On natural grass, against winning teams, head coach Mike Zimmer is 0-13-1. Kirk Cousins, since he’s been a Viking, is 0-10-1 when the Vikings trail in the fourth quarter.
The performances of coach and player are sobering. “We are all judged by one thing,” Vince Lombardi repeatedly said. “The result.” Results do not fib, equivocate or lie. The performances of Zimmer and Cousins are not predictive trends that suggest coach and player struggle against tough opponents. This is tattooed-on-their-foreheads reality.
On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs, minus six starters, played the Minnesota Vikings, who, after the first offensive series, were missing one starter. The game became Kansas City’s 15 best guys against Minnesota’s 21 best guys. The Chiefs entered the game with the third-worst rushing defense in the league. The Vikings came in with the league’s leading rusher in Dalvin Cook, who is backed up by the marvelous rookie Alexander Mattison, who runs with fury when given the ball. The two athletes give the Vikings a rushing tandem that is the talk of the league. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid, who probably is familiar with coaching philosophies of successful coaches past and present, schemed his defense to attack that particular strength of the Vikings.
Attacking an opponent’s strength was a Vince Lombardi tenant. He believed that if his teams successfully attacked the strength of their opponents, it would seed doubt in the minds of the people the Packers played. W.C. Heinz’s book Run to Daylight, in which Heinz spent a week with Lombardi as he prepared his team to battle the Western Conference-contending Detroit Lions in 1962, illuminates Lombardi’s philosophy. Green Bay’s first offensive play goes after the great Detroit middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, who was the heart of Lion’s defense. Fullback Jim Taylor barrels into the Detroit line. Schmidt is whacked by three Packers players in succession: Center Jim Ringo, then tight end Ron Kramer, then left tackle Norm Masters. The play picks up four yards. Schmidt ends up on his back. Message delivered.
Green Bay won the game 9-7.
Sunday in Kansas City, the Vikings went three-and-out on their first two series. Cousins erratically misfired on three passes in the first series, and in the second series, Kansas City held Minnesota to four yards on two runs and gave up five yards on a completed pass.
In Minnesota’s final two series in the game, when the result was fast approaching, the Vikings went three-and-out again. In those two series, the Vikings rushed twice for zero yards and Cousins went 1-for-4 for minus seven yards.
The Chief’s meanwhile, delivered their message, gaining enough yards in their final two series to kick field goals and win.
Which team exerted its will over the other on those four final possessions?
In between the beginning and end of the game, the Vikings gave up a 91-yard touchdown run; they missed an extra point, and shanked a punt that allowed Kansas City to start its final drive on the Minnesota 45. Sure, Minnesota did some good things: Cousins threw three touchdown passes, the defense earned five sacks and the Vikings created a turnover at the start of the second half.
But throughout the game the Vikings shied away from flexing their biggest muscles: Cook gained 71 yards and averaged 3.4 yards per carry, Mattison had six yards on three carries, and a receiver coming off the greatest three-game stretch in Vikings history was targeted four times. That’s right, four times. Stefon Diggs ended up with one catch for four yards. Unfathomable strategy. Cousins, the NFC’s best player in October, demonstrated his uneven, jittery approach by overthrowing eight receivers during the game.
Nothing changes until it does. Until Zimmer becomes better at preparing his teams to win on the road against strong opponents, and until Cousins raises himself in those games, the Vikings are going to continue to stare wistfully at one thing: The result.
Photo Credits: Mike Zimmer photo courtesy Chicago Tribune; Vince Lombardi photo courtesy Vernon J. Biever; Kirk Cousins photo courtesy Minnesota Star-Tribune.