Mike Zimmer walked into Arizona needing a victory. What he got was an 0-2 start.
The Vikings had plenty on the line last Sunday and looked like a team ready to make a statement. But instead, they replayed a common scene that's dated back to Zimmer's arrival in 2014.
The Vikings jumped out to a 20-7 lead on the strength of Kirk Cousins' three touchdown passes. But the aggressiveness didn't last as the playcalling was scaled back, serving as one of the reasons the Cardinals were able to turn things around.
The Cardinals played one safety deep in order to stop the run and Cousins took advantage by averaging 12.5 yards on his first 10 attempts. While his performance was efficient, it was also sustainable to end the game before it even started.
But Zimmer had other plans. After the Vikings saw the Cardinals take a 21-20 lead, they were driving at the end of the first half. With a timeout and the ball at the Arizona 50, a touchdown would have gone a long way in sustaining their early momentum.
Instead, Zimmer chose to run Cook up the middle to burn his final timeout before attempting two short passes. The safe call led to a 52-yard field goal by Greg Joseph and a squib kick in order to kill time. Playing a modern offense, Arizona regained the lead with a quick drive that led to a 62-yard field goal by Matt Prater.
Even into the second half, the Vikings were up to their old tricks. A big reason for last year's disappointment was their tendency to run on 2nd and long and on Sunday, they ran on five of seven of those plays.
Although Cook was averaging 5.9 yards per carry, the carries didn't set up the short-yardage situations where play-action and other deep passes thrive. As a result, the Vikings went just 2-of-10 on third downs.
The fun continued when the Vikings drove for the potential game-winning score. With a pair of big receptions by Adam Thielen and Osborn, the offense got the ball down to the 19-yard line with 40 seconds to play.
An aggressive strategy could have seen the Vikings score the go-ahead touchdown and force the Cardinals to drive the length of the field with no timeouts. Instead, Zimmer chose to leave it up to chance with a 37-yard field goal citing Joseph's "recent success."
Disregarding that Joseph missed a 33-yard PAT earlier in the game, it was an example of Zimmer playing not to lose rather than going for the win. It's a strategy that's gotten Zimmer to the playoffs but hasn't gotten him over the hump.
It's the strategy that gave the Vikings a 17-0 lead in the 2018 Divisional Playoff Game against New Orleans but needed the "Minneapolis Miracle" to close it out.
It's the strategy that gave the Vikings a 20-10 lead over the Saints in the 2020 Wild Card but needed a Kyle Rudolph touchdown in overtime to pick up the victory.
And it's now one that has the Vikings at 0-2 thanks to what Zimmer calls "a handful of plays."
"If we play like that, we’ll win a lot of games," Zimmer said after the game. "They may all come down to this like the last two have [but] as long as we do that and keep fighting and trying to get better, keep working together and sticking together as a football team, I think we’ve got a chance."
Having a chance is nice but it means nothing when not trying to grab the bull by the horns and win the game. Perhaps Zimmer can learn from Ron Rivera, who went 13-19 in his first two seasons before going all-in on analytics. A couple of fourth-down conversions later, the Panthers went 12-4 and "Riverboat Ron" lasted nine seasons in Carolina.
Sitting on the hot seat, Zimmer would be wise to adapt to the times. Otherwise, he could be searching for a new job.