Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen might have been wrong to express his feelings publicly after Sunday’s loss, but his opinions weren’t incorrect.
Generally, players don’t want to say things that can be construed as throwing their quarterback and coaching staff under the bus. After a brutal 16-6 loss to the Chicago Bears, Thielen said he was frustrated and talked about the offense.
“At some point, you’re not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL,” Thielen said at his locker after the game, via The Athletic. “That’s when you have to be able to throw the ball. You have to be able to make plays. You have to be able to hit the deep balls. You have to do that.”
Everyone took that as a shot at the coaches and quarterback Kirk Cousins. And when asked about a missed opportunity for a long touchdown in the first half, Thielen had another comment that drew attention.
“He made a great read of finding me open, and just didn't complete the pass,” Thielen said. “It's as simple as that.”
Not surprisingly, Thielen walked his comments back on Monday. Nobody was disagreeing with him.
The Vikings have a disturbing pattern through 20 games of the Cousins era. They don’t beat good teams. The offense — and in particular Cousins — disappears against the best teams on Minnesota’s schedule. It happened last year. Then this year, the Vikings looked like Super Bowl contenders against the Falcons and Raiders, then were awful against the Packers and Bears. Quarterbacks don’t win and lose football games by themselves. It’s not all on Cousins. But he has not played well when the Vikings needed him most.
You can’t make the playoffs beating just bad teams, and the Vikings didn’t give Cousins $84 million guaranteed to play his best against the NFL’s bottom feeders. The criticism he’s getting now comes with signing that contract.
The Bears have a great defense and most quarterbacks will struggle against it. And Cousins isn’t an MVP candidate just because the Vikings paid him like one. But he has to play better. Aside from a 92-yard drive in the fourth quarter, with the Bears sitting on a 16-0 lead, Minnesota’s offense had 130 yards. Cousins fumbled twice, losing one. Fumbling has been a problem for him. Chicago had to turn to Chase Daniel after starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was hurt, and Daniel looked like the far superior quarterback in the game.
The Vikings deserve some blame. They paid Cousins a record-setting guaranteed deal, and then coach Mike Zimmer decided to take the air out of the offense and become a ground-and-pound team featuring running back Dalvin Cook. The Vikings don’t need to pay a quarterback $28 million per season to be a game manager. it makes it seem that the front office and coaching staff aren’t on the same page.
Thielen was spot-on with his analysis. It’s a passing league. While it’s possible to win with a run-first offense in this era, it’s very hard. Everything else has to be nearly perfect. It’s also strange to play 1975 football when you have two star receivers like Thielen and Stefon Diggs. It’s fair to assume the Vikings wouldn’t play that way if they trusted Cousins. There’s no good reason to trust Cousins, unless the Vikings are playing a terrible opponent. Then he generally shows up.
The Vikings are stuck. They’re good but not good enough. You’re only going to get so far if you can’t beat the Packers, Bears and any other playoff-caliber team on the schedule. And it’s especially troubling considering the Vikings have some serious salary-cap issues to navigate next offseason; they were all-in for a run in 2019. It’s not all Cousins’ fault the Vikings can’t get over that hump. But he’s not helping.
Here are the NFL Power Rankings after Week 4 of the season:
32. Miami Dolphins (0-4, Last week: 32)
The Dolphins have a bye this week. It still wouldn’t be a surprise if they lost on Sunday.
31. Washington Redskins (0-4, LW: 30)
I’m surprised that Jay Gruden wasn’t fired on Monday. If he starts Colt McCoy this week for Sunday’s game vs. the Patriots, it shouldn’t be too much longer. There’s no reason for an 0-4 team to start McCoy over rookie Dwayne Haskins unless Haskins is absolutely not ready to play. And if he’s that unprepared to play, that reflects poorly on the coaches too.
30. New York Jets (0-3, LW: 31)
Sam Darnold could return this week. If not this week, then soon. That’s good because the Jets are unwatchable without Darnold, and we have a few unwatchable teams already this season, screwing up our Sundays.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (0-4, LW: 29)
That was a disheartening loss on Monday night to the Steelers. The Bengals have been competitive twice and got absolutely blown out twice. Zac Taylor is going to have to show some progress over the last 12 games. He needs that for players to buy into his system, at least. And if you’re getting really pessimistic, he needs to show improvement to avoid being one-and-done. If most of the rest of the season looks like Monday night, it probably isn’t out of the question that the Bengals would move on fast.
28. Arizona Cardinals (0-3-1, LW: 27)
The Cardinals showed some signs of life late against the Lions in Week 1, and then played the Ravens pretty well the following week. Since then they’ve been horrible. They were also horrible in the first three quarters against Detroit. Kliff Kingsbury’s offense hasn’t fooled anyone.
27. Denver Broncos (0-4, LW: 28)
Bradley Chubb was one of the very few things for Broncos fans to be excited about this season. He’s done with a torn ACL. This is going to be one long, awful season in Denver.
26. Atlanta Falcons (1-3, LW: 20)
The Falcons wasted a very good season by Matt Ryan last year. On Sunday, they scored 10 points despite Ryan throwing for 397 yards. Part of that is Ryan’s fault for not making more plays in opponents’ territory, but it’s a weird trend. The Falcons are too talented to be 1-3 and it’s going to cost Dan Quinn his job if it doesn’t turn around soon.
25. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3, LW: 26)
Look, that was a boring game plan and a boring “Monday Night Football” game. But at least the Steelers found a formula to win.
24. New York Giants (2-2, LW: 23)
The Giants’ next two games are against the Vikings and at the Patriots. If Daniel Jones (who is likely to be without Saquon Barkley both games, but we’ll see) plays well and leads a win in even one of those games, the hype machine will get out of control.
23. Oakland Raiders (2-2, LW: 25)
The Raiders can’t complain about Vontaze Burfict’s season-long suspension. They knew he can’t abide by any of the NFL’s rules. The only surprise should be that he was able to play the first three games without being ejected for a dirty hit. Burfict, who is on a short list of candidates for the dirtiest player in league history, has no respect for any of his opponents and the NFL is better off with him suspended.
22. Tennessee Titans (2-2, LW: 22)
So we just won’t be able to figure out the Titans all year, huh? Marcus Mariota steered out of the skid with a big game, but a lot of credit should go to rookie receiver A.J. Brown. The Titans got a steal with him.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2, LW: 21)
Finally Leonard Fournette looked like the star we thought he’d be. Was his 225-yard game a sign of things to come in this pivotal season for his career?
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2, LW: 24)
Jameis Winston had what anyone would consider one of his best days ... and he still threw a pick-six that almost allowed the Rams to steal a win. That’s just who Winston is. Even when he’s good, he’ll still drive you insane.
19. Indianapolis Colts (2-2, LW: 13)
Before burying the Colts for losing at home to the Raiders, at least acknowledge that they were without linebacker Darius Leonard and receiver T.Y. Hilton. Along with guard Quenton Nelson, Leonard and Hilton are two of the three best players on the roster. This is still a team that can win the division.
18. Detroit Lions (2-1-1, LW: 16)
Sunday should have been a highlight day in Matthew Stafford’s career. He did everything he could, even playing through injury. He had 291 yards, three touchdowns and a 118.6 rating. He led a go-ahead scoring drive in the final three minutes. He had nothing to do with the Chiefs scoring 34 points, or a goal-line fumble that was returned 100 yards for a touchdown. That’s why assigning a quarterback an individual record is foolish.
17. Houston Texans (2-2, LW: 12)
Since a strong Week 1 performance, DeAndre Hopkins has 16 catches for 148 yards and no touchdowns over Houston’s last three games. The Texans’ first priority this week has to be getting Hopkins going. Houston isn’t going anywhere if Hopkins is averaging about 50 yards per game.
16. Baltimore Ravens (2-2, LW: 8)
The Ravens gave up 33 points and 503 yards to the Chiefs, and then 40 points and 530 yards to the Browns. Kansas City has a great offense, but Cleveland hadn’t been able to move the ball through three games. Add in new safety Earl Thomas and defensive tackle Brandon Williams getting into an argument over Williams not playing with a knee issue on Sunday, and it suddenly doesn’t look good for the Ravens defense.
15. Los Angeles Chargers (2-2, LW: 17)
The Chargers don’t get a huge boost from Melvin Gordon’s return. Austin Ekeler was just fine; running back wasn’t Los Angeles’ issue. But Gordon does help. The problem is his return coincides with edge rusher Melvin Ingram’s hamstring injury that could keep him out for a couple games. That has a bigger impact on the Chargers than Gordon’s return.
14. Carolina Panthers (2-2, LW: 19)
The Panthers looked lost at 0-2. It doesn’t take much to turn things around in the NFL. A two-game road winning streak puts the Panthers in a much better spot, and they have two winnable games (vs. Jacksonville, at Tampa Bay) before the bye week. And if they go 4-0 before the bye with Kyle Allen at quarterback, things will get very interesting when Cam Newton is ready to return.
13. Minnesota Vikings (2-2, LW: 6)
Kirk Cousins’ biggest issue might have been making decisions on when to get rid of the ball. On some, he missed deep shots by getting rid of it too quickly (“I think there were some times he might have gotten rid of it a little too soon,” Mike Zimmer said, via Chad Graff of The Athletic. “But when you’re getting pounded a few times, sometimes you’ve got to take the quick throw.") On other plays, he held it too long. That’s a reason Chicago sacked him six times. That’s understandable for a young quarterback, but Cousins has started 77 NFL games.
12. Cleveland Browns (2-2, LW: 18)
For all of the Browns’ early-season issues, 2-2 with a share of first place doesn’t look bad at all. And a road win at Baltimore will be a huge asset all season. If you had to pick the AFC North favorite right now, you’d probably go with the Browns. That would have seemed crazy a few days ago.
11. Philadelphia Eagles (2-2, LW: 14)
The Eagles were looking at a three-game deficit in the NFC East had they lost at Green Bay and the Cowboys beat the Saints, and both of those results were expected. Now the Eagles are only one game back after a clutch win at Lambeau Field and Dallas’ close loss. That’s not too bad.
10. Buffalo Bills (3-1, LW: 7)
For all the good vibes around Josh Allen, his 13-for-28, 153-yard, three-interception game was a really bad sign. You can’t put up a 24 passer rating at home in the biggest game of the year. The injury he sustained on a hit while running isn’t good either; it seems as though Matt Barkley could have to start in Week 5.
9. Seattle Seahawks (3-1, LW: 15)
Seattle welcomes the Rams on Thursday night. While the 49ers will have a say in who wins the NFC West, Thursday night’s game will go a long way in determining if the Seahawks can win a division title.
8. Chicago Bears (3-1, LW: 11)
It’s a strange conversation to have, but the Bears seemed better off with Mitchell Trubisky out and Chase Daniel in. Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Kaduk wrote about the odd dynamic from Soldier Field on Sunday. The Bears haven’t ruled out Trubisky for this week with a left shoulder injury. Whether it’s Trubisky or Daniel, this whole situation has the potential to get really messy.
7. San Francisco 49ers (3-0, LW: 9)
The 49ers had a bye on Sunday and became the NFC’s lone remaining undefeated team on a crazy day around the NFL. I don’t really think the 49ers are the seventh-best team in the NFL, despite having the conference’s best record, but they have avoided losses. Nobody else in the NFC can say that, so here we are.
6. Green Bay Packers (3-1, LW: 5)
The good news is the Packers’ offense showed up in a big way, at least passing the ball. The run game still is a work in progress. But if the Packers can match their Week 4 offensive performance with their defensive effort from the first three weeks, they’ll be fine.
5. Dallas Cowboys (3-1, LW: 4)
It’ll be easy for Cowboys haters to point at the soft schedule over the first three weeks and believe the Cowboys aren’t legit. There’s some middle ground. Dallas isn’t as good as they looked playing terrible teams early on, but there’s no shame in losing at the Superdome. A game against the Packers this week will be telling.
4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1, LW: 3)
Jared Goff had more than 500 yards on Sunday, but it wasn’t an impressive day. Heading into a Thursday night showcase game, there’s going to be a lot of talk about Goff and whether he is worth even close to the $134 million deal he got from the Rams. The early returns aren’t good. And the questions will get louder if he doesn’t play well at Seattle.
3. New Orleans Saints (3-1, LW: 10)
The Saints are winning in different ways, but they’re not looking for style points. Going 3-3 without Drew Brees, if he misses six games, seemed to be a reasonable goal to stay in contention. At 2-0 against two quality opponents, maybe the Saints can do much better than .500 with Teddy Bridgewater starting at quarterback. If that happens and Brees looks close to 100 percent upon his return, the Saints are probably the favorite in the NFC.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0, LW: 2)
The Travis Kelce-to-LeSean McCoy lateral might be my favorite play from the first month of the season. The Chiefs are the most entertaining team in the league, and might be as long as Patrick Mahomes is their quarterback.
1. New England Patriots (4-0, LW: 1)
The Patriots won so nobody cares, but Tom Brady had a rough day: 18-of-39, 150 yards, no touchdowns, one interception. And the interception was a bad one, with the Patriots near the end zone. No, this isn’t a sign Brady is hitting the wall at age 42. But we’ll keep an eye on things anyway.
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