MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For a franchise that is no stranger to drama, the Minnesota Vikings have already dealt with their share of it with the regular season opener still more than a week away.
Forgive coach Mike Zimmer, then, if he's feeling as though he has spent much of the last month figuratively extinguishing fires.
“I think it's been eight years,” Zimmer said, flashing a smile that hinted of weariness and promising his memoir would one day be a must-read. "You know what? It’s like that at probably every place. Everybody has their trials and tribulations, I guess.”
No matter how much it might appear the Vikings have the market cornered on bad luck, they're indeed never alone in this high-stakes, low-stability league. The Vikings, though, have not exactly had a smooth training camp after a promising recharge this offseason for a strong rebound from a 7-9 finish in the 2020 schedule of virus disruptions and empty stadiums.
Popular offensive line coach Rick Dennison took an advisor role to remain with the organization, his refusal to be vaccinated for COVID-19 prohibiting him from in-person interaction with players.
The most prominent unvaccinated Vikings employee, quarterback Kirk Cousins, had to sit out five days of practice per NFL protocols after being deemed a close contact of backup Kellen Mond after the rookie tested positive.
Several other vital players also remained against getting the vaccine, putting them under a stricter set of protocols that make them more at risk to miss a game. Their stance also subjected them to the bewilderment and irritation of Zimmer, who lamented his team's low vaccination rate compared to the rest of the league.
First-round draft pick Christian Darrisaw, the left tackle the Vikings targeted to replace their steadiest blocker, salary cap casualty Riley Reiff, needed a second surgery on his midsection after struggling to fully heal from a groin injury he had in college at Virginia Tech.
The offense managed only four field goals in the first 10 quarters of exhibition games. Then up-and-coming tight end Irv Smith Jr. injured his knee, needing meniscus repair surgery that will likely sideline him for 2021.
“There will always be curveballs thrown at us, and you still have to find a way to deliver and produce, so you’re always looking to find that way," Cousins said. “If anything, you kind of expect change to happen so you’re not caught off guard when it does, but a big part of lasting in this league and having success consistently is finding a way to be resilient and still produce no matter what may change in your environment.”
Zimmer's contract was extended last summer through 2023, but the pressure is on the 65-year-old with only two postseason wins over his first seven years. General manager Rick Spielman, who was promoted to his post in 2012, is under the same scrutiny. Cousins, carrying a $31 million salary cap hit that's the second-highest in the league, has a 51-51-2 career regular season record as a starter.
The Vikings spent big in free agency on the suddenly vulnerable defense, bringing in defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and cornerback Patrick Peterson among others and bringing back cornerback Mackensie Alexander and defensive end Everson Griffen.
There's a last-chance vibe around the Vikings these days, four years removed from their appearance in the NFC championship game. Perhaps these late-summer bumps in the road will be irrelevant by winter, or maybe they're harbingers of more disappointment and major change.
“We added a lot of talent, a lot of smart guys. We’ve all mixed in pretty well,” said safety Harrison Smith, the longest-tenured player. "I’m excited about the group we have and what we can do.”
The Vikings have added Tomlinson, Michael Pierce and Sheldon Richardson to the interior of their defensive line, accomplished newcomers to cover two spots that linebacker Eric Kendricks playfully described as a trio of “meaty boys.” Stopping the run was a major problem in 2020.
Just as energizing has been the healthy return of defensive end Danielle Hunter, who missed last season with a neck injury but will be in a contract year as one of the league's premier pass rushers. Griffen was brought in for depth, with D.J. Wonnum emerging as the starter at the opposite spot.
The Vikings have a new kicker in Greg Joseph, part of a continued revamp of the special teams units that deteriorated into the league's worst last season. The kickoff and punt returner roles have needed a boost as badly as any, and rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette will get the first crack.
ON THE LINE
For five years and counting, the offensive line has been the team's biggest question mark. Darrisaw will be behind veteran Rashod Hill on the depth chart for now. The new starter is at right guard, with Oli Udoh replacing Dakota Dozier.
For all the issues that might have popped up for the Vikings this summer and all the problems that might still be unsolved, they still boast two of the NFL's best players in running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson. When Jefferson missed a couple of weeks of practice as a precaution with a minor shoulder injury, Cousins sure noticed.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Cousins said to Jefferson recently. “When you showed back up and kept making plays, it’s like, ‘This guy is pretty good.’"
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