Mike Zimmer had a nightmare in August that came true on New Year’s Eve.
When Kirk Cousins missed five days of practice in training camp due to a COVID close contact, the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach stood in front of the media and expressed his fears that someday it might be worse than a few days of workouts.
"I probably won’t be happy that we could have prevented this, but these guys, some of them just won’t do it," Zimmer said on August 2 when asked how he would feel if players missed key games due to their vaccination status.
When the Vikings play the key game of all key games on Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers, Cousins won’t be under center because of a positive COVID test on Friday. The Vikings currently have a 9% chance of making the playoffs per FiveThirtyEight but a victory over the Packers would shoot that number up to 50%.
The road to making Week 18 matter just got a lot tougher though. Veteran backup Sean Mannion, who came off the COVID list on Friday, will get the start. Mannion has started two games and gone 0-2 with a 57.5 quarterback rating in his career. His foe, Aaron Rodgers, is the favorite to win his second NFL MVP award in a row.
"Sean is extremely bright," Zimmer said. "He studies like crazy. He's a great competitor. He's put in his time, he's earned his opportunity and I think he'll do great."
“I think they’ll rally behind Sean,” Zimmer added.
Vikings fans might prefer to see rookie Kellen Mond but the 2021 third-round pick hasn’t been able to usurp Mannion as the backup quarterback all year. The only game that the former Texas A&M standout has been active was last week when Mannion was on the COVID list.
The choice of starter, however, will be secondary in the national spotlight. The headlining topic for Sunday Night Football for Al and Cris will be whether Cousins’ last game will have been against the Los Angeles Rams last week.
With Cousins’ contract entering its final season in 2022, the Vikings face a choice between signing him to a contract extension or trading him. The last impression that Vikings ownership may end up having of Cousins will be his unavailability. It is possible that he could play Week 18 with new protocols allowing unvaccinated players to come off the COVID list sooner, but the Vikings are essentially eliminated from the postseason if they lose to the Packers.
The game in Green Bay represented an opportunity for Cousins to rise to the occasion on primetime against the Vikings’ biggest rival, whom he beat earlier this year. Cousins will, instead, be forced to watch from home.
"I hate to see that happen to Kirk but he's done a lot of great things for us,” Zimmer said on Friday.
It’s impossible to blame anyone for testing COVID positive this winter — many sports have been delayed or cancelled in recent weeks and many vaccinated players have had positive tests in recent days — but the NFL’s rules between vaccinated and unvaccinated players have been different from the start. Unvaccinated players are still required to test daily, whereas vaccinated players aren’t required to test every day, rather they are asked to test if they have symptoms.
"We knew the way it was going with Omicron [variant], it's way different than it was at the beginning of the season,” Zimmer said. “I was more concerned about the players' health than losing football games [when making comments during training camp]... I didn't want their families to get sick."
There’s a difficult line between criticizing a personal decision regarding their health and pointing out that the decision, which goes against the advice of the NFL and NFLPA, resulted in a far higher chance of the player missing games. Zimmer’s public scrutiny of his own players were likely a window into how the organization felt about its QB’s decision from the outset. They knew the percentages were simply higher that he would end up on the list if unvaccinated. And he isn’t the only one. Other players who followed unvaccinated protocols like Dalvin Cook, Dalvin Tomlinson and Harrison Smith missed games because of COVID as well.
Cousins’ absence this week will act as another reminder of the gulf between Zimmer and Cousins that has existed throughout the quarterback's tenure in Minnesota. When Cousins returned from the COVID list in August, he bit back on some of Zimmer’s criticisms and vowed to do everything he could to avoid the virus. He also made it clear he wouldn’t be changing his mind. The veteran QB’s quotes about surrounding himself in plexiglass and him saying, “it is what it is,” in regards to Zimmer bringing in an expert to answer questions about the vaccine will be the lasting echoes of the coach and QB’s disconnect.
There is another part of the discussion that is relevant: The Vikings had many opportunities this year to make Cousins’ COVID absence matter much less. A fumble in Cincinnati, a missed kick in Arizona, final drives by Cooper Rush and Jared Goff, and an offensive disappearing act against the Rams last week.
With the bottom of the NFC struggling to produce above .500 teams, the door was wide open for the Vikings to be sitting with nine or 10 wins at the moment rather than hoping they could stay in the hunt with an upset in Green Bay.
Aaron Rodgers is unvaccinated and missed a game earlier this year as well. His team is still competing for the No. 1 spot because they have been better than the Vikings in games with their starting quarterback.
So if the Vikings can’t find a way to beat the Packers on Sunday and their season ends for all intents and purposes, it will have been largely a group effort.
Still, the timing couldn’t have been any worse for Cousins and the Vikings. If they don’t win on Sunday and Cousins’ final days in Minnesota are spent watching from afar, it will be an unfortunate end to a signing that once offered the promise of being at the top of the NFC North year after year rather than missing the playoffs in three of four seasons.