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The Vikings’ Three-Body Problem

Minnesota’s nucleus of GM Rick Spielman, head coach Mike Zimmer, and quarterback Kirk Cousins has failed to turn the team into a championship contender. Is it time to blow it up?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Minnesota Vikings lost to the Detroit Lions on Sunday. The Lions were 0-10-1 before the game. The game-winning drive was authored by Jared Goff, and the walk-off touchdown was thrown directly into the end zone into the teeth of … well, a coverage that used eight players to cover three receivers and left the fourth completely unimpeded. As the receiver, Amon-Ra St. Brown, would later describe it, this coverage was “actually crazy.”

The worst part about this loss? It’s maybe not the most pathetic thing the 2021 Vikings have done. They were the only team in the league to lead in each game they played by at least a touchdown—they were 5-6 in those games, before the Lions loss. They’re giving up a record number of scoring drives in the last two minutes of each half. Oh, and quarterback Kirk Cousins tried to take a snap from his right guard last week.

This slow crumbling of the semblance of a real football team has the seats warm in Minnesota: not just for Cousins, but for general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer—the latter of whom seems to be decisively less than a Cousins fan. For a team that’s regularly and recently made the playoffs, extended its quarterback, and made aggressive free agent pushes, this underwhelming performance should come as a surprise—but in Minnesota’s case, I’m not sure that it does.

Spielman’s persistence this season was in the face of long odds. He became the general manager of the Vikings in 2012, and since that season, the Vikings are 11th in the league in regular-season wins with 84, putting their overall record at .545.

We can take a look at those teams, along with a few below Minnesota in the win column, to get a scope for how successful the Vikings have been during Spielman’s tenure. Since 2012, Spielman’s Vikings have made the playoffs four times, losing their first postseason game twice and winning one game in the other two appearances; one of those wins was the Minneapolis Miracle over the Saints in 2018. Their playoff win record is tied with Arizona’s for the worst of all teams with winning regular-season records.

Zimmer’s Vikings in the Postseason

Team Regular-season win % Super Bowl appearances Super Bowl wins Conference championship game appearances Playoff win %
Team Regular-season win % Super Bowl appearances Super Bowl wins Conference championship game appearances Playoff win %
Patriots 0.726 4 3 7 0.737
Seahawks 0.657 2 1 2 0.565
Chiefs 0.647 2 1 3 0.538
Packers 0.641 0 0 4 0.500
Steelers 0.622 0 0 1 0.375
Saints 0.596 0 0 1 0.444
Ravens 0.596 1 1 1 0.600
Broncos 0.564 2 1 2 0.625
Colts 0.561 0 0 1 0.444
Cowboys 0.551 0 0 0 0.400
Vikings 0.545 0 0 1 0.333
Rams 0.529 1 1 1 0.500
Bills 0.519 0 0 1 0.400
Cardinals 0.519 0 0 1 0.333
Panthers 0.516 1 1 1 0.429
Eagles 0.506 1 1 1 0.571

Most of the teams above Minnesota—the Saints, Steelers, and Seahawks, for example—have kept the same general manager. Others, like New England, Baltimore, Green Bay, and Dallas, have unique situations in their front office and have maintained continuity. Only in Indianapolis and Kansas City have we seen general managers truly fired and replaced, and both of those teams have been buoyed by elite quarterback play during the past decade. Patrick Mahomes helped deliver one Super Bowl win and another Super Bowl berth for Kansas City. Andrew Luck very well could have done the same for Indianapolis if he didn’t retire early on in his career.

That’s the other thing to measure Spielman against: consistency at the quarterback position. Of all the teams more successful than the Vikings through the past decade, only the Broncos have had more than two top options at starting quarterback. This separates Spielman from the other good, enduring general managers who have failed to win a Super Bowl since 2012. Kevin Colbert, the general manager of the Steelers, has seen just about as much playoff success as Spielman has—but Ben Roethlisberger had already won him a couple of Super Bowls during his prime in the 2000s. Similarly, Mickey Loomis, the general manager of the Saints, won one in the 2009 season with Drew Brees under center.

But unlike those general managers, Spielman has never gotten the starting quarterback position right. Spielman was part of the brain trust that drafted Christian Ponder in 2011 and then was officially promoted to the general managing job in 2012. Ponder struggled as a starter, lost the job in 2013, and was replaced with another Spielman first-rounder in 2014: Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater had a brighter look for his future as a starter: In 2014, he qualified for the All-Rookie team and won the Pepsi Rookie of the Year award, and the next year he made the Pro Bowl and played in the wild-card round. But Bridgewater tore his ACL in 2016, which led to the Sam Bradford trade, the declining of Bridgewater’s fifth-year option, the signing of Case Keenum, and the eventual big contract for Kirk Cousins in 2018. Cousins’s four consecutive seasons of starting for the Vikings marks the longest stretch of a quarterback holding down the starting job during Spielman’s tenure.

Now, there’s another side to this coin. Spielman’s inability to deliver playoff success or secure the starting quarterback position marks two of the biggest failures on a general manager’s score card, but it’s also mighty impressive that he’s kept the ship afloat for all this time. And that’s a testament, not just to Spielman’s work, but to the coach that Spielman hired in 2014: Mike Zimmer.

Zimmer is a good coach. All of the same concerns that applied to Spielman’s tenure apply to Zimmer’s, just with a couple of years trimmed off. The Vikings are .400 in the playoffs under Zimmer and .560 in the regular season. The continued, yearly success—as well as the playoff runs —have largely been on the back of Zimmer’s defense. The Vikings’ defense was top 10 in defensive DVOA for four consecutive seasons from 2016 to 2019, including a top overall ranking in 2017, when they made it to the conference championship game. Even in the past two seasons, Zimmer’s defense has held league-average rankings despite injuries to star players like Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr.

Zimmer was billed as a defensive savant when the Vikings hired him, and they got what they paid for—not just then, but up to this day. And the pairing between Zimmer and Spielman, in that regard, has been a massive success. Spielman drafted defensive All-Pros for Zimmer outside of the first round (Hunter and Eric Kendricks), as well as solid contributors in later rounds (Shamar Stephen, Stephen Weatherly, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Kris Boyd, Jayron Kearse, and Camryn Bynum).

For as warm and fuzzy as that deep dive into the Vikings’ nucleus may make us feel, it doesn’t change that they haven’t won enough of the games that matter, and that’s because they haven’t solved the position that matters most: quarterback. If the Vikings’ nucleus was only two bodies big, Minnesota would be one of the league’s best teams—but it’s three, and the third figure in that three-body problem is Cousins.

In their desperation to get quarterback right—in their desperation just to get the offense right altogether—the Vikings fell into the honey trap of good enough and the lie that if everything else around their middle-tier quarterback is right, they can win a championship. It’s a narrow road to walk, and like Tobias Funke and Lindsay Bluth, it’s never worked for anyone else–but it might work for you!

So the Vikings signed Cousins in 2018 to the first fully guaranteed contract in league history: three years, $84 million. They tried to pair him with a quarterback developer in offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. That relationship never settled, so the Vikings fired DeFilippo to promote Kevin Stefanski and run the same offense that elevated Cousins back when he was a fourth-round rookie contract player in Washington: the Shanahan system.

We know the perils of the Shanahan offense now. It elevates poor quarterbacks to a palatable level, covering them with that veneer of effectiveness just bright enough to fool us into trusting them. It’s a shine that eventually wore off of Jared Goff in Los Angeles, that wore off of Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco, and that is wearing off of Cousins in Minnesota with every passing day. No Dalvin Cook, no Adam Thielen, and suddenly your $30 million quarterback can’t beat the winless Detroit Lions.

That sobering reality of Cousins has always been there, plain as the nose on our faces, but still blurred into the background by strong PFF grades and advanced analytics. CBS gestured to it during the broadcast of the Lions game, when Cousins and the Vikings entered the fourth quarter: When trailing entering the final frame, Cousins is now 2-26-1 after the loss to Detroit. When leading, he’s 27-1. Cousins isn’t a quarterback who elevates; he is a quarterback who maintains.

But he isn’t paid like one. Cousins’s cap hit will jump from $31 million this season to $45 million in 2022. That’s a result of the 2020 restructure that opened cap space for a Vikings team still endeavoring to make everything around Cousins so picture-perfect that they could finally claw their way to a couple of playoff wins. That $45 million is fully guaranteed now, $10 million is in signing bonuses, and another $35 million in base salary.

That money doesn’t go away easily. The quickest way to cut down on the cost is by restructuring the deal, but that requires extending it beyond 2022 and pushing money into those future years, thereby committing the Vikings’ to Cousins for a few more seasons. Given what they know about their quarterback, that feels like a dangerous proposition. While Cousins has restructured with the Vikings before, that move put a ton of extra money in his pocket in exchange for the Vikings’ relief. There’s little chance the Vikings give Cousins more money beyond this season.

So a trade, then? That one-year, $35 million contract that the acquiring team would take on puts the Vikings in a difficult spot. It’s hard to imagine which NFL team would have that much space under the cap to take on a quarterback of Cousins’s caliber. Accordingly, the Vikings are likely in a position where they’d have to take on money to make Cousins more movable. And since they don’t have a succession plan in place beyond third-round rookie Kellen Mond, such a move would essentially make 2022 a wash of a season.

Perhaps that’s appropriate for Minnesota. They replace the entire nucleus: out with Zimmer, out with Spielman, and out with Cousins. That move may feel drastic for a team that has been generally successful during the tenures of all three, but that’s what this situation just might demand. To move on from just Cousins is to give Spielman yet another opportunity to prove he can get quarterback right. To move on from just Zimmer opens up the head coaching job for an offensive mind from the Shanahan tree who can squeeze as much potential out of Cousins as they can and likely continue to field a generally unreliable offense. To move on from Spielman leaves an angry Zimmer and an angry Cousins still together on the sidelines, staring one another down.

All three are tough to move on from: Spielman and Zimmer for the general quality of their work and Cousins for the nature of his contract. But tougher still is pounding the dreaded treadmill of average for yet another season and staying just good enough to keep hopes alive, but just bad enough to dash those hopes come playoff time and keep the team out of a premier pick in the upcoming draft. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and for everything that has gone right with Minnesota’s individual hires, moves, and strategies, they’ve had a long time to win the big games, and they simply haven’t. The Vikings have been trying to step forward for so long that it seems the only thing left is to step backward. To let Zimmer coordinate a really good defense for another contender in 2022; to let Spielman join another front office and find quality late-round picks for them instead. If all that’s left for the Vikings is to throw their hands up in exasperation, wipe the slate clean, and try it all from square one, it’s better to get on with it now.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the number of Super Bowl wins for the Seahawks.