Vikings still struggling to stop the quarterback carousel from spinning with Cousins out

Published 8:39 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2024

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MINNEAPOLIS  — Kirk Cousins naturally evoked the loudest roar of the night in Minnesota, further amping up a high-energy atmosphere for a crucial game against Green Bay.

Who could’ve predicted earlier this season that such a sight would signal a big problem for the Vikings?

Recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, Cousins was relegated to the role of hype man when he ripped his shirt off to fire up the crowd from a perch above the stadium right before kickoff. His encouraging and insightful presence on the sideline did little to help his replacements.

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When Jaren Hall was benched for Nick Mullens at halftime, after an interception and a fumble each set up a Packers touchdown, Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell switched quarterbacks for the fifth time in nine games. Though there was little reason to doubt Cousins would avoid injury in 2023 as he did over the first 11 years of his NFL career, the lack of a proven backup has bitten the Vikings (7-9) badly.

The spinning carousel has also further laid bare their conundrum for 2024 and beyond with Cousins bound for free agency and the dire need to begin developing the next franchise quarterback, whether or not the four-time Pro Bowl pick returns. That player is likely not currently on the roster, as evidenced by the 16 turnovers the quarterbacks have been responsible for in eight games since Cousins went down.

O’Connell held off on announcing a starter for the final game of the regular season, with Hall, Mullens and Joshua Dobbs all under consideration.

“I think we’ve been able to move the football most of the time consistently. We’ve had some spurts where we haven’t, and we’ve had to take a long look at that,” O’Connell said.

Finding a success story from the 33-10 loss to the Packers is a stretch, but the combination of play design and route-running consistently had receivers open for Hall and Mullens. Much of the problem was them either not making fast enough reads or not having enough time to throw.

The pass protection was as weak as it’s been all season against the Packers. LT Christian Darrisaw allowed the most damaging of the four sacks, when Preston Smith swam past him to knock the ball out of Hall’s arm and give Green Bay the ball at the Minnesota 37 with 26 seconds left before halftime. The Packers scored a touchdown three plays later for a 23-3 lead.

CB Najee Thompson leads the Vikings with seven special teams tackles this season. He had his punt coverage skills on full display on Sunday, setting up their only touchdown by forcing a fumble by Packers returner Samari Toure and recovering the ball at the 7-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter.

“I told a lot of kids when I was a freshman in college, ‘I’m going to go play in the league on special teams,'” said Thompson, who was undrafted out of Georgia Southern. “I just kept working at it.”

CB Akayleb Evans, who was benched down the stretch against Detroit on Dec. 24 after some costly missed tackles, was vulnerable again in pass coverage and run stopping. The absence of fellow starter Byron Murphy for the past two games with a knee injury made the struggles by Evans more pronounced.

Murphy will have an opportunity to return this week, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be cleared. RG Ed Ingram avoided significant injury to his shoulder, O’Connell said, after being forced out on Sunday. WR Jordan Addison (ankle) and CB Mekhi Blackmon (shoulder) played against the Packers after being listed as questionable, and O’Connell lauded their toughness.


2-6. That’s tied for their fourth-worst home record in history, their worst such mark since going 1-7 in 2011.

The Vikings will have a slim chance to return to the playoffs by beating the Lions on Sunday. They would then need Green Bay to lose to Chicago, New Orleans to lose to Atlanta and Seattle to lose at Arizona to claim the last wild-card berth. If the Saints win, the Vikings could tack a loss by Tampa Bay at Carolina onto losses by the Packers and the Seahawks and still get in if they win.

On the flip side, losing at Detroit would significantly improve their draft position this spring. The Vikings have the same record as Atlanta, Chicago and Las Vegas, and wins by two of those three teams with a loss to the Lions would land them in the top 10.