The news of Kirk Cousins’ positive COVID test stole the headlines Friday morning, but it led to a secondary news item that also left Vikings fans feeling sour.
Instead of coyly pleading the fifth on his quarterback decision for Sunday night at Green Bay, head coach Mike Zimmer definitively declared Sean Mannion the starter ahead of rookie Kellen Mond. This just a couple hours after Mannion returned to the roster from his own bout with COVID-19.
With Cousins out, the Vikings’ odds of winning decreased dramatically, regardless of their quarterback. But social media was ablaze with fans’ frustrations that their third-round pick was getting overlooked for a 29-year-old with zero career touchdown passes.
Asked if there was consideration to start Mond, Zimmer said no.
“There really wasn’t,” he said. “We knew that Sean was coming back, and Sean is extremely bright, he studies like crazy, he’s a great competitor. He’s put in his time, he’s earned this opportunity, and I think he’ll do great.
“Sean knows the gameplan cold. Like I said, he’s an extremely brilliant person. He puts in the work every single week like he’s going to be the starter. And he is this week.”
Quite the endorsement, but will Zimmer be eating his words at 10:30 p.m. Sunday night?
Getting quality play from backup quarterbacks is hard enough without throwing them into sub-zero temps against the NFC’s top team. And this is Mannion’s first-ever meaningful football game — he’s only played in the preseason and two meaningless regular season games. It could also be Zimmer’s last meaningful football game as Vikings coach if things go the way Las Vegas expects. The line moved virtually a full touchdown after the Cousins news broke, placing the Vikings as 13.5-point underdogs.
Mannion, on the surface, fits the bill of a game-manager that will adequately execute a conservative cold-weather plan after being attached to Cousins’ hip for the last three seasons. Mond is the wild card who could either combust in a treacherous locale for any quarterback’s first start… or freelance his way into the hearts of Vikings fans with some athletic play-making like Joe Webb once did on a Tuesday night in Philadelphia (and then failed to do two years later in a playoff game at Lambeau Field).
The Vikings took the evidence they had and opted for the safe choice. Mond’s readiness will remain a mystery, but fans are still eager to see the 66th overall pick get dusted off.
For what it’s worth, Mond did little in the preseason against backups to suggest he’s ready to take on starters. His preseason line ended at 28 of 51 with 6.1 yards per attempt, no touchdowns and an interception. His 13 carries for 73 yards, however, demonstrated the mobility that could stress a Packers defense, which didn’t plan on having to chase around Minnesota’s quarterback.
But the Vikings have been tepid on Mond all season, ever since the unvaccinated quarterback’s own positive COVID test wiped out the Vikings’ QB room for several days of training camp. Mannion was brought in specifically because Mond wasn’t deemed ready to be the QB2, and as recently as Monday, Zimmer was hesitant to heap any substantial praise on the rookie passer.
“Yeah, he keeps improving,” Zimmer said flatly. “He comes out here and works hard every single day.”
Perhaps Teddy Bridgewater set too high a bar with his humility and leadership, but the Vikings have had a hard time embracing young quarterbacks since his departure. Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Sloter both made big plays in preseason games but had a harder time in a structured practice setting. They never exceeded third-string status.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have been loyal to their cerebral journeymen backups with Shaun Hill, Case Keenum, Trevor Siemian and Mannion as their choices under Zimmer. It’s possible that Keenum’s unprecedented success in 2017 acted as support for the team’s process in selecting their No. 2 quarterback.
Zimmer also believes in opportunities being earned, and he appreciates the equity Mannion has built the previous three seasons.
“I think they’re going to rally behind Sean,” Zimmer said of the team’s current circumstance. “They know how important this game is. They believe in Sean.”
And the Vikings don’t seem to believe in Mond, but there will be second guesses aplenty of Mannion falls flat on the big stage. If he can’t get the job done, the Vikings will be presented another QB decision in Week 18: Who should start in a meaningless game against the Bears?