For the Vikings, the dysfunction that is threatening to derail this season, like any good tragedy, played out in three acts this week.
It started with candid comments from Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen immediately following a wretched, 16-6 loss to the Bears in Chicago.
“You’re not always going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL,” Thielen said. “You have to be able to make the plays and have to be able to hit deep balls.”
Though he claims he wasn’t criticizing anyone in particular, his soliloquy spread like wildfire on social media, perhaps because it was rooted in so much truth.
Maybe that’s why quarterback Kirk Cousins tried to put out the fire by apologizing to Thielen on his weekly radio show “Under Center with Kirk Cousins” that airs on KFAN.
“I really want to apologize to him because there’s too many opportunities where we could have hit him,” Cousins said. “I’ve watched the film. And the reality is there were opportunities for him.”
It was a dorky move at best, disingenuous at worst, and only seemed to fan the flames.
Then, of course, everything hit a boiling point when the Vikings’ other ace receiver, Stefon Diggs, skipped practice, only to return a day later and claim he was sick with a cold. He even sniffled a few times to hammer home the point.
“I can’t sit up here and act like everything is OK because obviously it’s not,” he said, refusing to deny he wants a trade. “I can say at this point I’m just trying to work through it.”
His six-minute press conference was loaded with passive aggressiveness, which at the very least, was quintessentially Minnesotan of him.
Perhaps it’s time to sound the alarms. After all, the Vikings have showed a propensity to cave in on themselves in the past.
All the issues for the Vikings this season can be traced back to one thing in particular: an offensive identity that coach Mike Zimmer has worked hard to establish.
Zimmer has been hellbent on deploying a run-heavy scheme in a pass-happy league, and it might be coming back to bite him.
Although it was effective in two of the Vikings’ first four games, thanks in large part to running back Dalvin Cook establishing himself as a rising star, as the Vikings (2-2) head into a must-win road game against the New York Giants (2-2), you can’t help but wonder if this type of offense is sustainable.
If it feels like it was only a couple of weeks ago that Cook was singing the praises of everyone with the team, it’s because it was.
“It’s been great,” the running back said a few days before being held to 35 yards against the Bears. “We want to run the football and play great defense and get our guys the ball in space and let them make plays. It’s been working.”
To that point, it was sweet vindication for Zimmer, who ran former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo out of town last season, largely because of his pass-happy tendencies.
“I want to be able to run the ball,” Zimmer said. “I don’t want to run the ball 40 times and throw it 10 times. I want to have balance.”
A look at the numbers, however, shows the Vikings have been far from balanced. They have called passing plays on 47.35 percent of snaps, trailing only the San Francisco 49ers in that category. They are the only two teams in the league that are running more than passing, and the Vikings rank dead last in the NFL with an average of 24.8 pass attempts per game.
“That’s the kind of offense Coach Zimmer wants to have,” said tight end Kyle Rudolph. “That’s the kind of mentality that we’ve had success with in the past. We run the football and play good defense and change field position on special teams and win games down the stretch.”
That doesn’t always work, though, as the Vikings proved last weekend, struggling mightily on the ground against the Bears with no counter through the air.
Even when the Vikings tried to throw late in the game, Cousins was content to check down rather than throw downfield, on one occasion leaving Diggs exasperated, hands up in wonderment. He caught all seven of the passes thrown his way and finished with 108 yards receiving.
Those struggles prompted Thielen to voice his frustration with the offense as a whole, and a few days later Diggs voiced his frustration with his role in that offense.
It seems to be starting to take a toll on the locker room.
“It ultimately comes down to winning,” CBS Sports analyst Trent Green said. “It’s much easier to deal with not getting the ball as much and stuff like that when the team is winning. If that’s not happening, then the frustration really shows itself.”
It’s not necessarily that the Vikings can’t win playing a style that was way more prominent in the 1980s. It just significantly cuts down on the margin for error.
“I’d say on a global scale, the odds are less likely than more likely that a team can consistently grind games out because eventually that team is going to run into an opponent that’s going to score a lot of points,” ESPN analyst Field Yates said. “Not saying the Vikings can’t zig when others zag, or zag when others zig. It’s just going to be hard for them to sustain kind of that Big Ten-style of play long term.”
After throwing just 10 passes in a dominant season-opening win over the Atlanta Falcons, Cousins hypothesized about how the Vikings “might have to win a game 52-51” at some point this season.
That scenario doesn’t seem even remotely possible after watching the Vikings this season, and it feels like some of the key players in the offense recognize that.
Whether it continues to pull the Vikings apart might come down to whether they can get back on track.
That’s what Zimmer is banking on, reminding everyone earlier this week that “this team won’t be judged in September.”
No. But it might fall apart in October.