The coach looked overmatched. The general manager’s offensive line fluttered like tattered flags in a strong wind. The expensive quarterback barked at the state’s most popular athlete. The owner left the locker room looking grim.
A season that began with Super Bowl expectations ended in vivid frustration on Sunday, when the Vikings, needing the slimmest of victories to make the playoffs, instead produced the most timid of losses, one pointing blame directly at the team’s leadership troika.
The coach, Mike Zimmer, didn’t have his team ready to play, evidenced by the Vikings amassing 2 yards on their first four drives en route to a 24-10 loss.
The GM, Rick Spielman, knew before the season he had to rebuild a faltering offensive line and failed.
The quarterback, Kirk Cousins, signed one of the richest contracts in NFL history and adopted a 14-win team. By the end of the second quarter he was teaching Adam Thielen how to run routes.
The Vikings spent $84 million on a star quarterback and got a mediocre receivers coach.
Cousins is locked in for two more years. If Zygi Wilf wants to change his leadership formula, he’s going to have to fire his coach or general manager, or both.
That might sound drastic, considering the Vikings haven’t posted a losing record since 2014. But ownership’s stated goal is a Super Bowl title, and Zimmer and Spielman have yet to prove they can build a team that can win in January.
At 8-7-1 and out of the playoffs, the 2018 Vikings are the definition of mediocre. They have won one playoff game since 2009. This season, they defeated one playoff team — the Philadelphia Eagles, whom they played in October, when the Eagles were at their worst.
In the Vikings’ last three pressurized games against good teams, they required a missed tackle by the Saints to avoid an epic choke, lost 38-7 to the Eagles and lost to a Bears team that didn’t need to win.
The Bears would have been better off losing on Sunday to set up a rematch with the Vikings at Soldier Field in the NFC wild-card round. The problem with the Bears pulling their starters is that their backups may have won, too.
“We didn’t deserve to make the playoffs,’’ linebacker Anthony Barr said.
Cousins called this “Year 1’’ of his tenure, expressing optimism that increased familiarity with his receivers will produce better results in the future.
The problem with the 2018 quarterback’s logic is the 2017 quarterback’s performance. In 2017, Case Keenum took over in Week 2, having taken few snaps with the first team, and produced 14 victories with the same receivers, and without as much Dalvin Cook.
“Tough times don’t last,’’ Cousins said. “Tough people do.’’
He wasn’t brought to Minnesota to help the Vikings recover emotionally from big losses. Minnesota has that drill perfected. Cousins was brought to Minnesota to make them better.
“I’ll just continue the same routine I’ve had for seven years in this league,’’ Cousins said.
Coming from a quarterback who has never won a playoff game, that is not inspirational.
The season began with the Vikings beating San Francisco at the Bank. During that game, Cousins took on a tackler to make a first down, and his teammates raved about his toughness, his competitiveness.
Sixteen weeks later, Cousins felt pressure and dumped a hopeless pass toward Thielen in the second quarter. When Thielen reached the sideline, Cousins could be seen mouthing the words, “I don’t have 10 seconds,’’ causing Thielen to erupt.
After the game, both called the exchange productive, but Thielen had never before looked so angry at a teammate in public.
In the Vikings’ biggest games this season, Cousins seemed tentative, sometimes even unnerved. He is already on his second Vikings offensive coordinator. He and the Vikings were inept enough on Sunday to make you wonder how many coaches and general managers will be recycled before his time in Minnesota ends.