MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Zimmer’s bluntness was once considered an endearing trait to Minnesota Vikings fans. But the act officially became a parody of itself on Sunday afternoon when Zimmer snidely responded to a question about ignoring Justin Jefferson’s opportunity to set the team’s single-season receiving record.
“I don’t care about records, I care about wins,” Zimmer said.
A strange comment considering he cared about his own win-loss record enough to play all of his starters during the implication-less game at US Bank Stadium.
The Vikings ran the ball twice, including on third-and-15, during their second-to-last drive in the Week 18 victory over the Chicago Bears rather than trying to push the ball to Jefferson, who needed just 17 yards to pass Moss. On the final drive, they chose to run the clock out instead of taking one last shot his way.
The scattered crowd booed the Vikings as they lined up in the victory formation.
Making matters worse was the team updating how close Jefferson was getting with each catch to Moss’ mark on the video board. Everyone in the stadium was waiting for their team to do something cool regarding the coolest player. Instead the head coach mocked that notion in what is now, since he was fired Monday morning, his last press conference barb.
Jefferson, as he has done so many times this year, took the high road on the lack of opportunities to get the record.
“Being that close and not getting it, definitely tough but it is what it is,” Jefferson said.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins found Jefferson five times on seven targets for 105 yards, including a remarkable 45-yard touchdown catch in the end zone. Cousins made it clear that he was aware his star receiver was closing in on Moss.
“We talked all week really,” Cousins said. “I mentioned it at his locker earlier this week that I'm aware of it. I didn't want him to ever think that I'm not aware of it and that I want to help him as best I can. He understands as a professional that the win comes first and we've got to play the game. You're not going to go chasing it. But we were close.”
While the lasting image of Week 18 will forever be the crowd begging the Vikings to throw the ball in Jefferson’s direction, the second-year receiver coming 17 yards short of Moss was a cumulative full-season effort. In the same way that the Vikings’ losses to the Cowboys, Ravens and Lions were doomed in many other different ways during the game yet came down to the final play, Jefferson missing out on the receiving record happened over all 17 weeks.
When you look at the final NFL stats and see Jefferson ranking second in the league in targets behind Los Angeles’ Cooper Kupp, it wouldn’t seem as if the Vikings could have done much more for their unstoppable receiver but even Jefferson acknowledged there was more meat left on the bone.
“The lack of targets, I think we were past that a couple weeks ago,” he said. “Them just trying to feed me the ball more and give me more opportunities these last couple weeks.”
There was a stretch from October 3 to November 7 in which Jefferson only saw more than 10 targets just once and the Vikings lost three of those five games. Zimmer admitted after a 143-yard showing from Jefferson in Los Angeles that his star receiver was growing frustrated.
We have heard that story before from a certain receiver whose team just won their division for the second year in a row.
Throughout the year, the Vikings remained steadfast in their commitment to running the ball, even in situations where it’s been generally proven to be inefficient. For example, they ranked 10th in runs on second down and at least seven yards to go. The teams in front of them either have running quarterbacks like Buffalo and Philadelphia or used backup quarterbacks this year i.e. Houston, Chicago and New Orleans. The Colts and Browns with their run-first offenses were the only teams similar to the Vikings and they ranked No. 2 and 3 in Expected Points added on the ground. The Vikings entered Week 18 rated 28th in rushing EPA.
Jefferson’s efficiency, on the other hand, has been through the roof. Through the first 16 games of the year, he caught 64% of passes thrown his way and gained 9.4 yards per target. Cousins registered a 110.6 QB rating when targeting Jefferson and he graded as the third best receiver in the NFL. (Those numbers will go up when updated after the win over the Bears).
Still, he wasn’t used in some of the same ways that the other elite-of-the-elite receivers were. Jefferson only saw 60 targets on throws that traveled 10 yards or less. Kupp got 119 such targets. Davante Adams got 93 quick passes in his direction. Tyreek Hill saw 88 short throws.
So even with the disadvantage of getting fewer easy pitches and catches, Jefferson cleared Odell Beckham Jr.’s record for most yards for a receiver in his first two seasons.
“You'd be surprised how challenging it is to run it back and do it again,” Cousins said. “I said, 'The great ones don't really do anything different. But they do it again and again and again.’”
The 22-year-old superstar said he will head into the offseason with the goal of setting the record next year. In the meantime he will be looking for ways to better his game.
“There's so many things that I have to learn, have to experience, so this is only the start for me,” he said. “I'm only just reaching the top. A lot of these other guys, six years in, seven years in, and being at the top of the league, and it's my second, so, I got so many more things to overcome, so many more things to learn, achieve, and I'm just here to start.”
As the Vikings head into an offseason of numerous changes, including a new head coach and GM, Jefferson’s sophomore year gives reason to believe the Vikings can bounce back, even if he doesn’t yet own the team receiving record. Of course, that might take having a coach who gets his best player the ball rather than insulting his accomplishment after the game.