Another Vikings season has ended, sadly sooner than 14 other teams.
Here’s a less-than-fun stat: Since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014, the Vikings have flipped between qualifying for the playoffs and having a season record around .500 every other year. This time around was the latter, as the Vikes finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
As disappointing as that is, it’s worth remembering that this team started the season by losing five of its first six games and looked primed for a high draft pick. Things turned around a bit and the Vikings went on a decent run, but it wasn’t enough to nab a spot in the postseason.
Fans are quick to blame QB Kirk Cousins - and when you make that much money to throw a football, I understand. That said, after the 1-5 start, where he was admittedly terrible, he had a reasonably solid season.
After throwing 10 interceptions in those first six games, he threw just three in the next 10 games, and one of them bounced off the receiver so it’s hard to blame him for that. He finished eighth in the league in passing yards and yards per game, ninth in completion percentage and sixth in passing touchdowns. His season-long passer rating was also the eighth-best in the league.
Yes, a chunk of his stats came in garbage time of games we lost, especially in the early games, but I think it is pretty darn hard to pin the season’s issues on Cousins.
Receiver Adam Thielen has had a decent year, unsurprisingly, but rookie receiver Justin Jefferson wasted absolutely no time in becoming a star in the league.
The No. 22 pick in the 2020 draft finished the year with 88 catches, 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns, and is easily on the shortlist for Rookie of the Year honors. He will likely finish second in that vote, which is a bummer.
Most notably, he now owns the NFL record for receiving yards in a season by a rookie (in the Super Bowl era). He also broke many of Randy Moss’s team rookie records in the process. When you consider he barely played the first two games, his season is incredibly impressive.
The other bona fide star wearing purple and gold is running back Dalvin Cook, who has been solid for years (when healthy) but took it to a new level in 2020.
He finished second in the league in rushing yards, rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns.
He was also the second-highest Pro Bowl vote-getter in the NFC, behind Russell Wilson.
There have been a few other offensive bright spots on the team - Irv Smith Jr. is coming into his own, Ezra Cleveland and Riley Reiff were semi-solid on the offensive line, Chad Beebe’s game-winning play was fun to see.
The team has averaged just shy of 27 points per game (430 over 16 games), which is in the top half of the league.
Based on the stats, the Vikings had the fourth-best offense in the league, so what’s the problem?
The problem with this team - and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Mike Zimmer-led team - is the defense.
When you have the fourth-ranked offense in the league and you don’t make the playoffs, the issue is fairly clear.
We knew things would be different when the team parted with several defensive mainstays - Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Trae Waynes and a few others - but I didn’t think their departures were an inherently bad thing. I still don’t, in fact.
But then the team lost Danielle Hunter for the season before the season began. Then newly signed defensive lineman Michael Pierce opted out of this season over COVID-19 concerns. Then the Vikings lost stud linebacker Anthony Barr for the year in the second game. Eric Kendricks has missed the past month. Cornerbacks dropped like flies this year.
I don’t really want to make excuses for the team - no band of professional athletes should ever give up 52 points in a game like the Vikes did against the Saints - but when the safeties are the only group to avoid big-time injuries, that puts the team at an understandable disadvantage.
The offense was ranked fourth overall this year. The defense ranked 27th. That’s the problem.
Perhaps I shouldn’t put so much of the blame on the defense. After all, the special teams were rather hard to watch in 2020 as well.
It really was every aspect of special teams, but of course the main focus of the special teams woes was kicker Dan Bailey.
When the Vikings signed him in 2018, he was the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history. In fact, through the first 11 games of the season, he made 12 of 14 field goal attempts and 26 of 27 extra points. Those numbers have dropped a bit since, and they certainly weren’t helped by him missing three field goals and an extra point against Tampa Bay.
Thanks to the past month, I really have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about Bailey continuing to play for the team, but I think he’s more capable than someone like Blair Walsh to turn things around.
Speaking of Blair Walsh, what is with the Vikings and kickers? I’m not one for believing in curses or otherworldly things, but this is just weird.
So with such a rough 2020 officially in the books, what is the outlook for 2021? In my opinion, it’s pretty positive.
I have to assume that all of those defensive players I mentioned will be back and healthy in 2021, with the possible exception of Barr, who has an opt-out option in his contract.
The offense made some serious strides this year, and the defensive anchors who missed time this season and provided a major defensive presence in previous seasons should theoretically be healthy and ready to go in the fall.
Yes, the Packers will probably still be good next year, and the Bears are usually just competitive enough to keep things interesting, but I think the Vikings are just shy of being complete enough of a decent playoff run.
Draft a couple of linemen, shore up the issues on special teams and get everyone healthy, and this is a pretty good team.
Despite a rough 2020, I have a pretty good feeling about the Vikings in 2021.
I feel like I’ve said that before, though.
Dan Determan may be reached at 218-855-5879 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.