Coller: Altered 2020 season could leave many Vikings questions unanswered

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Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his daily writing at Purple Insider.

With only weeks to go before the start of NFL training camps, there are plenty of reasons to be nervous about the 2020 season.

Between cases surging in some states, MLS having to postpone games because of positive tests, the Ivy League shutting down fall sports, Ohio State shutting down voluntary workouts due to an outbreak, issues with testing in baseball, arguments over money already beginning between the league and players association and a report that the NFL will give players the option of sitting out the 2020 season, it’s getting harder to think that football season is going to play through the fall without a hitch.

And if the NFL can’t figure out a way to play a mostly normal 16-game season and playoffs, the Minnesota Vikings might end up having many unknowns still left up in the air.

Quick preface before we get into all the things that a canceled or adapted season would leave unanswered for the Minnesota Vikings: If the NFL can’t safely put players on the field this year because of COVID-19, they should hold off until they can. The health of everyone from team employees to coaches to star players to guys fighting for the 53rd roster spot is all equally important and it should be treated that way.

With that said: Things could get messy.

First, the likelihood of playing without fans in the stands could alter what we find out about the Vikings’ new-look defense and Mike Zimmer’s ability to take a group that will feature different starters from 2019 at nose tackle, defensive end and all three cornerback spots.

Since U.S. Bank Stadium opened, Zimmer’s defense has ranked No. 1 in sacks and picked off more passes than they allowed touchdowns while playing at home. On the road, they ranked 20th in sacks since 2016 and gave up 20 more touchdowns than picks.

Nobody knows for sure whether home-field advantage will disappear with stadiums that are either less than one-third full or empty but we can say that it won’t be the same as 65,000 people creating so much noise that quarterbacks and offensive lines can’t communicate to block Zimmer’s blitzes.

Speaking of which: What about Zimmer’s status? He is entering the final year of his contract and there have been no reports of a contract extension thus far this offseason.

If there’s a 16-game season with no fans around the league and the playing field is even, he can be evaluated fairly but what about any other circumstance? A shortened season. A shortened camp due to an outbreak. A season in which the Vikings or their opponents are without numerous players to positive COVID tests?

Film session: The many uses of tight end Irv Smith Jr. 

What level of calamity would be OK to still feel like Zimmer was given a fair shot? Or should the Wilfs sign him to a long-term extension now, knowing that it’s better to have a coach who has proven to be a winner than take the chance of making the wrong decision based on potentially odd-ball results?

Judging Zimmer’s defense and his overall coaching performance is just the tip of the iceberg of questions that will be harder to answer.

Without the benefit of rookie minicamp, OTAs or minicamp, will it be harder to judge the debut seasons of first-round picks Jeff Gladney and Justin Jefferson? How much more difficult could life be made for rookies if teams end up having COVID-related stoppages during camp or the NFL sides with the NFL Players Association and cancels the preseason?

How about players getting their first chance to play significant time after years as backups like defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo or cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Holton Hill? Will we know if Garrett Bradbury has truly taken a step forward or if Brian O’Neill is worthy of a monster contract?

Will they be able to determine whether veterans like Kyle Rudolph and Harrison Smith still have the same juice as in past years if the season is shortened?

Think about how crazy small-sample size results can be in the NFL. Through the first five games of 2019, Rudolph had six catches for 36 yards. In the next seven games he racked up 27 receptions and six touchdowns.

And there’s always the never-ending evaluation of quarterback Kirk Cousins, whose 137.1 rating last October would have made you think he was the second coming of Peyton Manning. Though the biggest problem with a funky 2020 season isn’t deciding whether Cousins is good at football, it would be losing a season in which his salary cap hit is by far the most manageable it has been since the Vikings signed him in 2018 at $21 million.

It would sting for the Vikings to not be able to have a normal year with Cousins at a favorable price. His cap hit goes up to $31 million in 2021 and, according to reports, there is a chance the salary cap goes down.

If your head is spinning, imagine what is going on within front offices around the NFL.

Oh, right, there’s also the Vikings’ front office, which is being graded on its ability to maintain a high level of competitiveness despite losing/cutting key players from the past five years of the Zimmer era. And like Zimmer, GM Rick Spielman is entering the final year of his contract (as far as we know).

Over the past few months the league has gone forward with its offseason as if everything was fine. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced draft picks from his basement and the league made its usual huge presentation of the schedule. They even announced the 2021 Pro Bowl location. The hope for football was that the country would flatten the curve and other sports would return before the NFL but that hasn’t been the case and they are entering uncharted territory at the same time as everyone else.

At this point, maybe worrying about whether the Vikings will have their future left tackle in Ezra Cleveland or not seems trivial but in Minnesota’s case there are players, coaches and executives’ futures that could be altered.

The best they can do -- and this really goes for all of us at this point -- is follow protocols and hope for the best. 

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