Multitude of injuries leads to frustration for Vikings, but can't be an excuse



How does an NFL team go from a 5-0 anticipated Super Bowl contender to a 6-5 team fighting for a playoff spot? Injuries to multiple key starting players is the easy answer, especially when one position group is hit extra hard.

Case in point: this year's Minnesota Vikings. 

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It's the bane of a GM or head coach's existence — watching a potentially great season slip slide away because of an excessive dose of the injury bug.

I've been there during my NFL management career and saw a season lost as the injuries piled up, so I feel the pain of Vikings GM Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer. They've tried to stay afloat after losing a half dozen quality players to season-ending injuries. It started with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's ACL tear late in preseason. All pro back Adrian Peterson was lost to a knee injury in Week 2.

Then the carnage hit the offensive line and claimed Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Kalil, starting right tackle Andre Smith and veteran fill-in tackle Jake Long who are all on injured reserve. Several other offensive linemen missed starts with lesser injuries, putting the line in constant flux. 

Behind a great trade acquisition in quarterback Sam Bradford and with a dominant defense, along with some stellar play in the return game, the Vikings still got off to the hot start. But then the problems with the offensive line and the loss of Peterson manifested into no running game (Vikings are last in the league in rushing with 71 yards per game) and less protection for Bradford, who rarely has time to throw deep or even intermediate routes.

Meanwhile, the defense fell off its early pace of forcing turnovers (several of which were returned for touchdowns during the winning streak) and the kicking game was a mess, with Blair Walsh eventually released after several costly missed field goals and extra points.

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Four straight losses ensued until Minnesota beat Arizona to temporarily stop the bleeding. But short-term injuries to more key players began to accumulate. In their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Lions that knocked the Vikings out of first place, they were without top receiver Stephon Diggs because of a knee injury and without ace punt returner Marcus Sherels (two TD returns this season) because of an ankle problem. Their offensive line was further depleted when center Joe Berger left early with a concussion and tackle Jeremiah Sirles was forced out with a hip injury. Starting corner Terence Newman also missed the Detroit game.

It had to be painful for Spielman and Zimmer to watch Bradford's constant three-step drops and short passing game in Detroit because it was all their offense could muster. The best offenses — such as New Orleans, New England, Atlanta, Oakland and Dallas — generate lots of explosive plays (runs of 10-plus yards and passes of 20-plus yards). Such big gains have been few and far between for this year's Vikings because of concerns about the O-line and the lack of a running game. 

Minnesota's struggles to stay healthy and the rash of injuries at one position group (O-line in this case) remind me of our 2001 Titans team that lost several starters in our secondary. We went from having the league's top defense during our 13-3 season in 2000 to having a secondary that was torched on a weekly basis as we fell to 7-9.

As with the Vikings' offensive line, we could not find enough quality players to patch all the holes until the following offseason, when we could add talent via the draft and free agency. And we rebounded in 2002 with a season that produced a division title and a run to the AFC title game.

Obviously injuries are part of the game and dealing with them is part of the job description for GMs and coaches. It's a reality of sports that the most successful teams are those who either stay healthy or have great depth to overcome the adversity caused by injuries. But no team has the depth to compensate when a vast number of injuries hit one position group such as the Vikings' O-line.

Dallas was fortunate this year to have Dak Prescott step up as a precocious rookie and successfully replace Tony Romo, thanks in part to having such a dominant offensive line and a superstar running back in rookie Ezekiel Elliott. But the Cowboys basically just had to deal with Romo being out and a few weeks without star receiver Dez Bryant. Think about if 60 percent of Dallas' O-line was on the injury list. Then Prescott and Elliott would certainly be less productive.

Team execs and coaches can't blame injuries — at least during the season — as the reason for the team not playing well. That would amount to making excuses. And that would take the active players off the hook as far as asking them to rise above and overcome the injuries.

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The mantra always is "next man up," so they just have to keep encouraging the team while hoping that the backup players can do the job. But it's rare that a backup can step in and play at the level of the injured starter. Jerick McKinnon is just not going to give the Vikings close to what Adrian Peterson provides performance-wise over the long haul.

So the GM continues to investigate possible trades (which becomes a moot point once the trade deadline hits in early November) and check the waiver wire, which is generally a futile effort, as starting-caliber players are rarely found via that route. The other available source for reinforcements is the practice squad, but again these players are usually not able to step in without a pronounced drop in level of play.

With five games remaining, all is not lost for Minnesota. They sit one game behind Detroit in the NFC North (but the Lions hold the tiebreaker because of their season sweep of the Vikings) and also just one-half game behind Washington for the second wild card). Diggs and Sirles are expected to play in Thursday's big home game with the Cowboys, and there was further good news for the receiving corps when Zimmer said that first-round pick Laquon Treadwell is finally ready to take on a bigger role after his slow start.

There also is hope that Peterson can return in December, but with the offensive line struggles it will probably be more of what we saw from him in the first two weeks, when he rushed 31 times for 50 yards with a long gain of 9 yards.

It's all a far cry from the expectations when the Vikings were 5-0 an

d their fans were dreaming of home playoff games as the NFC's top seed in the team's loud, new home at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Instead, they're preparing to host the team likely to be the top seed with the Cowboys coming to town.

So the multitude of injuries has pushed the Vikings to the point where they'll probably wind up thinking about what could've been. If they are fortunate enough to make the playoffs, they will be home only if they win the division. Even if they survive the wild-card round, they would likely have to head to Dallas or Seattle for the divisional playoff round.

It's not the playoff path they had envisioned when they were undefeated in mid-October, and it would create long odds to get to their first Super Bowl since the 1976 season.