Minnesota Vikings fans haven’t had all that many postseason thrills over the past two decades. There was that time Daunte won in Lambeau, the Favre thing and that Miracle. Those all eventually ended in crushing fashion. In between there were a few other playoffs games but mostly Januarys have been spent watching other teams chase their dreams. There simply haven’t been a lot of heart-pounding, run-out-in-the-streets-and-scream-for-joy moments.
On Saturday, Vikings fans got a rare injection of pure playoff euphoria. When 49ers kicker Robbie Gould booted a game-winning field goal to eliminate the Green Bay Packers, you could hear all of Minnesota celebrating from Wisconsin. That’s normal for any Packers loss – don’t let anyone tell you that Vikings fans aren’t obsessed with what’s happening in Green Bay – but this one was different. Aaron Rodgers’ slow walk off the snowy turf at Lambeau may have been his last.
Following the 13-10 loss, Rodgers said he hasn’t decided yet on his future but was not interested in sticking around for a rebuild. With talent all over the roster, it might not appear on the surface like a club that’s about to fall apart. A closer look reveals a similar path to the Vikings following the 2019 season. Eventually the salary cap catches up with every team that chooses to work around it during their “winning window.” The Packers have the second worst cap situation in the NFL per OverTheCap.com and may not be able to retain key players like pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith.
Before the season, receiver Davante Adams called 2021, “The Last Dance,” in reference to the Michael Jordan documentary that followed the Bulls’ final season with Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman playing together. Of course, that team won a championship. But what’s next could very much follow the same path. Jordan, Pippen and Rodman finished their Bulls careers after the ‘97-’98 season. Same could go for Rodgers, Adams and the Smiths. Adams is set to become a free agent and it’s difficult to see him signing a long-term contract in Green Bay when Rodgers’ future is unclear. He would attract a ton of attention around the league as one of the top five best receivers in the game. And being that he’s been Rodgers’ main target for years, it would be surprising if Rodgers returned without him.
Everything is trending toward the Vikings shedding the shackles of Green Bay’s Hall of Fame quarterbacks that have kept them firmly away from the top of the NFC North for the majority of the past 30 years. Favre and Rodgers finally being gone will be like the rest of the North teams finally escaping Shawshank prison.
The question is whether Rodgers either retiring or finding himself in the AFC would change the Vikings’ approach to roster building. Sometimes in the frenzy of excitement, teams can make missteps. The Vikings signed the most expensive quarterback in the NFL after smelling a little too much of their own 2017 miracle sweat and missed the playoffs three of the next four years. They took the all-in route in hopes of capitalizing on a roster that largely remained the same from 2017 to 2018. In the process, they overlooked some important things about the chemistry in ‘17 as well as the things that went their way, including Rodgers getting hurt.
Who knows how it might have played out had they taken a longer view and drafted a quarterback that year. The same can be said for signing Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman and Kirk Cousins to contract extensions because they pulled off some voodoo in New Orleans in the opening round of the 2019 playoffs. They followed up with a lot of all-in moves and nothing to show for them.
With holes all over the roster and a quarterback decision to be made, it would not seem prudent for the next general manager to see Rodgers exit the conference and then start handing out contracts like Rodgers gives out political opinions – recklessly, that is. There will be a temptation to stick with Cousins because he will be the best quarterback in the division and the thought to sign mercenary players on defense.
Didn’t we just see that? Was it just Green Bay that kept the Vikings out of the playoffs this year or every good team in the NFC?
The internet can debate Cousins and how much of the Vikings’ failures are his fault until its fingers fall off but the reality is that he isn’t a great fit for the trajectory of the team. He’s a mid-30s, mid-pack quarterback who NFL evaluators ranked 18th among QBs in a piece by The Athletic ranking quarterback tiers. That might work in a situation like San Francisco where they have the league’s best offensive mind calling the shots and superstars all over the roster but the Vikings simply do not have that. And they are not a guard away from that, either. They are a guard, a center, a defensive end, a linebacker, three corners, a safety and maybe another receiver or two.
The Vikings are in a place to move out older talent for futures, not a spot where they should sign Cousins to an extension and try to use the cap space it creates to plug holes. Remember, Cousins' 2020 extension, per Rick Spielman, was done quickly to make room to sign Michael Pierce. Yes, the nose tackle who totaled under 300 snaps in two years.
The shiny object always waved in front of Vikings fans’ faces is the playoffs. Just get in and hope for the best, right? When we look at the final four teams and see a Hall of Fame-riddled Rams roster, the Chiefs with the best quarterback alive, the up-and-coming Bengals who used cap space to fill out a roster around a young QB and the stacked 49ers, does it feel like the Vikings are a few free agents away from that?
There will be pressure to get back to the playoffs, especially if Rodgers is gone. But panicking to take advantage of it will put the Vikings in the same spot they have always been: Fighting for sixth place. Sure, they might not have their rivals to the east making fun of them anymore but Chicago and Detroit are now building for the future too.
Teams turn things around quickly in the NFL. There are no 10-year rebuilds. It’s always possible to dip and then jump to the top by taking the right approach at quarterback, developing talent and finding under-the-radar free agents. Going batty after Rodgers leaves could do long-term damage.
This is where the timing of hiring a new GM might play in the Vikings’ favor. Were it the past regime, we would hear a myriad of excuses about why they were thiiiiiis close to being a contender when in reality, they weren’t all that close. Now the new regime can focus on ways to build this roster for the Super Bowl and not worry about just being mildly competitive while snooping on the neighbors in Green Bay.