The Minnesota Vikings can’t win for losing, apparently.
The team that had been through everything imaginable last season before the wheels fell off appeared to be turning the corner this season. When starting quarterback Sam Bradford was unable to go in the Week 2 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it rang a familiar reprise: “Here we go again.”
But the following week, there was a seeming rebirth. Backup Case Keenum, who struggled in the loss at Heinz Field, opened up the game against the Tampa Buccaneers with a vertical passing attack that lit a fire underneath the offense.
This was a team that averaged a meager 5.01 yards per play last season (only four teams averaged worse), in which a 5-0 start turned into an 8-8 disappointment. The awful eye injury suffered by head coach Mike Zimmer, which forced eight surgeries and caused him to miss time, only compounded the team’s suffering. When a few defensive backs went rogue in Week 16, in essence calling and playing their own coverages, it was a full-blown disaster.
But suddenly this season, Vikings fans allowed their imaginations to run a bit. They were watching Keenum throw dimes to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen downfield, and star-in-the-making rookie running back Dalvin Cook was dazzling with his open-field ability.
Throw in a menacing defense, and the Vikings sneakily looked to have a pretty darned good formula — and perhaps a playoff one.
Then came last Sunday. They were leading 7-6 over the rival Detroit Lions, another rejuvenated NFC North team, in a street fight of a game. It was early in the third quarter, and Cook was displaying a little of his magic on a 10-yard run that got the Vikings back in business after the Lions had kicked a field goal to cut into the Minnesota lead.
Then the Vikings’ season changed completely.
Cook took an awkward step at the end of the run, was hit by the Lions’ Tavon Wilson and then fumbled. The fumble was the afterthought, strangely enough. Cook grabbed his left knee in pain, and the Vikings’ greatest fears eventually were realized when it was determined that he had suffered a torn ACL.
His season was over.
“It’s obviously a terrible thing for him and for us,” Zimmer said. “We’ll move forward and go on from there.”
Compound that with the fact that Bradford remains in a holding pattern — a wait-and-see proposition — and the Vikings’ season once more hangs in the balance. Cook had given hope that the Vikings could stem the tide with whoever was playing quarterback, but that element is now gone.
“I think the biggest thing was Dalvin had unbelievable big-play ability in a lot of different ways,” Zimmer said. “We are going to have to continue to look for more ways to implement some big plays in the offense, probably.”
The Vikings face the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Monday night in Week 5. It will be the first NFL start for Bears rookie Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft. The Vikings’ defense battered Lions QB Matthew Stafford all day Sunday and limited Detroit to 4.3 yards per pass play. But overall, this defense has not intercepted an opponent’s pass in three of the four games.
Can the defense bail out the Vikings as their season hangs in the balance? Will Latavius Murray provide anything close to what Cook did? Can Bradford be counted on going forward? Once more, major questions loom for this talented but star-crossed team.
We don’t know Bradford’s status for the Bears game — it remains “day to day,” per Zimmer. But the Vikings do get a sliver of good news: Wide receiver Michael Floyd returns from suspension and could provide a small boost for the offense, even though Zimmer wasn’t sure how much immediate help Floyd could provide.
“We’ll see how practice goes this week, and we’ll continue to work forward with that,” Zimmer said. “At this point, we’re just trying to get better.”
Floyd was a surprise standout in training camp, despite getting in a bit of hot water after a reported house-arrest violation. He had been arrested for conviction on a DUI charge last December, which led to his arrest and release from the Arizona Cardinals. After being claimed by the New England Patriots late in the season, he was a scratch for the team’s final few postseason games and was allowed to walk after the league punished him with a four-game suspension.
Then Floyd was found to have had a blood-alcohol level of .055 in July, which violated the terms of his conviction. But the Vikings backed Floyd’s story that the blood test results were skewed by his overconsumption of — get this — kombucha tea, a fermented beverage, during a late-night movie-watching binge.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Floyd is now free and clear to play, but it’s hard to gauge what the impact will be for a player who had totaled only 38 receptions (on 80 targets) for 504 yards and five TDs in his past 16 NFL games.
“I’m just going to be aggressive,” Floyd said. “I’m an aggressive player, and I’m going to go out there and make plays. That’s just what I do. That’s what’s in me, and that’s never going to stop.”
The bigger issue might be the passing game in general, which has followed a disturbing hot-cold-hot-cold pattern in the four games to start the season. Diggs (17.8 yards per catch, four TD catches) and Thielen (24 catches on 32 targets) have been dangerous targets, but Thielen has fumbled twice, including a crucial giveaway Sunday at midfield as the Vikings were driving to try to tie the game in the final two minutes.
Additionally, tight end Kyle Rudolph has been strangely missing to date, and Cook before the injury had started to emerge as a major weapon in the underneath passing game.
Can Cook’s replacements come close to matching his impact? Jerick McKinnon is a solid complementary weapon, but he also fumbled Sunday and is averaging 3.7 yards per touch this season. Murray, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal after coming over from the Oakland Raiders in the offseason, looks to be coming back slowly from ankle surgery. His long run (on 14 carries) this season is 5 yards; he also has two catches for 8 yards.
October was where the Vikings’ season turned south last season, although the bad news has arrived a bit earlier this year. There’s always the possibility that Bradford can start to feel healthy on a weekly basis, and the Hail Mary hope exists that Teddy Bridgewater — who suffered a devastating knee injury 15 months ago — might be able to return to action at some point down the stretch.
But it’s hard not to think that a few terribly timed injuries once more could hold this team back from its peak potential.