Four quarterbacks played in two NFL playoff games Sunday: Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. Each displayed the talents of an escape artist.
They zigged and zagged and darted and pirouetted until they found the right moment to pull a rabbit out of a hat. They made plays quarterbacks have no business making. Only they made them look routine.
It was like putting Dave Chappelle on stage at improv night and shouting “broccoli” and then he makes you laugh until you cry with a riff about broccoli.
Watching those maestros turn busted plays into their own personal highlight films reinforced what should be priority No. 1 for the Vikings this offseason.
Fix the offensive line. Because Kirk Cousins can’t make broccoli funny.
This is not another rebuke of Cousins’ aptitude. It’s become abundantly clear by now that he has undeniable strengths and undeniable weaknesses, and making something out of nothing will never be his calling card.
Give him adequate protection and Cousins can torch defenses. Put him under duress and what happened Saturday in the Bay Area often is the result. Houdini, he’s not.
A 27-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the division round underscored the stark reality of how the Vikings are constructed, Mike Zimmer’s nonnegotiable style of play, shortcomings in personnel and a looming decision on Dalvin Cook’s future. All of it tied to the O-line.
The 49ers overpowered the Vikings in the trenches with such force that they nullified their running and passing game. Literally nothing worked because they slammed into an immovable wall. This wasn’t an outlier performance either. It’s happened before, including a pivotal Monday night loss to Green Bay in Week 16.
A top-dollar contract extension for Cook could happen as soon as this offseason. Cook is entering the final season of his rookie contract. He is a special talent and likely will want a big payday because of the physical nature and injury risk associated with his position.
Zimmer’s mandated offensive approach hinges on Cook’s brilliance, but Cook is not superhuman. Handing him a massive contract without also upgrading the offensive line in a meaningful way would be a waste of money. Some argue that paying big money to any running back is foolish, but the Vikings offense without Cook is less formidable and would mean the organization is committed to a 180-degree philosophical shift.
Problem is, in the biggest game of the season, Cook had zero impact because he kept getting hit and tackled at the line. The 49ers geared their game plan to stop him, and it worked. The Vikings had no Plan B because Cousins gets rattled by pressure and lacks mobility when forced to flee.
In his news conference Monday, Zimmer hinted strongly that change is coming. The roster has too many players on the wrong side of age 30 with big contracts. A youth movement seems inevitable.
The offensive line needs to be overhauled with a minimum of two new starters, perhaps three. Two guards and a left tackle to replace Riley Reiff.
The secondary likely will undergo significant change as well, but GM Rick Spielman should inform Zimmer that the first-round draft pick this spring will be an offensive lineman, not cornerback.
Zimmer noted that a few young linemen basically “redshirted” this season, so perhaps viable upgrades exist internally. Jettisoning older players should provide financial flexibility to devote to the position.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Vikings line among the NFL’s worst in pass blocking in four of the past five seasons. Eyeball test and metrics reach the same conclusion.
This isn’t about cleaning up an utter mess. The Vikings won a playoff game and finished eighth in the NFL in scoring. The focus, as Zimmer said Monday, is figuring out how to “get over this hump” of being good but not championship-caliber.
Building a strong offensive line is the first step. Cousins is what he is at this point. He’s not going to reinvent himself.
The organization has some big-ticket decisions on deck. This will be an eventful offseason in reconstructing the roster. Their playoff flameout could not have provided them a clearer road map.