Matthew Coller is a published author and football writer who covers the Vikings. He also writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, in addition to hosting a livestream on the Bring Me The News YouTube and Facebook pages every Tuesday. You can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
When the Minnesota Vikings take the field on Saturday against the Denver Broncos in their preseason opener, they’ll run out a very talented team.
Nine of the 22 starters are Pro Bowlers. Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith are All-Pros. So is Patrick Peterson, who will someday be in the Hall of Fame. Several more players like Brian O’Neill, Irv Smith Jr. and Dalvin Tomlinson have a legit shot at making a Pro Bowl soon.
Yet the first two weeks of Vikings training camp have given off the impression that this group is going to have a tough time coming together enough to fulfill its potential.
That feeling comes from the tension surrounding Kirk Cousins’s absence from practice due to being in close contact with Kellen Mond, who tested positive for COVID, and the response from head coach Mike Zimmer, who openly showed his frustration with his QB’s refusal to take the vaccination.
The Vikings’ vax drama spotlighted a general concern related to Cousins since very early in his tenure in Minnesota. Whether it was arguing with Adam Thielen on the sidelines in 2018 or struggling to get the Vikings over the hump in primetime games or starting the season 1-5 last year or having his top receiver say that another QB had “more swagger,” there’s always been something intangible missing.
With acknowledgement that intangibles can be overstated in the general analysis of sports, we can confidently say there is a psychological seeing-is-believing part to these things that go beyond arm strength, accuracy, QB rating and so forth. The way a franchise bonds around its leader is valuable. We’ve seen the impact of not having it.
While there’s no PFF grade to show us what it means to team synergy to have a coach and organization frustrated with its quarterback for a bizarre press conference in which the QB broke down the size of the meeting room that caused his close contact, you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone that the impact is zero.
The feeling of disarray and discombobulation at Vikings camp this year combined with Teddy Bridgewater practicing at TCO Performance Center as a member of the Broncos has put on display how differently things felt when Teddy was at the helm. He wasn’t statistically marvelous when the Vikings won the division in 2015 but he found ways to convince everyone that he could take them where they wanted to go.
“He’s always been a real steady kid that doesn’t get flustered,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Bridgewater. “He understands situational football really well. I think he does a really good job of getting the ball out when he needs to; when he sees the pressure, he’s got a quick release. And he’s probably moving in the pocket even better now, I think.”
Bridgewater seemed to have the ability to make everyone confident in their own ability. Numerous players spoke last year prior to the Vikings’ matchup with Carolina about what he’d meant to their careers.
“Teddy, number one, he's just a great guy and a great leader,” co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said. “He's a winner. Before his knee was hurt I thought he was going to have a great year, so for him to come back and do as well as he has since then I'm just really happy for him.”
Now it’s possible part of the Teddy leadership mythology has to do with the fact that he’s overcome an injury that nearly cost him his career. Had he struggled to become the QB that people believed he was going to be, his personal magnetism wouldn’t have been lauded nearly as much.
But the way in which Teddy galvanized the group -- even in 2017 when he was still recovering from his knee injury and helped Case Keenum from the sidelines -- is what the Vikings need now more than any other point in Cousins’s tenure.
Zimmer isn’t likely to change his icy disposition toward his quarterback. We won’t see Cousins jumping on the head coach the way Bradford did in 2017 to celebrate a touchdown during training camp. Bro hugs between the coach and QB appear unlikely.
It rests on the shoulders of Cousins to find a way to bring the group together around him. What if the path to galvanizing the team isn’t the same for Cousins as it was for Teddy?
We have seen one flicker of this effect during Cousins’s tenure. After Stefon Diggs skipped practice over frustrations with Zimmer’s offensive philosophy, Cousins bounced back from a miserable game against the Bears and destroyed his next four opponents after facing heavy scrutiny from the national media. He was ultimately named Player of the Month for October 2019. Cousins even rebounded from a miserable loss to the Packers to throw a game-winning touchdown against the Saints.
There’s no question that Bridgewater’s personality is special. Many players have talked about how he made them better. But if he went 5-11 the last time we saw him in Minnesota, he’d be Josh McCown.
If Cousins comes out of the gate strong to start the season, the miserable beginning to training camp will quickly be put in the rearview mirror. Even if he doesn’t give reflective commentary at the podium or create a “neighborhood” in the locker room or have a children’s book about him, the reality is that football players will rally around a QB who finds ways to win.
Over the last three years, they’ve beaten only three teams with winning records in the regular season, the second fewest in the NFL. The New York Jets have more.
Cousins will have to change that. If he can keep drives alive on third down, lead game-winning drives, outplay good defenses, put on a primetime show and avoid key interceptions and fumbles, he can exorcise the demons that have kept the team from going deep in the playoffs. If that happens, the redemption story will write itself and the rest of the team will follow.
So as much as some folks will always miss Teddy and as real as Teddy’s leadership was, the best way to overcome the troubled waters of early training camp is for Cousins to come out of the gate playing well and 2021.
If we see a 2019 or 2020-like start to the year, well, you’ll keep seeing those No. 5 jerseys in the stands for a while longer.