Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, known for periodic bouts of absolute candor in between large doses of subterfuge and coach-speak, was at his most honest Friday when discussing his defense after a 52-33 loss to the Saints that ended any chance Minnesota had to make the playoffs.
"Yeah, this is a bad defense," Zimmer said. "Worst one I've ever had."
It's unclear just how far back he goes with that description: Worst with the Vikings since he took the head coaching job in 2014? Worst since he became an NFL defensive coordinator in 2000? Worst since he started coaching, period, in 1979?
Hard to say. Harder to watch.
If we're just talking about the Vikings, it is quickly and easily verified that this is Zimmer's worst defense. Before this season, none of Zimmer's six defenses in Minnesota had finished worse than No. 11 in points allowed or No. 14 in yards allowed. This year they are No. 28 and No. 27 in those categories, respectively.
What's perhaps more interesting is trying to determine this: In offering a more detailed critique of what has gone wrong, was Zimmer making an excuse or merely offering an explanation? There is a difference.
"We're missing four defensive linemen, we're missing a safety, we're missing three corners, we're missing six linebackers, I believe, from where we started," Zimmer said. "We're just a little undermanned. That's still no excuse. These guys put on an NFL jersey; they've got to play."
Colleague Ben Goessling has an even longer version of that quote where Zimmer lists many of the players who have missed significant or at least key parts of the season: Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks ... as well as one more disclaimer that "honest, I'm not trying to make excuses."
Usually that's a red flag that someone is actually trying to make an excuse. In this case, I'll say Zimmer was primarily trying to offer an honest explanation. All the coaching in the world can't make up for a fundamental lack of talent.
It starts up front, where the Vikings haven't spent a pick in the top three rounds of the draft on a defensive lineman since 2015 — when they nabbed Danielle Hunter in the third round. Their woeful lack of quality depth in the front seven was the result of some bad luck meeting a bad plan.
On the other hand the poor tackling fundamentals that have contributed to the Vikings' downfall on defense this year? That's at least somewhat coachable. Whether what we saw Friday was primarily caused by effort, technique or simply a lack of talent, it was alarming.
It was bad enough, in fact, that I think Zimmer could have had just a normal season of injured players and still had his worst defense in Minnesota. Did key injuries merely provide cover for a defense destined to fall? Maybe we'll find out in 2021 and get a clearer answer to whether we're dealing with an excuse or an explanation.
Here are four other things I'm thinking about:
*Sunday's 127-91 blowout loss to the Lakers was perhaps a good splash of cold water for the Wolves after a 2-0 start. This time of year, we tend to get a little too excited over small sample sizes, and there was palpable optimism after the Wolves beat the Jazz on Saturday.
The Wolves figure to be without Karl-Anthony Towns for a handful of games. They'll need to get back to playing with energy and intelligence when they face the Clippers on Tuesday.
*The Gophers men's basketball team should enter the AP Top 25 when the new poll is released Monday. Stacking up a win over No. 4 Iowa on Christmas on top of the strong win over Saint Louis last weekend proves they're worthy. Let's guess: The Gophers will enter at No. 21.
*Condolences if you are playing in your fantasy football playoffs this weekend and your opponent has six touchdown-scoring Alvin Kamara (hand raised). Always remember: Fantasy football is cruel and unfair.
*Three teams in the NFC East could still win the division title: 6-9 Washington and Dallas or — yes — 5-10 New York. If Washington wins over the Eagles, they get the spot. But if Washington loses, the Week 17 winner between the Giants and Cowboys gets the spot. So yes, that means the winner of the division could be the 6-10 Giants.
My friends tease me relentlessly about my crusade to get the Wolves in to the Eastern Conference of the NBA. But forget that. How bout moving the Vikings to the NFC East?