having awful guard play isn't nearly enough to explain away all of the poor decisions and inaccurate throws Cousins has made to start this season. No matter what the circumstances behind each play are, a quarterback with his experience can't throw four interceptions and take two safeties in just two games. He just can't. That performance against the Colts, especially, was as bad as it gets.
It's been encouraging to see Cousins make more plays on the run than we're used to seeing from him. He still clearly has a strong rapport with Thielen, and those two fourth-quarter touchdowns against Green Bay were beautiful throws. Cousins can't possibly be as bad as he was in Indianapolis; he has a five-year track record that suggests better days are ahead. But he has to get it done. Cousins needs to prove that he can sustain drives and lead this team to victories, even without Diggs and Stefanski around.
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