SPORTS | This Feels Familiar

After The Minneapolis Miracle, the Vikings seemed to have destiny on their side going into an NFC Championship matchup against Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. There was a palpable feeling that a “home” Super Bowl seemed to be there for the taking. But on Sunday night, the Vikings’ demons emerged and added yet another scar to the franchises legacy and subtracted another year from the lives of the fans. The season may have felt different, but this feels all too familiar.

When I was a camp counselor we would lead youths in team building activities to challenge and grow them. After each activity, we would sit down and help them process what happened using three basic questions called “The What, the So What and the Now What?” Today we’ll do some processing of what happened on Sunday, what it means for the team and what’s next for my beloved Vikings.

WHAT?

By now you know that the Vikings historically great defense got their butts kicked for 60 minutes on Sunday. The stats are astounding compared to the rest of the 2017 season.

The Vikings were uncharacteristically bad across the defensive board, getting manhandled in the run game and getting continuously torched by Nick Foles and his receivers in the passing game. Everyone from Harrison Smith to Terrance Newman played poorly. Xavier Rhodes was frustrated enough to get into shoving matches late in the game when the score was already out of hand.

It seemed like the defensive scheme from Coach Zimmer was ineffective from the jump. The Eagles spread out the defense with wide sets and picked on the nickle back a bunch in the early going. As the game went on, they didn’t need to pick on any one specific player as the entire defense got shell shocked. Instead of dialing up his signature exotic blitzes in an attempt to rattle Foles, Zimmer elected to mostly let his front 4 work on getting pressure by themselves – which didn’t yield any results. Credit the Eagles O-line for their ability to keep Foles upright long enough to find his open men downfield. Foles looked like a pro-bowler out there. Of all the things that went wrong on Sunday, the implosion of the best defense in the league was the most shocking to witness.

Then again, the Vikings seem to make a habit of letting their statistical strength disappear in the biggest games. The 1998 offense couldn’t score enough in their NFC championship game and Gary Anderson’s 100% success rate also failed. In 2000, the offense was stellar again, but scored 0 against the Giants in their NFC Championship game. And in 2009, Brett Favre’s incredible regular season and Adrian Peterson’s unstoppable running got the team to the NFC Championship game before an INT and a fumble contributed to the shocking loss.

The 2017 offense wasn’t necessarily the strength of the team, but they were able to limit turnovers and use consistent WR play and solid running to capitalize on the defense’s high level of play. On their first drive, the Vikings looked like they were picking up right where they left off – with a nice drive and a TD to Rudolph. On their next drive however, everything changed.

Keenum’s pick six was so unexpected and rough that it threw the entire team into chaos. The Eagles scored the Blount TD on their next drive and suddenly it was 14-7 Eagles and they never looked back. Foles got aggressive, Keenum got tight and the position players all got nervous. And that’s when the Philly crowd started to become a real factor, whipping themselves into a frenzy and making things even more difficult for the Vikings.

As the game continued to get out of hand, the Vikings had no answers and no adjustments could be made to stop the bleeding. It was another Minneapolis Meltdown. The Eagles will play the Patriots in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

Gross.

SO WHAT?

So what does this all mean? For one thing, it means that the Vikings played their Super Bowl game a few weeks early when they beat the Saints in Minneapolis in miracle fashion. That game took something out of the Vikings and exhausted their supply of fight, it would seem. The coaching staff said they worked very hard to banish the euphoric memories of that game from their players’ minds to get them back to task on the Eagles. Still, I think the Vikings looked past the Eagles a bit by thinking that Nick Foles wasn’t going to beat them and they were headed to the Super Bowl. When Foles got off to a good start and the offense turned it over, no one was prepared for that. That’s on the coaches and also on the player leaders. When you get punched in the mouth, you’re supposed to shake it off and hit back harder. The Vikings just didn’t do that.

It means that Case Keenum is good, but he’s not great. In spite of an almost fairy tale season for Keenum, he showed that he’s not a franchise quarterback yet. Some of his throws were ill-advised and he should have been able to feel the pressure on the strip sack play. Of course some of the blame falls on the O-line for not being able to stop the pass rush of the Eagles. And injuries to the line were also a factor. But Keenum spent his capital against the Saints and went into some debt against the Eagles, raising questions about his future role with this team.

It means that the defense finally got solved a bit, probably by Drew Brees and Sean Payton. When the defense let the Saints back in the game in the Divisional Round, we should have known that something was afoot. We all attributed the comeback to Brees and his Hall of Fame talent, but the truth was there were chinks in the armor of the defense that the Saints found and exploited. The Eagles just watched the tapes and put their own spin on the blueprint. Zimmer will need to spend the next few months figuring out how that happened and how he can prevent it from ever happening again.

And it means that lots of changes are coming…

NOW WHAT?

The Vikings now set their sights a 2018 season that will look vastly different from 2017. For one thing, the offensive coordinator who used Case Keenum to get to the NFC Championship game, Pat Shurmur, is now the head coach of the New York Giants. His ability to pivot when Bradford went down before week 2 AND when Dalvin Cook when down in week 4 got all the teams interested in his acumen. So the Vikings are in the market for a new coordinator and are reportedly considering their long-time QB coach Kevin Stefanski along with outside candidates like Darrell Bevell (who coached here under Brad Childress).

Whoever the new coordinator is will also have to work with Coach Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman to decide who their QB will be in 2018. This is a big one. This year the Vikings seemed to have 3 QBs who could potentially start: Bradford, Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater. All 3 of these guys are now free agents. The Vikings need to decide if any of them are worth investing in and whether they should consider attempting to sign one of the bigger veteran names like Drew Brees, Nick Foles, Kirk Cousins or even inquiring about trading for Alex Smith (whose time in KC may be up). It’s a real conundrum and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. With a defense that was otherworldly for most of the year and young talent on offense, a good QB could be the thing that gets them to the Super Bowl.

My sense is that the Vikings will have conversations with Keenum about returning, but not at the salary hit that he probably thinks he’s earned. Bradford is likely gone – who wants to deal with his injury history at this point? I could also see them being open to bringing Teddy back as a backup with incentives if he’s pressed into the starting role at some point. The Bridgewater comeback story is just too warmhearted to throw away.

But maybe Zimmer and Spielman realize that the window for the Super Bowl isn’t going to be open very long before these defensive stars need to be payed big, big money. Maybe they let all 3 of these guys walk, make a play for Kirk Cousins, keep Kyle Sloter in the organization (the upside practice squad guy they paid good money for) and draft a QB. Those moves would signal an “all in” for next year whereas retaining 2/3 of this years QB room would tell us they believe small changes are all that are needed (which I’m not convinced of).

The rest of the open questions surround the two lines. The offensive line was much improved this year, but depth was clearly an issue. Many lineman were asked to play out of position to cover the loss of another starter and that had very diminishing returns. On the defensive side, Everson Griffin played hurt for the second half of the season and had trouble producing. On the other side, Danielle Hunter didn’t make his presence felt as much as he should have. The schemes and personnel should be evaluated afresh because they NEED to have more pressure than they were getting in these last two games. They got the opposing quarterbacks very well when they were at home and they did very poorly on the road.

Oh, and we need to get better at the nickle back position. Mackenzie Alexander is decent, but was targeted far too many times because he’s been a weak spot compared to Rhodes and Waynes. I’m assuming Terrance Newman will hang it up (along with Brian Robison), so there’s room to add some fresh legs with talent for underneath coverage. And even though Andrew Sendejo was one of the most improved players this year (per Zimmer himself), there will always be talk of finding a new safety to compliment Harrison Smith (who some call the best player in the NFL).

At its core, this team is still young. Unlike the 2009 squad which featured some “last ride” type players, this team is poised to keep winning for a few more years. In fact, this will probably be the off season that Spielman will need to offer some contract extensions to these guys to keep them in the fold for future Super Bowl shots. It’s definitely going to be an intriguing off season.

As Mike Zimmer said on the radio this week:

“We keep knockin’ on the door, at some point we’re gonna kick that son of a b*tch down.” – Coach Mike Zimmer

nfc-zimmer.jpg


Thanks for a great season, Vikes. I’m mad it ended the way it did, but I’m not giving up. We didn’t make it to the top of the mountain this year, but in the end every team is back at the bottom putting a new plan together. Even the team that wins it all is back at the bottom, they’re just the team that got to walk down under their own power. One of these years, we’re gonna kick that door down and the 2017 season’s failings (joined by the myriad of historical failings) will only make that success sweeter.

I like how Brian Robison put it into perspective:

Been trying to gather my thoughts and emotions to say what I need to say….. Well this has been one great ride this year. It still hurts very much so and it’s hard to talk about or even think about how close we were. Even though we weren’t able to accomplish our final goal there are so many good things that created memories for a lifetime this season. Number 1, I want to thank God for the opportunities, the people and the gift of eternal life that I have. Number 2, I want to thank my family, friends, and everyone else who has supported me so graciously. •••2a••• thank you to the fishing world for showing such amazing support throughout this season Number 3, I want to thank the @vikings organization for putting together such an amazing Team and the opportunity to be here for it. Thank you to my teammates for putting up with me and being an extension of my family! I’d go into “battle” with you anyway! Number 4, I want to thank the Viking fans for being in full force this year and showing us so much support. I’m sorry we didn’t get it done for y’all this year as you deserve to be called champions. Last and definitely not least, I want to thank my wife and kids. You make it easy to go fight everyday for me to go out and strive for more. Y’all are my why and my everything for being who I am and doing what I do. I love y’all No one knows what the future holds, but one thing I know is I’ll cherish this season not only for the wins and losses, but for the men and women I shared it with. #nfl #minnesota #vikings #football #family #reelemin

A post shared by Brian Robison (@brianrobison96) on

SKOL

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