Well, we know the Vikings aren’t a good football team. The question now — already — is whether they’re a bad one. The data suggests the latter.
Minnesota is 0-2 for the first time since 2013 and has looked really bad doing it. Last week’s 43-34 loss to Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium was never close, and neither was Sunday’s 28-11 loss at Indianapolis.
The Vikings now have a week to prepare for unbeaten Tennessee, and in normal circumstances we’d be told this week not to believe our eyes, that the 120 minutes of Vikings football we’ve seen so far is, if not a mirage, deceiving. But these are not normal circumstances, and the Vikings have been so lousy out of the gate, players and coaches didn’t even pretend in the wake of Sunday’s loss.
They know what we just watched, and we know what bad teams look like; they’re uncompetitive, like the Vikings have been in two games. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s immediate assessment was as realistic as it was succinct.
“We’re going to have to get a lot better quickly,” he said.
Here is a man without delusions. The Packers and Chicago Bears are 2-0 overall and 1-0 in the NFC North, and if neither looked like world beaters on Sunday, they won. Forget winning the division, winning a game is all the challenge the Vikings can handle.
Zimmer has always been honest with the media about his teams’ performances, but he’s also never had a truly bad team since becoming the Vikings’ coach in 2014. This year is shaping up as a challenge to his temperament and coaching skill, although let’s not expect miracles.
You saw new guard Dru Samia, filling in for injured Pat Elflein, get absolutely blown up by Colts nose tackle Grover Stewart on Sunday. Elflein has to miss at least two more games.
You saw the offensive struggle to protect Kirk Cousins, and the defensive line struggle to pressure Phillip Rivers. You know by now the Vikings miss Stefon Diggs — on the field, if not in the locker room — and that Cousins seems to regress in proportion to his bank account’s progress.
This team has problems, and the coach knows it, acknowledging after Sunday’s game that he is coaching to hide personnel deficiencies. When asked how Colts rookie Jonathan Taylor was able to gash the defense for 75 first-half yards — he finished with 101 on 26 carries — Zimmer was frank.
“I was trying to help the corners out a little more than I usually do because I didn’t want the ball going over our head and not get beat by the big plays,” he said. “So, we’re playing a little bit more conservative with the coverages with a few less guys in the running game.”
This is the new reality. For the past several years, Zimmer’s defense has been the backbone of the Vikings’ success. He had 11 guys he trusted, knew the system and trusted one another. They played with skill and reckless abandon. The coach could ask them to do just about anything.
Now, he’s drawing up schemes in an attempt to hide the fact that his cornerbacks are overmatched. Zimmer is one of the NFL’s best defensive minds, but he’s not a wizard. Good cornerbacks don’t fall from the sky, and they don’t generally get promoted from the practice squad. This will be an issue all season long.
“For us,” safety Anthony Harris said, “it’s just going with what you’ve got. We believe in the challenge that we have.”
That’s as good a start as any for a defense that has surrendered a total of 71 points. And the offense?
“We’ve got to come to grips with the fact that this is the new normal,” tailback Dalvin Cook said. “We’ve got to kick it into a new gear.”
The Vikings are going to fight to be competitive in every game they play. The personnel is thin — the team “ran out of linebackers” when Anthony Barr and Troy Dye were hurt Sunday, Zimmer said — and/or inadequate. If the team has any fire, it’s quietly smoldering off camera. The body language reveals a team in disarray, whether it’s a receiver lamenting a dropped pass or a running back celebrating a garbage touchdown as if he were on the winning team.
The Vikings will win some games at some point, but it had better start next weekend. While we’re all being realistic, let’s agree this is not a team that will blossom under the pressure of being 0-3.