Back in the NFL's olden days of 2019, a coach could stop worrying about the availability of his players once they made it through the previous game in good health.
If this were two years ago, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer would be especially comfortable this weekend. A Thursday night win followed by a Monday night game gives 10 days of rest to a mentally tired roster that suffered no new significant injuries to any key players.
But this is a different world from two years ago. In the pandemic era, Zimmer giving his team four days off before reconvening on Tuesday no doubt comes with concerns that his players — particularly the unvaccinated ones, which includes Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and Harrison Smith — might lapse in their adherence to the NFL's COVID-19 protocols.
But even if they don't, there are no guarantees. In fact, the more likely scenario for the Vikings and other playoff contenders is one in which more players go on the COVID-19 list and miss games over the next month. You just cross your fingers and hope it's not Cousins while you're heading to Green Bay with a playoff spot on the line in Week 17.
The Vikings already have placed 14 players on their COVID-19 list since training camp, including Cousins for three days in August. Starters Garrett Bradbury, Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson and Smith are among those who have missed games.
"When I'm sitting in the meetings and I get a text from our [head athletic] trainer Eric Sugarman and it says so and so tested positive, it's [challenging] trying to piece everything together," Zimmer said. "I guess it's the way of the world right now. … You just figure out a way, try to figure out a way. It's just another annoying thing in your day."
The only two reliable pieces in Zimmer's embattled secondary are former All-Pros Smith and Peterson. The Vikings are 1-3 when one or both are on the COVID-19 list. In the loss to the winless Lions, it was Peterson's replacement, Cameron Dantzler, who botched the coverage on Detroit's walkoff touchdown pass.
Vikings second-year receiver K.J. Osborn doesn't know an NFL without COVID-19 protocols. He said he got the vaccine just to enjoy the extra freedom that comes with it under the league's protocols.
Unvaccinated players must test every day. They have to wear a mask while in the team facility. They can't gather in groups larger than three or mingle with people outside the team while on the road. If they test positive, they're out for 10 days. If they're in close contact to someone who tests positive, it's five days.
The vaccinated need to test only once a week. If they test positive, they can return with two negative tests at least 24 hours apart. They also don't have to quarantine for close contact.
"I'm vaccinated, so it's not something I think about too much," Osborn said. "We always just know it could be next man up. We always know somebody could pop positive. I think Harry [Smith] popped that morning [before the Ravens game], the time he was out, and it's like, 'Boom – next man up.' So I think we all understand that, and we all have to prepare for that. It's the world we're living in today."
Osborn said he holds no animosity toward the unvaccinated player who misses time when he wouldn't have had he been vaccinated.
"Everybody has their own opinion," he said. "I was somebody who didn't really want to get it at first. I'm not a guy that gets flu shots and things like that. If I'm sick, I just get my medicine, pray, drink water, call my mom for something. She'll tell me something to do. I'm not a big medicine guy."
The NFL's strong-arming worked on Osborn.
"I really wasn't a big fan of it until they started making a lot of rules for it, so I started to do more research on it, and I did it," he said. "I'm OK that I did it. I felt good. I've been a close contact a couple times, so I think me getting it was a good thing, so I didn't have to miss any time or anything like that. But people have their own opinion, man. And I think that people should respect that and stand for that. That's kind of my take on it."
Peterson is vaccinated but still had to watch from Minnesota as his greenhorn replacement blew the ending of the Lions game.
"I didn't have any symptoms," Peterson said. "So I was pretty frustrated being on the COVID list, having obviously done everything I needed to do to stay away from it by being vaccinated and still doing the proper things at home by not doing extra-curricular things, just going to work, coming home, to the grocery store every now and then.
"Knowing I couldn't be there to help the team win that game, a game we definitely needed to win, it was tough being at home, watching it on the couch. But it is what it is at this point. I thought I was very close to coming back, but apparently the numbers wasn't high enough to make me eligible."
Frustrating times for everybody. Including a certain coach trying to scratch out enough wins to make the playoffs and save his job.