Murphy: The Vikings' season in a single snapshot
Mike Zimmer looking exasperated was the defining image of a disappointing season
By Brian Murphy
You would have thought FOX Sports was commissioned to distill the 2021 Vikings into a 90-second kaleidoscope of failure and resignation midway through the third quarter Sunday afternoon at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Minnesota only trailed the Rams 13-10 despite Los Angeles quarterback Matthew Stafford dumping interceptions from his Christmas stocking like an impatient toddler demanding access to the gold under the tree.
Playoff destiny and the fates of alpha males throughout TCO Performance Center hung in the balance. The Vikings had an allegedly elite but obviously vulnerable NFC opponent practically begging to be punished for its carelessness and run out of town.
Cue the conductors in the production truck.
On third and 4 at the Minnesota 18-yard line, right tackle Brian O’Neill was flagged for a false start. A camera zoomed in on coach Mike Zimmer on the Vikings sideline. Hands planted on his knees, eyes staring ruefully at the turf, no doubt lamenting the self-inflicted ruination of another manageable down and distance and the impossible task at hand.
Kirk Cousins’ valiant scramble inevitably fell a yard short of a first down. Brandon Powell promptly returned the ensuing punt 61 yards untouched for a somersault touchdown that extended the Rams’ lead to 10 points and essentially delivered last rites on a Vikings season that has been on life support for weeks.
The first-place Green Bay Packers are poised to scoop the remaining dirt on Minnesota next week at frozen Lambeau Field. If empowered and annoyed wide receiver Justin Jefferson doesn’t beat them to the shovel.
The Vikings have dragged themselves and their strung-out fans over 15 games of peaks and valleys and still cannot boast a winning record. And winning out against their archrivals and the sorry Chicago Bears is exactly what they must do to secure that elusive berth as an expansion postseason team.
And that still might not be enough. Because the Vikings relinquished control of their fate in predictable fashion.
An unimaginative offense failing to capitalize on opportunistic red-zone possessions. Treating momentum like Kryptonite. Wilting on third down. Playing matador in run defense. Waiting for the other guy to seize the moment.
Stafford must have thought he was back at Ford Field, juggling swords and tossing three interceptions like he was a Lion again, including a pair to linebacker Anthony Barr that gave Minnesota the ball within 15 yards of the goal line.
The Vikings converted that into 10 hollow points that felt like asking your friend to homecoming. What is more, a woeful 2-for-12 performance on third down shows a team that simply cannot get of its own way. Eight of Minnesota’s first nine possessions failed to gain 15 yards.
The Wilfs should have plenty of coin to scrape together a hefty ransom to help find the explosive downfield passing game that produced impressive victories over the Chargers and Packers and two-plus raucous quarters against Pittsburgh before it vanished.
Jefferson survived his mano-a-mano showdown with Rams shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey with eight receptions for 116 yards. But he was largely ignored when the Vikings needed him most.
Their red-zone offense is predictable as the sun rising in the east. Throw short. Run for a loss. Throw behind the first-down marker or incomplete on third down. Settle for a field goal.
Jefferson has taken notice. And the second-year superstar took off the white gloves in the postgame interview room for some much-needed honesty in a culture conditioned for banalities.
“I think we should, you know, be more aggressive, when we get down there,” said Jefferson, slapping a “kick me” sign on offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak’s back.
“As soon as we get down there. But I’m not the one calling the plays. I’m just here to do my job and do what was told to me. But we can’t get down to the red zone that many times and come out with three points.”
Jefferson went on to roast his teammates for a lack of urgency in a must-win home game, when failing to make the playoffs could and should cost Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman their jobs.
“Don’t come out with a lack of energy,” he said. “Just know what’s at stake.”
At this belabored point, Jefferson is just screaming into the storm. He’ll be here long after Zimmer and Spielman are pink-slipped. Long enough to welcome a new quarterback into the locker room after Cousins is traded or cashes his last unfulfilling check here.
The Vikings have no clothes. They were exposed by an 0-2 start. It was obvious coming out of the bye in an embarrassing loss to Dallas and that nobody from nowhere quarterback Cooper Rush.
A remorseless tease whose reputation as was sown in the Motown Meltdown, reinforced during a no-show win at Chicago and validated against the charitable yet Super Bowl-contending Rams.
If you can’t see it, you’re not looking close enough.
Rewind the telecast and let FOX show you.