by Patrick P. Marek
My sainted Irish mother often exclaimed: “The Irish always rode off into battle … and they were always defeated.” I never knew the true meaning of that saying until I became a Minnesota Vikings fan. Every season begins with optimism and high hopes of attaining the ultimate prize, but deep down every fan has gnawing doubts caused by past disasters and stinging defeats.
This year the Vikings had a very successful pre-season. They navigated the four games relatively unscathed by injury, the offensive line seems to have improved from hopeless to adequate, and Dalvin Cook showed a flash of what a special running back he can become if he can avoid injury. The defense is deep, talented and experienced. Laquan Treadwell was cut and will never again inflict his stone hands and lethargic route running on the Vikings’ offense.
New offensive “adviser” Gary Kubiak has installed his outside zone blocking scheme to the Vikings’ offense and has instructed Kirk Cousins to take most of his snaps under center, and to frequently employ the play action passing game. That is very good news for Minnesota’s $30-million quarterback and the rest of the Vikings’ offense. Cousins was in shotgun formation 76 percent of the time last year, making him an easy target for defenses who were betting that a pass play was coming, and making things difficult for an already subpar offensive line. As a result, Cousins was hit more than any other signal caller in the NFL last season.
Cousins’ career passing rate is 19 points higher from under center than shotgun, and his sack rate and interception totals are also historically lower under center. According to Pro-Football Focus, Cousins has the second-highest passer rating in play-action passes since he became a starter in 2015. Minnesota’s top draft pick, center Garrett Bradbury, was rated the best zone-blocking lineman in the draft, and Dalvin Cook had spectacular results when he ran out of an outside zone-blocking scheme during his career at Florida State.
This should all add up to a bright future for the Vikings. They seem like a lock for a division title and long playoff run. How can they possibly shoot themselves in the foot this year? Yes, that’s the cue to talk about Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman’s total incompetence in the kicking game. In a league where most kickers and punters are plucked from the free-agent pool or waiver wire (Adam Vinatiari and Robbie Gould, for example), the Vikings have once again become the NFL laughing stock by squandering a fifth-round draft choice on a player who was cut before he ever saw the regular season.
The Kaare Vedvik experiment could be justified, if we hadn’t seen this movie before. The Vikings’ brain trust could have been forgiven for being intrigued by a hybrid punter/kicker with a rocket foot and stratospheric potential — if they hadn’t just thrown away a fifth-round pick and nearly ruined the career of young kicker Daniel Carlson last year. Carlson lasted two games before he was vanquished from Minnesota and went on the make 16 out of 17 field goal attempts with Oakland. Vedvik was put on waivers and quickly claimed by the Jets, perhaps in revenge for being spurned by Anthony Barr in free agency. Expect Vedvik to be have a Pro-Bowl season and eventually be a first-round induction to the Hall of Fame.
In 2012 Minnesota spent a sixth-round draft pick on Blair Walsh. Remember him? He had a horrible senior season for the University of Georgia, but special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said that he had spotted a flaw in Walsh’s technique and could “fix” him. Walsh had a great rookie season, and was rewarded with a four-year, $13-million contract extension in 2015. For those of you keeping score, that was the year that Walsh shanked a 27-yard field goal against the Seahawks that would have given Zimmer his first playoff victory.
Minnesota has become the elephant graveyard of kickers, which is not a good sign for former Denver and Cleveland punter Britton Colquitt. Colquitt recently replaced incumbent Minnesota punter Matt Wile even though he hasn’t punted statistically as well as Wile, because he is a better holder for field goals. For the record, this is the second season in a row where Minnesota has replaced their punter with less than a week to go before the regular season. At least Colquitt has memories of a Super Bowl win while he was punting with Denver to think about when times get tough.
So, is the kicker position going to be the Vikings’ Achilles heel, and keep them from the playoffs again this year? Nope. Here’s the reason: “The Mike Zimmer every-other-season success rule.” You can look it up. Zimmer’s Vikings can’t sustain either a two-season winning or losing streak. Since Minnesota went from epic Super Bowl expectations to a dumpster fire last year, that means that they will rebound with a 10-6 record and a wild-card berth in 2019. Just remember that you heard it here first … and stay purple my friends.